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Monday, January 05, 2015

I Read I Married a Dead Man

My first book of the year is I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich. Published in 1948, I Married a Dead Man is a compelling, suspenseful and ultimately tragic tale of mistaken identity and murder by a writer better known as the man who wrote the stories that inspired Hitchcock's Rear Window and Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black.

Woolrich paints a world where most people are kind and good, but within which one bad apple can turn joy to heartbreak. Throughout the novel I was rooting for the gentle protagonist, a young woman who desires nothing more than love and security and a place to raise her infant son. Abandoned by the man she thought loved her, she finds herself alone, penniless and without hope...until she's caught in a train crash, and in the aftermath she's mistaken for another woman, a newlywed whose husband also perished on the train. Recast as a widow, she finds acceptance with her faux in-laws, and for a while it seems like things might turn out all right...but then, murder.

Without spoiling the plot, the tragedy turns not on the murder itself, but on the suspicion and guilt that arise from it. It's a story where slightly different choices or unhappy accidents of random chance could have resulted in a happy ending. Instead, the characters and the audience are left lamenting what may have been.

I Married a Dead Man would have to be considerably altered to work in a modern context, turning as it does on mistaken identity. Communications and surveillance technologies of the 21st century make Woolrich's plot nearly impossible to believe today, whereas in the text as it stands we can accept the author's premise as written. So aside from a tragic love story, Woolrich offers a snapshot of an era long past, one of passenger trains and handwritten letters and land lines - another country to which there can be no passports issued, save those of the imagination. 

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