The first version of I Married a Dead Man appeared as a novella in the April 1946 issue of Today's Woman. By 1948, when the book was published under the pseudonym William Irish, Cornell Woolrich had expanded his novella and completely rewritten its ending, resulting in a fine American Noir novel that has been filmed at least three times. The best known movie version of I Married a Dead Man is the 1950 film starring Barbara Stanwyck for which the title was changed to No Man of Her Own. The movie is an excellent representation of the film noir of the period although it was somewhat weakened by the studio's decision to use the original ending of the novella rather than the stronger, more compelling, ending of the novel itself.
Helen, a very young woman, finds herself seven months pregnant and abandoned by the father of her child. All that the father of her child has left her is a five dollar bill and train tickets from New York to the West Coast where she hopes to start a new life for herself and her baby. By the time that she is seen struggling to find a place for herself and her one suitcase on an overcrowded train, Helen is down to her last seventeen cents and is near despair. But fate has a surprise in store for Helen and the young couple who befriend her on the train, a surprise that offers Helen the chance to provide her child with the kind of life she never dreamed possible.
Does she have the nerve required to snatch that chance when she recognizes it? Is her love for her new baby so strong that she will do anything to ensure the child's future? By the time that Helen has to answer those questions for herself, she finds that circumstances completely beyond her control have made it possible for her to live a life she never dreamed possible if only she keeps her mouth shut. But of course, fate is not that kind, nor is life that simple. That's the rest of the story, a story that would have made Alfred Hitchcock smile, and one that I'm not going to spoil for you.
Cornell Woolrich deserves to be better known than he is today. He was a contemporary of Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and Raymond Chandler, all of whom have remained largely in print for the last 60 or 70 years. But despite the fact that during the period between 1940 and 1948 alone, Woolrich produced six novels under his own name, four as William Irish and one using the name George Hopley, his work is not easily found today. Woolrich has been called "the Hitchcock of the written word" and, in fact, between 1938 and 1950 Hollywood producers turned some 15 of his stories into movies, the most famous of which is Hitchcock's own Rear Window, a film based on the 1942 Woolrich novella It Had to Be Murder.
So if you are a fan of Cain, Hammett and Chandler but have read all of their work, Cornell Woolrich is a name you need to remember. Finding his work will require some extra effort, but Woolrich is a worthy addition to anyone's American Noir collection.