Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: Raymond Chandler

Victim plots creepy, bizarre revenge in Woolrich’s ‘Rendevous in Black’

1

The word “black” appears in the title of five Cornell Woolrich novels–considered his best–written in the 1940s. Darkness describes his literary themes and his life.   He was married only briefly, had no children and lived in New York hotels with his mother until she died. He was preoccupied with death, disliked much of his own work–which included two dozen novels and hundreds of short stories–and died virtually alone. Yet his haunted, bleak life led him to create the discouragement, distrust and panic that colored his suspense-filled, austere novels.   Rendezvous in Black is such a story.

Johnny Marr always met his girlfriend Dorothy in the same place, outside the drugstore down by the town square. “He had special eyes for her, just as she had for him.” Their wedding was set for June. But on May 31, in a bizarre, unlikely accident, Dorothy was killed as she waited for Johnny by the square. Johnny’s life exploded. When the shock finally wore off–or did it ever?–it took him only a short time to figure out how she had been killed, and a little more time until he had a list of five men, one or all of whom were responsible.

What follows is the episodic tale of Marr’s crazed, devious retribution. He doesn’t kill the men on his list; his revenge is more appropriate, more cunning. And always on time. The men who populate Johnny’s list are only loosely connected and they live vastly different lives as we discover as the deranged lover tracks them down.

This is part of an occasional series on the work of noir thriller writer Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968).

Johnny’s indirect form of revenge makes it difficult for the police to anticipate his moves and collar him. As writer Richard Dooling says in the introduction to the 2004 Modern Library edition of the novel, “The reader finds no shelter in a comfortable central character or crime-solving Hollywood hero….” The less-than brilliant detective on the case, MacClain Cameron, says Dooling, is “a mere accessory to a story governed by the mighty forces of murder, retribution and fate.”

As the novel lurches forward, each specimen of revenge becomes almost a separate story, connected by the presence of Johnny Marr lurking somewhere off-camera and detective Cameron usually several, clumsy steps behind.Rendezvous in black 2   We know that each long chapter will end with something horrible.

Woolrich’s language is sometimes criticized–by a few of the small number of reviewers who even know of his existence–as more clunky than that of Chandler or Cain–but his fast pace and taut suspense keeps your eyes racing forward. His writing skills, however, often flower and he can deepen an already gloomy atmosphere.

All the way up those deliberately curving stairs, the shadow pursued him along the wall panels and he fled from it. But as the stairs curved, it relentlessly overtook him, then swept around before him, to confront him accusingly as he reached their top.

Johnny’s methods for revenge obviously take much planning, and they become more ingenious as the book progresses. This is not a question of whodunit, but of how is he going to do it this time, and will he be caught.   The conclusion is sufficiently suspenseful. Until the last page, you’ll be guessing whether Woolrich will conclude with a Hollywood ending. When you finish, you’ll have to decide if the ending was “Hollywood,” or a bit darker.

Rendezvous in Black
Cornell Woolrich
Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2004 Original printing, 1948
211 pages     $14

Is new Marlowe novel too literary?

2

“From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.”

–Raymond Chandler, The High Window

There’ll never be another Raymond Chandler.  Or will there?  Irish novelist John Banville, writing under the name Benjamin Black, has written The Black-Eyed Blonde, a Philip Marlowe detective story.

It’s so authentic, says New York Times reviewer Olen Steinhauer that it “could be passed off as a newly discovered Chandler manuscript found in some dusty La Jolla closet, leaving only linguistic detectives to ferret out the fraud.”  Apparently the book is too authentic as Steinhauer writes that he had hoped for “something fresher.”Black Eyed Blonde

Bob Hoover, writing in the Dallas Morning News, did not agree that the novel sounded like Chandler.  “He’s [Black] too literary, for a start, to create a scene without calling attention to the common techniques of a ‘serious novelist,’ a state Chandler disdained.”

Mark Lawson reviewing The Black Eyed Blonde for The Guardian seems to like the more literary style.  “What Banville, through Black, brings to Chandler is perhaps an enhanced literary sensibility.”  The more literary take doesn’t put him off and he concludes that “the protagonist of The Black-Eyed Blonde is easy to visualise as an older [Humphrey] Bogart.”

THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE

Benjamin Black / 290 pp. / Henry Holt & Company / $27

Hyperlinks:

Marlowe Reviews in:

The Guardian

The Dallas Morning News

The New York Times

Writing advice from mystery authors

1

Some years ago (but not as many as you might think) when I was in grad school, I enrolled in a summer seminar, part of the National Writing Project.  One of the other students, who was a high school English teacher, gave me a marvelous little book of quotations.  I’ve treasured it ever since.  It’s one of those few books that’s always on the top of my desk along with a dictionary, AP Stylebook and a few others.

Today I thought I would share some of my favorite bits of writing advice from mystery writers.  You can do a Google or Yahoo search forWriters quote book sml  5061 “writer quotations” and possibly find some of these quotes but not all of them and not in the same place.  My quote book is wonderful.   I turn to it for inspiration, a laugh or both.  See availability notes below.

“My purpose is to entertain myself first and other people secondly.”  John D. MacDonald

“Those big shot writers…could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”   Mickey Spillane

“At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must seem to be inevitable.”   Raymond Chandler

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”   Elmore Leonard

“The best time for planning a book is when you’re doing the dishes.”                 Agatha Christie

References

The book I have is “The Writer’s Quotation Book; A Literary Companion, Third Edition,” James Charlton, editor.  It’s certainly out of print, but used copies are available in several places online, including Powell’s.   Used copies of the fourth (and presumably last) edition are available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

%d bloggers like this: