Originally published in 1940, Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black is interesting (at least to me) more as a study of mid-century mysteries and how much the genre has changed in the last 80 years. This twisty mystery is all about creating seemingly impossible murders than it is about psychological depth, fair play, or realism. This book is very much in the vein of Golden Age mysteries that readers inhaled by the thousands until mystery writers started adding layers to their characters; exploring the psychology of perpetrators, victims, and investigators; and hewing much closer to reality.
There is a mysterious woman killing men in Chicago, sometime before 1940. At first, all we know is that she has a list of names and that she’s lying about her own name. The next chapters reveal this woman to be a master (mistress?) of disguise, able to change even her personality, to lure in the men on her list. She is able to kill three men over the course of almost two years before other detectives start to listen to the one member of their number who thought that the deaths were all connected murders. Once that happens, the twists start coming hard and fast and we, finally, learn why our killer is bumping off all these ordinary men.
What I liked most about The Bride Wore Black was the way it introduced us to slices of pre-World War II American life. The killer’s victims include a society gentleman, an middle class family man, and a Bohemian artist. Each murder is preceded by pages describing their lives, their milieux, and the ways that the murder uses to get close enough to kill them. So even though the plot is racing along, I felt a bit like a time-traveling archaeologist taking peeks at 1940-ish Chicago.
All that said, I found the ending of The Bride Wore Black to be very jarring. I had been pretty forgiving up until that point about the skimpiness of the character development and the believability of the plot, but the ending was too clever for its own good.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.