I Married A Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich

MarriedADeadManI Married A Dead Man is the story of a murder and the impact it has on a couple who ought to be enjoying a happily ever after. It definitely belongs to the noir school as our protagonists find themselves in a hopeless situation, each unable to shake their feeling that the other must be responsible. After establishing this portrait of the couple Woolrich jumps back over a year to show us how this situation came to be.

The story begins with Helen who is unmarried and eight months pregnant. Rather than receiving support from the father, instead she is given five dollars and a one-way train ticket back to her hometown.

On the train she is befriended by a woman who is also pregnant and travelling with her husband to meet his parents for the first time. We hear that they have never so much as seen a photograph of her so when the train derails and the couple are killed they assume that she must be their daughter-in-law and so pay for her medical care and give her and her newborn son a home.

This setup creates tension as she lives under the fear that her secret will somehow be discovered. This could not only lead to her losing her home and security for her child but the family she comes to cherish. Finally, a year later, she finds a note that seems to suggest that her secret has been discovered though she is not sure who is responsible, setting a series of events in motion leading to the situation and characters’ state of mind described in the prologue.

At this point I should probably reiterate that this is the story of a murder and its aftermath rather than a mystery story. The scenario certainly generates questions that the reader may try to work out the answers to but there are no clear answers given to the biggest question that hangs over all of the characters and that will destroy all of their chances of happiness.

What Woolrich does really well is explore Helen’s state of mind and the unlikely but compelling situation she finds herself in. While the thing she does is clearly morally wrong, we are likely to sympathise with her and absolve her of wrongdoing. She has not orchestrated this deception and we see that she does truly care for the couple who had lost their son.

The grieving parents are likeable but presented somewhat abstractly, referred to by their roles as mother and father rather than by name and given limited and fairly general personality traits. While that approach would not suit every work it is appropriate here because the couple represent a set of values and a family lifestyle that Helen comes to cherish. They give her a sense of belonging that she clearly has not experienced before.

Bill is given more depth not to mention a name. We know from the start of the novella that Helen will end up married to him and that she will think him responsible for the murder and yet when we first meet him that unhappiness seems unlike him. He possesses a strong sense of charm and while his intelligence poses a threat to Helen, the two are clearly attracted to each other from shortly after they meet.

This relationship sits at the heart of the novella because for the conceit of the story to work we must view them as a tragic couple and believe that had they met under different circumstances they might have been happy. The length of Woolrich’s story means that we do not have much time to see the couple’s friendship and relationship slowly develop and so instead we see a few key moments in that process but I was convinced by the type of interactions they shared that they could have been happy.

I ought to have seen the circumstances of the crisis coming, though somehow it caught me by surprise. I think even if you know what will get in the way of their happiness those scenes are cinematically written and highly effective. I felt the protagonist’s sense of panic, anger and frustration at the possibility of losing everything and understood her actions.

It should probably be said that while the scenario is set up to have each character believe the other guilty of the crime, we do follow Helen’s actions more closely than Bill’s. That does not necessarily mean though that we know Bill to be guilty and in a way the actual solution to the crime doesn’t matter – it all comes down to how the couple’s suspicions and feelings alter the rest of their relationship. It is powerful stuff, underlined by the striking decision to return to the material from the start of the book at the end.

Is it perfect? Well, it must be said that the scenario outlined does seem wholly unlikely to ever happen. I think Woolrich does take steps later in the novella to give a rationale to how the mistake could have come about and gives her a strong reason to maintain the fiction but it does require some pretty odd plot contortions to set everything in motion. This is a scenario that really could not work in the present day as it relies on a lack of documentation that would be close to unthinkable today.

Overall I found this to be a fast and highly engaging read. It certainly veers towards melodrama in some aspects of its scenario and storytelling but I felt that the ending was really effective, packing an emotional punch.

This book was originally published as the work of William Irish, a pseudonym for Cornell Woolrich. Reprints have typically used the author’s real name so I am following suit.