RARA-AVIS: Rendezvous In Black

From: Richard Moore ( moorich@aol.com)
Date: 29 Feb 2008

My apologies for being absent from Woolrich month for the past few days but I've been tied up with family matters. It's hard to do much writing when there is the imperative of a two-year-old grandson tugging at my sleeve to read to him and his two-day old brother is upstairs crying his first protests to the world.

I mentioned at the beginning of this Woolrich month that my favorite Woolrich novel is RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK (1948). It features the "avenging angel" themes that Woolrich often used in his novels and most resembles the much better known THE BRIDE WORE BLACK
(1940). In many ways, BRIDE is more striking from the stark image of the title to the female protagonist. In the first novel, the bride is left a widow on the church steps when gunfire from a passing car kills her husband. She then tracks down everyone in the car in order to avenge her murdered love.

In RENDEZVOUS, the novel opens with a young man on his way to meet his fianc饠on a street corner. I love the opening setup to the novel with the outline of a relationship that is both wonderful and ordinary in hometown American way. If you were casting this scene in the year the novel came out, it would have starred Van Johnson and June Allyson.

One of the joys of reading Woolrich for me is the riffs he tosses off all along the way. In describing the young man Johnny Marr, he said he looked "Like any Johnny, anywhere, any time. Even people who had seen him hundreds of times couldn't have described him very clearly, he looked so much like the average, he ran so true to form. She could have, but that was because she had special eyes for him. He was a thousand other young fellows his own age, all over, everywhere. You see them everywhere. You look at them and you don't see them. That is, not to describe afterwards. `Sort of sandy hair,' they might have said. `Brown eyes.' And then they would have given up, slipped unnoticeably over the line from strict physical description. `Nice, clean-cut young fellow; never has much to say; can't tell much about him.' …He would perhaps take his coloring from her, starting in slowly from this June on. He was waiting to be completed, he wasn't meant to stop the way he was."

So Woolrich has set up the loss that is about to occur to Johnny as more than the loss of a fianc饬 an unconsummated love. Johnny is about to lose a huge piece of himself and his chance to be complete.

The girl is also idealized. "Her name was Dorothy, and she was lovely. You couldn't describe her either, but not for the same reason. You can't describe light very easily. You can tell where it is, but not what it is. Light was where she was. There may have been prettier girls, but there have never been lovelier ones…She was everyone's first love…She was the promise made to everyone at the start, that can never quite be carried out afterward, and never is."

And our Johnny is about to enter a world of darkness. Before he reaches their regular point of rendezvous, a bottle falls out of the sky and kills Dorothy. In a few pages, Woolrich outlines how Johnny goes through a period of nearly immobilized mourning before he learns that the bottle was thrown from a charter plane carrying a group of hunters.

The novel then moves to a series of segments dubbed "The First Rendezvous", "The Second Rendezvous" and etc. as Johnny seeks revenge against everyone on that plane. It becomes apparent to the reader that he is not usually seeking to kill the men from the plane. Typically, he seeks to destroy the person or relationship each of the men hold most precious.

There are some brilliant elements to developing the story this way. Woolrich makes use of Johnny's indistinct appearance in several ways. As the episodes mount, a detective named Cameron begins to connect the cases as Johnny is leaving cryptic unsigned notes at the conclusion of each rendezvous. Cameron is hampered by the fact that few people can describe the person that the detective realizes must be the perpetrator.

More importantly, the reader does not always know which character in each episode is the avenging angel Johnny. Sometimes it is not so obvious and this adds to the suspense. Also it is not obvious at the beginning of each episode is the intended victim-the person most dear to the object of Johnny's revenge. Add these two suspenseful features to the overt "race against the clock" suspense of the later episodes as Cameron identifies the next victim and races to prevent the next crime.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how Woolrich forces the reader to completely reverse emotional ties. Johnny starts off the novel as a totally sympathetic character and this continues for a time into the revenge chapters. But Woolrich forces the reader to turn against Johnny as the victims are quite innocent of any direct involvement with his fianc鳠death and are themselves quite sympathetic. Instead of pulling for Johnny to gain his revenge, the reader begins to pull against him and for the detective. In the episodes, Johnny has disappeared and is replaced by a merciless avenger.

As Francis Nevins points out in his biography of Woolrich, there are many flaws in the plot, although fewer problems than he found in BRIDE, …"but on the visceral level where Wool Rich's work either stands or falls, it is a masterful performance." I agree with his opinion that it is "one of the most powerful suspense novels ever written."

I know this is a long post but in winding up Woolrich month, I want to quote a few paragraphs or from my favorite Woolrich riff. It is in the "Third Rendezvous" on a troop train (the novel takes place just before and during World War II): "The ceiling lights peered down through the blurring layers of tobacco smoke upon the packed humanity clogging the aisle, swaying and undulating in unison, but in no danger of falling, for there was not room enough to fall in. Passing paper cups of gin or corn from hand to hand, like relays in a chain…Singing shouting, laughing, scowling in momentary but quickly- dispelled quarrel…"

Later the train is shunted to the side to make way for another train. "Somewhere immediately outside there was a continuous clacking vibration going on. It didn't come from the car itself now; that stood still; it was an external vibration that shook its windowpanes, and shook its wheel-trucks, and even seemed to shake the very tracks it stood on. On one side only, on the left, outside on the next track, an endless succession of dark inscrutable cars went flitting by, ghostlike. Not a light showing. A train of death. A cavalcade of doom. Dozens of black cars, scores of them; shaking the rails, shaking the night, shaking the stalled day coach.

"All the railroad cars there were in the whole country, all the railroad cars there were in the whole world, going down to death. Like black dominoes on wheels, like litmus paper cut-outs against the stars. Not a light, not a glimpse of the thousands of already dead they were packed with; and all the more awful for that.

"The war, the war. The madness of the whole universe."

It is a classic Woolrich over-the-top digression that few writers would attempt because it is difficult to bring off and so easy to look silly. The scene should be read in full to judge it accurately and I recognize that some might consider it purple nonsense. But it blew me away when I first read it many years ago and retains its power for me now.

Richard Moore

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