Wednesday, March 19, 2014

I MARRIED A DEAD MAN by Cornell Woolrich

But wait, I hear you cry. That picture says "William Irish"! Well, yeah. That was a pseudonym used by prolific pulp author Cornell Woolrich; when it's reprinted today (which is rare, for some reason), it's credited to Woolrich. (That's an old cover above; the version I have is much less interesting artistically.)

It's the 1940s. (The book was published in 1948, and no other time is given.) Helen is eight months pregnant, unmarried, and has been cast aside by her paramour, who has simply sent her a train ticket back to her hometown of San Francisco, and a five-dollar bill. Depressed and miserable, with nothing to live for, she is temporarily cheered on the train trip by meeting young married couple Patrice and Hugh Hazzard, who are on their way to meet his parents. Patrice is pregnant as well, almost as far gone as Helen. And she learns that Hugh's family has never met Patrice, and doesn't even know what she looks like.

Naturally, it happens. Patrice and Helen are in the washroom together. Patrice complains of her loose wedding band, and asks Helen to hold it for her. Helen puts it on her finger to keep it safe....and the train is in a horrible accident.

Helen gives birth in the wreckage, passes out, and wakes up in the hospital...and discovers she's been mistaken for Patrice. The Hazzards are dead, and the REAL Patrice was mistaken for Helen. Her first instinct is to set the record straight...but nobody takes her seriously, then she finds out the Hazzards are incredibly wealthy, and thinks of how they would provide for her child much better than she ever could. So she goes along with it, slowly adjusting herself to her new lifestyle and happily caring for her child.

Until one day, an envelope arrives in the mail. Inside, the letter has a single sentence. "Who are you?"

Really, if you think I've given away a lot, I haven't. This is the basic setup, and what follows is a dark and twisted tale of secrets, lies, blackmail, and murder.

If this sounds like film noir, or Hitchcock, you wouldn't be far off the mark. Countless classic films have been made from Woolrich's works. Rear Window. Phantom Lady. The Bride Wore Black. The Leopard Man. Night Has a Thousand Eyes. The Window. Mississippi Mermaid. Original Sin. Many more. And this novel was filmed in 1950 as No Man of Her Own, with Barbara Stanwyck. It's said that more films noir were based on his work than any other crime writer, and it's fitting. His style is spare but cinematic, lending itself well to dramatic interpretation.

But land sakes, it's DARK. I'm not giving anything away when I say it ends on a dark and despairing note, as it begins with that and the story is told in flashback. This is that dark, cynical universe where the bad guys might get theirs but the good guys may get screwed over in the process. After reading this I need a nice cozy ghost story to brighten my mood. Supernatural terrors are one thing, but man's inhumanity to man, and the cruelties of fate, are something else, and much worse.

Woolrich can be hard to find; much of his work is out of print (estate issues, saith Wikipedia), but every now and then you can find something in your local friendly used-book emporium. Once I even found a hardcover collection, "The Best of William Irish", that had PHANTOM LADY, DEADLINE AT DAWN, and an assortment of stories, and no mention of the Woolrich name. But keep your eyes open, you might find something. And note the titles of the movies based on his work; even when diluted for the screen, they're an experience. (And boy, was The Bride Wore Black diluted, robbed of a brutal, ironic twist at the end...)

2 comments:

The Passing Tramp said...

That's a delightfully literal cover illustration!

Anonymous said...

For those looking, the book is part of the Library of America's Crime Noir of the 30's and 40's Collection.