So my mystery book group met this past Saturday to discuss Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Angel, and, as usual, it was a great discussion. It was the kind of discussion where many if not all of us left the meeting with different ideas about the book than those we had originally — not necessarily that we liked the book any better, but that we understood new things about it. Or perhaps I should just speak for myself — my understanding of the book is different now than it was before. I still have mixed feelings about it, but they are mixed in a different way.
The book is classic noir (or that’s what the cover calls it) from 1943, written from the first person point of view of Alberta French, a woman whose husband has just been arrested for murder. He has supposedly murdered his lover, and Alberta has the shocking experience of discovering the dead body and her husband’s unfaithfulness all at once. While recovering from the shock, she decides her husband is innocent, that she’s willing to forgive him, and that she wants to do what she can to find out who the true murderer is.
The one clue in the story is a matchbook with the personalized letter “M” on it that Alberta finds at the crime scene. After finding the matchbook, Alberta stumbles across the murdered woman’s address book, and soon she is off on a quest to meet all the people listed under “M.” One of them has to be the real murderer.
I’m a sucker for a good plot device, and I liked this one, at least at first. It’s fun to watch Alberta try to worm her way into the lives of each of her possible suspects. Each encounter with a suspect turns into its own little episode in which Alberta goes places and sees things she’s never seen before, and these stories can be wild and suspenseful. The first two of these episodes work well. Alberta finds herself in some horribly seedy dives on the Bowery (the novel is set in New York City) as she meets the dead woman’s former husband, and then she runs into a doctor who turns out to be a drug dealer — or rather, he expects Alberta to be the drug dealer.
But from there the novel goes downhill fast. I found the next two episodes entirely unbelievable. The plot starts to move too fast, and it feels as though Woolrich started to get tired of his whole scheme and wanted to rush through to the end. I started the book willing to suspend my disbelief quite a bit, since it didn’t seem right to demand strict realism from this book given the genre, but even my low expectations were violated. It’s such a bad feeling to get jolted out of the world of the story like this, one moment enjoying the suspense and the next laughing scornfully at the ridiculousness of the whole thing.
Other people in my book group found Alberta an annoying character and an unbelievable one, but I liked her voice, at least at first. There was something about her straightforwardness and her desperate recklessness that appealed to me. But Becky’s point that she might be an unreliable narrator made me think of her in a new way. She is very young and she seems so innocent and so sweetly devoted to her husband that it’s easy to fail to take into account that over the course of the novel she does some pretty awful things, including the drug dealing and much worse. She justifies it all by saying that it’s to save her husband, but after thinking about the lengths to which she goes, I can’t help but question her sanity. She is so focused on discovering the truth that she is incapable of seeing anything else. What does it mean, really, to be willing to do just about anything for the sake of love? And is that a love anybody in their right mind would want to share?
I don’t know the noir genre very well, but I’m curious if anybody knows any other examples that have a female narrator. This book felt very different to me than the other examples we have read so far, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man, and part of the difference is that it’s a woman who is narrating the story (and part of it, of course, is that the other two are better written). She’s not a very emotive narrator, by any means, but there is a vulnerability and openness to the voice that I haven’t found elsewhere. It didn’t feel very “noir” to me for those reasons, and I began to wonder if part of what it means to be “noir” is to be from a male point of view. But I’d love to hear otherwise if that’s not true.
So, after that very interesting read, we are turning to Paco Ignacio Taibo’s The Shadow of the Shadow. This is an author I’ve never heard of (as Woolrich was as well), and I’m looking forward to discovering something new.