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I Married a Dead Man Paperback – August 6, 2013
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Cornell Woolrich is at his best here in this well-paced novel of identity, second chances, and a past that refuses to go away. With a fine new introduction, new cover art by Matt Mahurin, and a gallery of old paperback and hardcover editions and film posters.
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What makes Woolrich’s novel so interesting, so propulsive, is how he introduces plot twist after plot twist at just the right moment, each time pushing you forward to the end when you confront that Stockton-ish question.
After a prologue in which a married couple with a child do a tortured dance around a horror they share, the story opens at the beginning, when Helen is a young woman, around nineteen, fleeing the city. Her boyfriend has left her pregnant and with five dollars (about fifty dollars these days). She buys a train ticket and on the train meets a young, very much in love couple, Patrice and Hugh Hazzard, returning home from Europe, where they have lived for some time. Like Helen, Patrice is pregnant, but unlike her, Patrice has a husband, apparently money, a family to go to, everything Helen lacks. They strike up a train friendship and share the bathroom before retiring. Helen even tries on Patrice’s wedding ring. Then the train crashes, Helen lands in the hospital. There authorities mistake her for Patrice (that ring, you know), who, along with Hugh, has died in the accident.
What to do? Out of desperation, she assumes the identity of Patrice and goes home to the Hazzard family, painted by Woolrich as an ideal family in an ideal house in an ideal town, all Helen never had and always dreamed of. They accept her and the baby as their daughter-in-law. All proceeds swimmingly, until the old boyfriend turns up. How he learns about her new life, how she avoids detection, how she finally frees herself, what happens with Hugh’s brother, Bill, all this Woolrich handles craftily to create suspense and the novel’s driving force.
And then, in the end, there’s the question that tears at Patrice and Bill, the one which Woolrich leaves you to answer for yourself. Frank Stockton must have smiled down on that (he died in 1902).
The primary character is a young woman named Helen, 19. Woolrich does not reveal her birth surname. Born in San Francisco to a poor, broken family, the naive young woman travels to New York City where she meets and becomes pregnant by a caddish gambler, Steve Georgesson. who crudely leaves her a one-way train ticket back to her home together with $5.00 cash.
On the train, Helen befriends a young couple, Hugh and his pregnant wife Patrice. When the train derails, killing Hugh and Patrice and resulting in Helen's premature delivery, Helen becomes mistaken for Patrice and reluctantly assumes her identity, as she is welcomed into the family by Hugh's parents and Hugh's younger brother Bill in their comfortable near-idyllic Caufield home.
The book describes Helen's discomfiture at living a lie. Bill falls in love with her. Georgesson has kept track of Helen's whereabouts. He attempts to blackmail Helen with the threat of revealing her identity, which leads to the murder and to the tangled denouement of the story.
The plotting may have its questionable elements, but Woolrich is much more interested in exploring the nature of guilt, deceit, and their consequences. Besides creating an atmosphere of tension and disorientation, Woolrich's third person narrative voice (in most of the book) offers many sidelong observations about his characters and the consequences of their action. The "dead man" of the title assumes a metaphorical character as the lovers Helen (Patrice) and Bill become dead to each other through guilt and shame. In many respects, "I Married a Dead Man" is an almost religious novel (without a clear God) about sin and its consequences. I found it riveting, thoughtful, and heartbreaking.
Woolrich was a prolific noir writer whose other works include the story "Rear Window." His novel was the basis for a 1950 film "No Man of her Own" starring Barbara Stanwyk. In 1996, another much looser film adaptation of Woolrich's novel appeared, titled, "Mrs. Winterbourne." "I Married a Dead Man" is available in a stand-alone edition and in the Library of America's volume of classic noir, "Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s". Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s: The Postman Always Rings Twice / They Shoot Horses, Don't They? / Thieves Like Us / The Big Clock / ... a Dead Man (Library of America) (Vol 1) In its portrayal of guilt and rootlessness, it is a small American classic.
I am fairly new to Cornell Woolrich as I have only previously read one of his novels, the suspenseful The Bride Wore Black. Woolrich wrote a large number of suspense novels, apparently of uneven quality. His best stories are very good and include The Phantom Lady, I Married A Dead Man, and his 'Black' series (so-named from their titles).
The plot for I Married a Dead Man twists and turns in an unpredictable manner. The layered, complex ending is quite good. I was completely unfamiliar with the plot and was continually surprised. If you are new to this book, avoid reading the summary on the dust jacket or elsewhere. Ignorance may not be bliss, but too much knowledge may spoil some of the surprise.
But it won't hurt to think about the seemingly incongruous title. In my limited experience Cornell Woolrich selects his titles carefully. In retrospect, a simple title may suddenly have multiple meanings.
I Married a Dead Man may be best compared to an Alfred Hitchcock movie. And, as matter of interest, Woolrich was the author of Rear Window.
Most recent customer reviews
I recognized several chacters from the movie, "Mrs. Winterbourne" based on this book. The movie was more upbeat.
The book was dark.