“I Married a Dead Man” by Cornell Woolrich (published by Penguin Books)

Never too late to discover a master of crime

Now, how can you go past a title like that – “I Married a Dead Man”? Ditto a tantalising blurb we saw somewhere – “A chance encounter leads a pregnant woman to assume the identity of a deceased woman, only to become embroiled in a web of betrayal and lies”? Count us in, then, plus the fact that we know Cornell Woolrich is an esteemed name in the crime field, and it’s about time we became acquainted. (We try, but can’t keep up with everyone.)
29. June 2024 5:18

Before delving into the book, it’s worthy of note that Woolrich’s biographer, Francis Nevins Jr., rated his subject the fourth-best crime writer of his day, behind Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler. As Woolrich was born on December 4, 1903, in New York, and died there on September 25, 1968, age 64 years, “of his day” refers to the author’s 34-year writing career that began in 1926 and ended in 1960.

“I Married a Dead Man” dates from 1948 when it was originally published using Woolrich’s occasional pseudonym William Irish, and was the 18th of the 26 novels Woolrich produced. It was due to his prolificacy that he found it necessary to publish under this pseudonym and another, George Hopley. (His full name was Cornell George Hopley Woolrich.)

The novels notably included a series of “Black” mysteries: “The Bride Wore Black” (1940), “The Black Curtain” (1941), “Black Alibi” (1942), “The Black Angel” (1943), “The Black Path of Fear” (1944) and “Rendezvous in Black” (1948).

There have also been 28 short story collections with more than 200 pieces of crime fiction. Some of the better known are “After Dinner Story”, “The Night Reveals”, “Three O’Clock”, “Momentum”, “Marihuana”, “Guillotine”, “Post Mortem”, “Murder, Obliquely”, “The Living Lie Down with the Dead” and “Speak to Me of Death”.

Altogether his works have been the basis for some 40-plus films, a truly impressive number. Most famously, Alfred Hitchcock turned the short story “It Had To Be Murder”, published in Dime Detective Magazine in 1942, into the memorable “Rear Window”, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, in 1954. Other films based on Woolrich’s stories include “The Leopard Man” (1943), “Phantom Lady” (1944), “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (1948), “If I Should Die Before I Wake” (1952), “Obsession” (1954), “The Bride Wore Black” (1968), “Mississippi Merlaid” (1969) and “Union City” (1980).

The novel “I Married a Dead Man” is now reissued this June 2024 along with nine titles by other authors under the “Crime & Espionage” banner from the extensive back catalogue of publisher Penguin Random House. These 10 follow an initial 20 vintage”Crime & Espionage” books revived in 2023. It’s a good way to catch up on writers we missed.

“I Married a Dead Man” has been filmed a few times, notably in 1950 as “No Man of Her Own” starring Barbara Stanwyck, who plays the role of Helen/Patrice. Other adaptations are “Kati Patang”, a Hindi effort in 1971, the French film “J’ai épousé une ombre” (“I Married a Shadow”) in 1983, “Mrs. Winterbourne” starring Shirley MacLaine in 1996 and an American TV movie, “She’s No Angel” (2001).

Time, then, to forget our own mundane, blame-free, day-to-day lives and become “embroiled in a web of betrayal and lies”. It won’t do any harm to offer the reader some early plot details so as to know what to expect. Chapter I is preceded by an unnamed, unnumbered and deliberately intriguing opening few pages that present uncertain circumstances in a large town called Caulfield.

Life is seemingly idyllic but at the same time it’s plain a rug is going to be pulled out that will bring things crashing down. All will come clear later, no doubt. This little teaser certainly draws you in, wanting to read on and make sense of what’s happening. And it contains the words “murder”, “caught” and “trapped”.

Onwards to Chapter I where an abandoned, unwed and pregnant woman, Helen Georgesson, “about 19” years, is on a westbound train with nothing but her one-way ticket and 17 cents left out of the five dollars her dismissive lover gave her. Fortuitously she is befriended by wealthy newlyweds Hugh and Patricia, who are kind to her.

But when the train crashes, the couple are killed. Helen survives and the shock brings on her baby in the wreckage. When she regains consciousness in hospital she finds she is being mistaken for Patricia.

Hugh and Patricia had been on the way to meet Hugh’s well-to-do family, and the family had never so much as seen a photograph of Patricia, so hesitantly but inexorably Helen finds herself slipping into Patricia’s place. The family is only too keen to bring her into the fold. She hopes she can start a new life while hiding her secret and lowly past.

Woolrich’s skill is on show here, as he sets up the reader for a plausible explanation as to why the two women would be confused in the aftermath of the train crash. Both are in advanced pregnancy, and when they share the train bathroom Patricia hands Helen her wedding band to hold, and Helen slips it admiringly onto her finger. Crash. The band has Patricia’s name engraved on the inside, and Helen is wearing it when rescued.

Out of hospital and in Hugh’s family, everything is fine at first. The family love the young woman and her baby boy. “In the morning the world was sweet just to look at from her window. The sense of peace, of safety, of belonging, was being woven about her stronger all the time. Soon nothing could tear its fabric apart again.”

Don’t speak too soon. Almost inevitably things go awry when the scoundrel from Helen’s past shows up, the father of her child… the betrayal and lies. Can’t you almost smell the word blackmail?

Woolrich lived a life said to be as dark and emotionally tortured as his hapless characters. In the posthumous “Blues of a Lifetime: The Autobiography of Cornell Woolrich” (1991), he wrote: “I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t.”

Biographer Nevins pronounced dramatically in his Edgar Award-winning “Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die” (1988) that his tortured subject suffered “the most wretched life of any American writer since Poe”. (Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) – poverty, booze, mysterious death at age 40.)

The legend says Woolrich was a hateful and self-hating homosexual, briefly and unhappily married to a young woman while he worked as a screenwriter in Los Angeles in 1930. They separated after three months and the marriage was annulled in 1933. From then he lived for nearly a quarter of a century with his mother until she died in 1957.

He had a long slow descent into alcoholism, loneliness and illness. Sheer self-neglect led to the amputation of a gangrenous leg, and soon after he died miserable and alone of a stroke in a seedy Manhattan hotel room in 1968. He weighed only 89 pounds (40.3 kilogrammes) and five people attended his funeral. He left his money, USD 850,000, to Columbia University, to fund a scholarship for young writers.

Have any of these hopefuls equalled or surpassed Woolrich, one wonders? Are the celebrated author’s other books to this high standard? We’re willing to try. Who worries about a few plot loopholes if it is an enjoyable read? For us it’s hello Mr Woolrich, a few decades late but also it can be never too late.

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