I have no specific rule for the order in which I read the books on my TBR, but only in special cases does something immediately jump to the head of the list. The chance to lock horns with French grand pooh-bahs Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac is one such special case: sure, their reputation in the English-speaking world might come from writing the novel that became Alfred Hitckcock’s Vertigo, but for the classic detection and locked room fan there’s plenty of excitement attached to these names through a reputation attained by other ends, too. Separately and together, their titles precede them, and so this is an opportunity to savour.
We open with a sense of dread anticipation as Fernand and Lucienne wait in an apartment for Fernand’s wife Mireille to arrive, with Fernand reeling between longeurs of youthful recollection and staccato beats of nervousness drawing out the passing moments with horrible inevitability:
Yes, it had all been carefully thought out, and a hundred other details too. In two years you can study a problem pretty thoroughly. No. There was nothing to be afraid of. Ten o’clock.
From here, plot-wise, you’re on your own: I tell you no more, and advise not even reading the spiel on the back, brief though it is. I say this for the simple reason that, contrary to my expectations, there is astoundingly little plot herein, and what is there is actually rather easy to see through. Indeed, I had hoped I was being led down a path of false expectation — especially given the reputation this partnership has — particularly given how late in the day this was written, but this is really no more than a short story padded up to short novel length by a lot of Fernand wandering around and feeling isolated. And it’s a weird experience.
Boileau-Narcejac, I’m guessing on account of there being two of them, are likened to Ellery Queen, but She Who Was No More falls nowhere near Dannay and Lee’s construction, tone, rigour, or inventiveness. A far better comparison to my eye would be to put this at the centre of a Venn diagram comprising James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Georges Simenon — Cain for the simplicity, Thompson for the ruthlessness and abiding sense of failure, and Simenon for the elegiac loquacity of blunt-edged poetry. A deliberate sense of unrealism pervades everything, and it’s difficult to conciliate the spiralling unease of Fernand’s situation and the precise construction required at times to make the closing revelations stick.
The sense of madness is very adroitly done, however. Everywhere Fernand wanders is drenched in a dense yellow fog that only serves to highlight his increasing sense of desperation and impermanence. Outside of the central trio, no other character appears more than once, a series of increasingly bizarre and uncomfortable encounters that peak with Fernand’s hilariously-realised brother-in-law Germain, who delights in sharing X-rays of his failing body. Everyone else is a deliberate cipher, and as such none of these encounters really feel like they have any importance in the overall scheme. I get that’s probably the point, but to only have one memorable character in 190 pages, and to restrict him to 8 or 10 pages at most, is an idiom of writing I was not fully attuned to.
One moment of frank, shining brilliance stands out, however, which I won’t give away but will provide context for. Walking to a railway station for Lucienne to catch a train, we get the following:
They reached the station. Second by second Lucienne was becoming more and more of a stranger to him. She bought an armful of magazines.
The next sentence — six words long — is fucking perfect, and probably among the most brilliant I will read for a long time. So it’s not like Boileau and Narcejac aren’t trying, it’s just that this feels rather minor, dashed-off, and antithetical to the reputation that precedes them for brilliant, confounding, staggering plotting. Surely — either separately or together — they wrote more convincing books than this. Maybe we’ll never know; D’entre les Morts (1954), the novel that became Vertigo, is published under that title as part of this Pushkin Vertigo series…but I’m not so desperate to dive into that as I’d hoped. Were there any other English translations — and locked room fans will have one particular title in mind — I’d be inclined to look there first, but as it is I may dial down my excitement for these two until any more emerge.
Not quite the start to 2018 I’d been hoping for…
This novel was the basis for two films — the French film noir Les Diaboliques (1955) and an American remake Diabolique (1996) — and so can be the first item ticked off my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card under the category Book made into TV/film/play.