In 1940, The Bride Wore Black (aka Beware the Lady) was published, the first novel-length suspense thriller from Woorich. The novel kickstarted a crime-fiction career that flourished for twenty years, producing over 15 masterworks of suspense and landing Woolrich in the upper echelons of crime-fiction authors and pioneers.
The Bride Wore Black is presented in five separate parts, each titled as the last name of a potential victim. In between, the author includes a small portion of insight from the eyes of the murderer, an unnamed woman Hellbent on revenge. Then, another short narrative featuring insight on the victim, and then a paragraph serving as the postmortem. In this presentation, each part is set as its own short-story or novella. These parts eventually connect to make a spectacular whole, but the pure pleasure lies in the construction.
The first victim is a man named Bliss, lured to the top of a building for an engagement party. It is here that he meets the beauty, a mysterious woman rejecting men while searching for someone special. Bliss, unfortunately, falls for the trap and takes a deadly tumble. His friend, a man named Corey, remembers the woman's eyes moments before Bliss's death. This tidbit will be of some use later in the book.
This same set-up is used as various men meet their demise after gaining some contact with this dark female avenger. The murders are clever, a cross between diabolic (shot with an arrow, suffocated) to quiet death (poisoning). All of these are written with a sense of white-knuckled dread. After Bliss, readers realize that they will be reading the last moments of life for all of these poor unfortunate men.
Perhaps the most compelling and shocking is Moran. On his last day, his wife is lured out of town with a telegram informing her of her mother's sudden sickness. This was a way to isolate Moran, but there's a catch. He is left caring for his young son. When a woman arrives at the house, promising she is the teacher, Moran's son immediately rejects the visitor, explaining that she isn't his who she claims to be. Prone to fibbing, his warning falls on deaf ears and Moran is led into a macabre, murderous game of hide and seek.
The Bride Wore Black is a masterpiece that essentially helped define the suspense-thriller market. The novel's use of certainty – a predetermined sentencing for each character – is oddly a paradox of suspense. Readers realize the outcome before death arrives. There is a void of uncertainty, but the build-up to death and murder creates an emotional stirring that's hard to suppress. Woolrich purposefully cranks the wrench, tightening the intensity until the last gasp. If Hitchcock was the master of visual suspense, then Woolrich was certainly his equal with literature. The Bride Wore Black is a must-read.