The Black Path of Fear

by Cornell Woolrich

A bullet either stopped you or it didn’t; either way, what difference did it make?

Scotty, a down-on-his-luck homeless man gets a job as a driver for a wealthy Miami man when he returns the rich man’s lost wallet, money intact. Scotty falls in love with the man’s wife and they escape to Cuba, where she is knifed to death the day they arrive. Scotty is framed for her death. After escaping police custody he finds the aid of a woman who hates the local police, and together they try to gather evidence to prove his innocence and bring the real killer to justice.

While the setup is decidedly present, of all the Black novels this is the least of the noir representatives. Woolrich developed a reputation of not really knowing how to write women, and out of the first five Black books this is the first to support such a claim. (Though, truthfully, show me a man who you believe understands women and I’ll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week.) This book also contains the smallest proportion of the famous, dark dialogue and monologue that Woolrich helped pioneer. If it weren’t for the title, I’d wonder if this one should be included thematically with the rest of the Black novels at all.

Nevertheless, it remains a good book and there is some great writing, if not as much as we’d hope for:

Murder agreed with him. He must have been brought up on it. He must have been weaned on it. Good; I was going to see that the got some more.

Another element working in the book’s favor is our protagonist has inexplicably fallen in love, and when she’s ripped away from him he has nothing left to lose; he’s able to throw himself recklessly at the situation, and that helps the plot move quickly, even if parts of the story seem a little contrived or convenient.

What keeps the book firmly in ‘good’ territory is the great, noir language (although diminished), the setting is dark and is hopeless in that even if Scotty succeeds, he has still already lost the only thing he cared about, and the ending is outstanding in its final chapter and especially the last few, powerful sentences.

The Black Path of Fear is recommended, just behind the other Black novels.

“Always remember this. A hundred years from now it’ll be all the same to the two of us.”

3 stars

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