Skip to Content
ublogo print

University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

I Married a Dead Man

cover image By: Woolrich, Cornell (male)
Publisher: Ballantine Books (30670)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 272: PS3515 .O6455 I2 1983
Contributor: D. Schmid


Era: 1940s Author as on Cover: William Irish Geographic Locale: Caulfield (fictional town) Date of Publication: 1983  |  Original Date: 1948 Setting: small town; pleasant, prosperous. Scenes in a train, in a hospital, and in a registry office Motives: greed -- Steve Georgesson wants the Hazzard fortune for himself

Plot Summary

I Married a Dead Man contains one of Woolrich's most convoluted plots. The book begins with a young woman, Helen, traveling to the West coast by train. About to give birth, she has been abandoned by the father of the child, and has little money and fewer prospects. On the train she meets and befriends Patrice Hazzard, a rich young woman who is also pregnant and about to meet the family of her husband, Hugh, for the first time. Just as Patrice lets Helen try on her wedding ring, the train crashes and Patrice and her husband are killed. Helen survives, and because she is wearing Patrice's wedding ring, Hugh Hazzard's family, never having seen a photo of the real Patrice, assume that Helen is Patrice, and so they welcome her into their family. Helen is initially racked by guilt at going along with the deception, but she persuades herself that she is only doing it for her child. At first, things go well, and when Hugh's brother, Bill, and Helen begin to fall in love, it seems as if Helen will have a blissfully happy and prosperous life. But then Helen starts to receive a series of anonymous letters from someone who clearly knows about her deception. The author of the letters turns out to be Helen's former boyfriend, Steve Georgesson, who has tracked her down and now blackmails Helen into marrying him, so that he may one day inherit the Hazzard fortune through Helen. Helen decides that she has no alternative but to kill Georgesson, but when she goes to his apartment, she finds him already shot dead. At this point, Helen is discovered by Bill, who immediately suspects Patrice of having killed Georgesson. But because of his presence on the scene, Helen in turn suspects Bill of having committed the murder. Even though they both escape being charged with the crime, their eventual fate is in some ways worse than being punished for Georgesson's death. Helen and Bill must love each other to distraction, but at the same time be eaten away by their suspicion of each other, to the extent that they can never enjoy their love or their freedom.

Major Characters

Helen Georgesson adult female, became pregnant and was subsequently abandoned by her boyfriend, Steve. At the beginning of the story, she is travelling out to the West coast by train with very little money, trying to make a new start.

Bill Hazzard adult male, brother of Hugh Hazzard, son of wealthy, upper-class parents. Almost against his will, Bill falls in love with the woman he thinks is his brother's widow, Patrice. When he finds out Helen's true identity, he still loves her, but that love is poisoned by the bizarre circumstances he and Helen find themselves in at the end of the novel.

Steve Georgesson adult male, boyfriend and later husband of Helen, petty thief and hustler. After abandoning Helen when she became pregnant, he later re-establishes contact with her when he learns of her new life with the Hazzards. He blackmails Helen into marrying him and is killed under mysterious circumstances

Patrice Hazzard adult female, young, wealthy, pregnant wife of Hugh Hazzard, killed in a train crash

Hugh Hazzard adult male, wealthy, husband of Patrice Hazzard, killed in train crash

Level of Violence

with the exception of the murder of Steve Georgesson (who is shot), there is not much overt violence in the book. Crucially, Woolrich obscures who Georgesson's murderer is. It is precisely this undecidability that makes Helen and Bill's situation at the end of the book so unbearable. Instead of violence, Woolrich places the emphasis on suspense and paranoia.


sexuality plays no major role in the book, in the sense that there are no descriptions of physical intimacy. It is assumed that everyone is straight, and that marriage is the ideal state toward which everyone aspires. With this said, Steve Georgesson's grotesque exploitation of his marriage to Helen to serve his own financial ends provides a bracing corrective to the idealization of romantic love that pervades the rest of the book.

Gender Roles

Helen begins the book abandoned and pregnant, and Patrice is suitably sympathetic. Patrice herself is regarded as the ideal: married and pregnant. When Helen assumes Patrice's identity and becomes a widowed mother, she too is seen as an idealized figure, who just needs Bill's love and marriage to become complete. In other words, gender roles are traditional -- men are the protectors, and women are the protected nurturers. Once again, Steve Georgesson is the exception to this rule.


race plays no role in the book, which is to say that the invisibility and normality of whiteness is taken for granted.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

apart from ordinary social drinking, alcohol and drugs do not play a significant role.

Law Enforcement

the police do appear toward the end of the novel, when they investigate and are unable to solve Steve Georgesson's murder. A private detective, Harry Carter, also plays a minor role. Carter was hired by Bill Hazzard to shadow Steve Georgesson, and it is he who "officially" discovers Georgesson's body. As with many of Woolrich's protagonists, Helen finds herself in a situation where law enforcement cannot help her. Although she considers going to the police when Steve Georgesson begins blackmailing her, Helen realizes that doing so will mean revealing her deception. It is not that law enforcement is ineffective in Woolrich's world; it is simply irrelevant.

Subject Headings

Blackmail/ Greed/ Paranoia/ Deception/ Murder

Psychological Elements

the book is dominated by Helen's fear, paranoia and guilt about the situation she finds herself in. Although she feels guilty about her deception, she rationalizes her decision by persuading herself that she is doing what's best for her child. When Steve Georgesson begins to send Helen anonymous letters that make it clear he knows of her deception, paranoia envelops the book. After Steve Georgesson's death, both Helen and Bill feel that they are the victim of malevolent forces of fate and determinism that are totally outside of their control.

Film Adaptations

I Married a Dead Man (J'ai pous une ombre), Sara Films, 1983; No Man of Her Own, Paramount, 1950; Mrs. Winterbourne, A&M Films, 1996