Who Killed the Boyfriend?

I Married a Dead Man (1948)

By Cornell Woolrich (as William Irish)

While you may not recognize the name Frank Stockton, you surely know his short story “The Lady or the Tiger?” You the reader are left to decide if the woman or the tiger exits the door at the end. And so with Woolrich’s twisting and turning noir classic, who done in the dastardly ex-boyfriend, husband or wife? This really gives nothing away as you know from the outset that somebody is dead and two people, a couple, wonder which of the two brought him to his well deserved end.

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).

Turned into a film, as many noir novels were, in 1950 starring Barbara Stanwyck and retitled No Man of Her Own. w/c

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