Cornell Woolrich is regarded as one of the great authors of noir fiction. This weekend I picked up his 1948 thriller I Married A Dead Man, just to see how I would like it. Although I had some problems with it, I was up reading it all night.
I Married a Dead Man tells the tale of a young woman, pregnant and abandoned by her baby's father, broke and alone in the world. By chance, she meets Patrice and Hugh, a happy young couple who are also expecting a baby. Patrice tells our heroine that she is nervous about meeting her husband's parents, whom she has never seen.
When Patrice and Hugh are shockingly killed, the young woman of our story impersonates Patrice and allows Hugh's mother and father to take her and her baby in. The setup is ideal. Hugh's grieving parents are comfortably well off. They don’t question the woman who calls herself Patrice; they’re just grateful to have their daughter-in-law and grandchild in their lives. Then the first blackmail letter arrives.
Where do I start with this maddening book? Woolrich's writing is highly stylized. It has its admirers, but I admit I eventually found it terrifically annoying:
"She took a slow step away. Then another. Her head was down now more than ever. She moved slowly away from there, and left the door behind. Her shadow was the last part of her to go. It trailed slowly after her, upright against the wall, Its head was down a little, too; it too was too thin, it too was unwanted. It stayed on a moment, after she herself was already gone. Then it slipped off the wall after her, and it was gone, too."
Then there's the ambiguous ending. Noir fiction developed as a reaction against the cozy mysteries of the 1930s, in which all the clues add up flawlessly, and the world returns to order after the triumphant solution. Noir doesn't have to wrap up all the threads, and the solution to a mystery often only goes to demonstrate that the world is irredeemably corrupt.
So the fact that I Married A Dead Man's ending isn't exactly tidy shouldn't bother me. But still, I found I had a lot of questions at the end: So who--? So why did she--?
Despite its weaknesses, the fact remains that there I was at 2 a.m., devouring the pages and unable to get to sleep until I got to the end. The book is perfectly paced to keep you from putting it down. Just as you think you’ve gotten to a stopping point, another plot twist grips you. What will happen next?
I Married A Dead Man is not a perfect book, but it’s certainly a page-turner, and I’ve rarely read a book that more effectively creates a mood of awful, paranoid tension. It’s pure noir.