Deadline at Dawn by Cornell Woolrich

Originally published in 1944 using the pseudonym William Irish.

When Quinn first meets Bricky, she’s working as a partner-for-hire at a dancehall and he’s struggling to shake the anxiety of his guilty conscience. Earlier that day, the young man took advantage of a found key and used it to rob a stranger’s home. Now, with the purloined money in his pocket, Quinn is unable to escape the memory of his wrongdoing―and not even a night spent dancing is enough to silence his nagging thoughts. 

When the dancehall closes, he and Bricky―linked, after many intimate hours, by a budding romance―return to the scene of the crime intending to restore the stolen fortune and begin a new life together, only to discover, upon arrival, that the owner of the property has been murdered. There’s evidence present that easily links Quinn to the crime, and he expects that, as soon as day breaks and the authorities learn of the gruesome scene, he will be arrested straight away. Which means that he and Bricky have only a few short hours to find the true killer and clear Quinn’s name for good.

What begins as a romance soon turns into a nightmare, as this young couple trek through the dark underbelly of old New York in a desperate race for salvation.


Deadline at Dawn concerns two people, one a dancer for hire, the other an out-of-work handyman, who meet and recognize that they both came from the same town. Had they each stayed there they may well have been sweethearts – instead they each made their way to the big city where they failed to realize their dreams, leaving them feeling chewed up and hopeless.

Both had contemplated heading back to their small town but felt unable to do so on their own. They think that together though they might finally do it and they agree to catch a bus together at 6am. There is a complication however. Quinn had pulled off a robbery earlier that evening, breaking into the home of a former client and stealing a sizeable sum of money. It’s a decision he regrets, finding he cannot enjoy his ill-acquired gains, but he also fears that the police will be after him. Bricky presents a solution – if they can return the money before the client returns to their home and realizes the theft has happened then he might escape charges. Unfortunately for the pair when they do return to the house they find a dead body…

One of the things that defines the story is that it takes place over a very short space of time – just a little over five hours. This is driven home to the reader by the fun device of beginning each chapter with an analog clock reading rather than a title or number. It isn’t just the novelty of this that makes it memorable though – rather it’s the way that this contributes to the pressure that our heroes are under, reminding us just how little time remains for them to accomplish their goals. It’s a great device for creating and building pressure and it worked well for me.

Of course the reader must accept that these two characters would in just a few hours throw themselves in together in the way shown. Their connection is far from typical after all. Woolrich does a really good job though of convincing the reader of their desperation and sense of hopelessness. Each begins the story seeming doomed and so while a romance ensues, it is as much about clinging to one another in the hope of survival and exploring what might have been as it is the hope of how that will develop now.

I really liked both Bricky and Quinn and quickly came to care for them as their stories are revealed and we get to know them. It is easy to understand how each fell into their respective positions of hopelessness, the barriers that have kept them from heading home and to understand the desperation that led Quinn to steal. While we begin the book keenly aware of the darkness they are in, there is also a sense of hope – they found each other in their darkest moment and together they might just pull through.

The discovery of the body is obviously an enormous complication for our young pair and it does represent a further challenge to the credibility of our heroes actions. It is nearly always questionable why an amateur ends up investigating a murder and here we may think our heroes foolish for not immediately reporting the crime, as bad as it might look. Woolrich has done such a strong job of building that ‘it’s now or never’ message though that I think he just about sells it – any kind of a delay is sure to damage their resolve and mean they will never get on that bus…

Their investigative efforts are characterized more by their urgency than the quality or complexity of their reasoning. This is not the sort of case where the reader has anything much to solve – we hardly know anything about the victim, let alone those who may wish to kill him. Still there are a few nice moments where we see our heroes draw smart and logical conclusions from the evidence they have been presented with and I enjoyed seeing how they divided responsibility, each pursuing separate leads.

One of the aspects of this book I appreciated most was its seedy depiction of the city in those early hours of the morning. This starts with the description of Bricky leaving the dance hall and trying to elude the men waiting at the doors, hoping to convince the girls to go with them. There are similarly effective moments that take place in the cabs, pharmacies and bars that we visit in the course of that evening. All of this reinforces that notion of the city as having a façade of loveliness which covers a much rougher reality experienced by the people who make that dream seem real.

The investigation comprises lots of false starts and dead ends. One positive of this is that we get a number of glimpses into the lives of other people roaming the city in those early hours, getting a glimpse at some of the other hopeless situations people have found themselves in. One of the most poignant of these comes in an unexpectedly emotional exchange between Quinn and a man he believes is carrying a gun. That sequence was for me one of the highlights of the book.

The less positive consequence of the structuring of that investigation though is that when we enter the story’s final act, Woolrich has a lot of dots left to connect and not much space left to do it. This in turns brings two issues with it. The first is that credibility gets stretched just that little bit further as things have to be wrapped up one way or another by that 6am deadline. I will admit to having little sense of the geography of the area in which the story is set so I don’t know if these locations are closer together than I was assuming but the reader will have to swallow a lot of swift movement and decision making – particularly in those final few chapters.

The other is that as we near that conclusion, I found the sudden acceleration in storytelling and the incorporation of some more action-driven sequences led to me having to reread some passages carefully to be sure I was following the developments in the story correctly. When I did though I found a story that felt largely satisfying, particularly when viewed on a thematic level. I might suggest that Woolrich does engage in a few overly neat story moves, leaving things overly tidy, but that is perhaps a necessary consequence of the messy way in which the adventure begins.

Overall I am happy to be able to say I had a great time with this one. I admired its depiction of two people who begin the story hopeless but find strength and support in one another. I came away from this reminded that I have a couple of other Woolrich titles on my TBR pile that really deserve my attention. Expect to see me tackle them at some point in the next few months…

The Verdict: This entertaining race against time story features some compelling characters and an intriguing situation. There’s no detection here to speak of but the ride is worth experiencing for anyone who enjoys a good thriller.

I Married A Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich

Originally published 1948

A pregnant Helen Georgesson flees an abusive relationship by hoping on a train and hoping for a new life with her unborn child. While in the ladies room with a wealthy woman named Patrice Hazzard, also pregnant with her first child, they fall victim to a tragic train crash which claims Patrice’s life along with her husband. When Helen wakes up in the hospital mistaken for “Patrice Hazzard,” wearing her wedding ring and meeting her in-laws (whom had never met the real Patrice before,) she decides to claim this new opportunity and make a better life for her and her newborn son. However, Helen’s evil ex-lover has other plans for her, including blackmail, terror, and ruining this fantasy life.

I 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.