This post originally appeared in slightly different form on November 10, 2007.
THE BLACK ANGEL is narrated by Alberta Murray, a young woman whose husband Kirk always calls her Angel Face. Alberta thinks everything in her life is going along just fine (always a warning sign) until she suddenly discovers that her husband is having an affair. Worse yet, he’s planning to leave her and run off with the other woman. Alberta goes to the woman’s apartment to confront her, and yep, you guessed it, her husband’s mistress is dead, smothered with a pillow. Worse still, the cops arrest Kirk and charge him with the murder. In short order, he’s convicted and sentenced to death, and Alberta has less than three months until her husband’s execution to find the real killer and clear his name. Luckily, she just happens to have an address book she picked up in the murdered woman’s apartment, and a match book with the letter M engraved on it, pointing to the real killer. All she has to do is investigate everybody in the address book whose last name starts with M to find out who really killed her husband’s mistress and save him from the electric chair.
Yes, this book has its share of the coincidences and far-fetched plot developments that Woolrich’s work is famous for, but it also generates a considerable amount of suspense as Alberta searches for the murderer. Its structure is rather episodic, as she investigates each of the suspects in turn and the plot gets more and more complicated. Woolrich springs a nice reverse at the end that you’ll probably see coming. I did, but I enjoyed it anyway. And the final scene of the story has a sting of its own.
You could spend all day pointing out the flaws in Woolrich’s plotting, and his writing can be breathless and melodramatic at times. But nobody is better at using the emotions of his characters to capture the readers and sweep them along in a story. He’s also one of the best at utilizing the backdrop of seedy hotels and sleazy nightclubs and making that setting almost as much a character in his stories and novels as his human protagonists are. THE BLACK ANGEL is especially strong in that area. It’s a fine novel, and highly recommended by me. (I love that cover from '68 Ace edition, too.)