#331: She Who Was No More (1952) by Boileau-Narcejac [trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury 2015]

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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.

29 thoughts on “#331: She Who Was No More (1952) by Boileau-Narcejac [trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury 2015]

  1. At least, with your expectations lowered, the second book of 2018 is bound to be a dazzler. Or the third one. No more than five, at any rate.
    I like your Venn diagram comparison – it certainly helps to persuade me not to rush into this one.

  2. Thanks for giving me many well-thought-out reasons to not pick this up. I’ve read some B-N before and always been vaguely disappointed … but gee, that’s such a beautiful cover design I’m sure I would have been picking that up from the bookstore shelf and from there it’s halfway to the till LOL. Therefore I shall steel myself against the blandishments of that cover.
    Some authors seem to be writing more as the basis for films to be made from their work than for the actual reader. All that yellow fog sounds very cinematic, doesn’t it?

    • Yeah, the yellow fog is very cinematic, though the isolated nature of many of the scenes is quite stagey, too, almost like it’s designed for a low TV budget. And the disconnected nature of the scenes feels like an avant-garde experiment that doesn’t quite come off: inverted mystery by way of James Joyce…

  3. I just went into one of my rare forays into science fiction with Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. The idea of it sounded amazing, but it ended up reeking of “I-want-my-book-made-into-a-movie”-itis! Sure enough, I read that Roland Emmerich will be directing it! Even then, they’re going to have to add some stuff to this to make the plot move.

    I haven’t read these two guys, but I’m just betting that Hitchcock did a number on the book’s plot (as in improved it!) when he created Vertigo! That was just the sort of thing he loved to do!

    • See, reading this made me sort of want to read Vertigo so that I can compare the two…but, equally, reading this made me not exactly eager to read Vertigo. I’ll get there in due course, plenty to occupy me in the meantime.

      • Just need to chime in that the movie versions (there are more than two, BTW) of this novel are not remotely similar in any way. The protagonists are women, the POV is always from a woman’s, and they plot to do in a two timing husband. I actually prefer the original French film to this novel though this has its very creepy and wholly modern takes not at all explored in the movie. I reviewed it on my blog back in 2016 but I don’t think many people ever read it.

        Similarly, the Boileau-Narcejac book that became VERTIGO is vastly different from the movie. Sergio wrote about the book on his blog several years ago.

        See further comments about this book and it’s authors below….

        • Oh, hey, I had no idea this had been filmed more than twice — interesting. Do all the movie versions reverse the gender? And is it therefore a case of subsequent movie versions actually being based on the initial movie rather than the book?

          Thanks for the pointer to Sergio’s comparison — I should have realised he’d’ve done something like that already. Shall check it out in due course.

        • I’m…not a huge fan of the movie; I found Hitch’s sense of alacrity somewhat over-deployed, and much preferred Rear Window, Rope, North by Northwest, Shadow of Doubt, The 39 Steps, etc, where there just feels like there’s more room to breathe. Maybe I won’t check out the book any time soon, then…

          • I totally get why Vertigo gets on all the Best Film lists, and Rear Window doesn’t. Vertigo is dark. It contains all the motifs and icons Hitchcock was known for throughout his career: the perils of voyeurism and espionage, the (increasingly dark) focus on love and marriage, the dangers found in heights, in stairs, in water. And what’s probably most brilliant about the movie is that, for much of its length, it is essentially a silent film.

            All Rear Window has going for it is that it is, in every way, a better movie: more suspenseful, more entertaining, and when you get right down to it, just as dark!

            Critics! Bah!

  4. This is a real shame, I was hoping this would be a good one with the little I know about the hook to the plot (which sounded great). Vertigo still worth a go though. Atmosphere, madness and claustrophobia and their real strengths in these works I think, but looks as if plot get left behind.

    • Would be interesting to see what their individual writing styles were, in order to get a sense how this is the sort of tone that comes out when they collaborate. They must be doing this on purpose, since they had fairly successful careers prior to teaming up…so an idea of what sort of concession they made in order to form B-N would be fascinating. Alas, we may never know…

      • I think Brad’s comment about writing to be made into film, or writing for film has weight here in terns of their stylistic change and output toward the end. I read somewhere about Hitchcock getting them to write a lot of scripts and scenarios for him. This quite likely coincided?

        • Ah, yes, that would make a lot of sense. Ties into Philip MacDonald’s dialogue-focussed The Maze being written about the time he started working on Hollywood screenplays, too, as TomCat suggested before. Damn you, Hollywood (I’m no sure why, it just seems like a popular sentiment…)!

      • There are 2 impossible crime novels written by Pierre Boileau alone: Six Crimes Sans Assassin and Le Repos de Bacchus. The first one has six impossible killings !

        • …and Le Repos de Bacchus was, I understand, somewhat liberally (ahem) borrowed by Hilary St George Saunders for “her” novel The Sleeping Bacchus. Think I’ll hold out for the Boileau version, on the off-chance we ever see it in English (or, hey, my French improves enough to read it — the race is on!).

          • “…somewhat liberally (ahem) borrowed by Hilary St George Saunders..”
            In fact, it was lifted lock, stock and barrel !

            • Ah, so the solutions are exactly the same? Well, since it’s unlikely I’ll ever get a) a translation of Le Repos… or b) sufficiently good at French to read it untranslated, I might as well keep an eye out. Thanks for clearing this up.

  5. I’m a fan no matter what you may have to say about this book or their work in general. Where on Earth did you read that this writing duo has been likened to Ellery Queen?! That’ must be some idiot publicity writer, certainly not a genre fiction maven. Hardly any of their books can be cosidered detective novels by even the most outrageous stretches of the imagination. They write almost exclusively in the sub categories of psychological crime and suspense.

    I will always be more intrigued by pure crime novels than detective novels and have been this way in my reading tastes for over 15 years now. Many of their books have been translated into English, it’s just that the two most famous (due to the movie versions) are the only ones that keep getting reprinted. IMO their masterwork is THE PRISONER (Les Louves) from 1955. I’ve reviewed five of their books (one is actually a rewritten novel originally written by Boileau alone) and will be reviewing yet another later this month. Many of their novels have been adapted for the movies and TV throughout Europe and Japan. For some reason English language production companies aren’t drawn to these books even though many of them are wholly cinematic in their storytelling and would definitely appeal to modern audiences.

    • Thanks for the correction on translations; I did a quick search in the normal places and couldn’t find any other English versions, so clearly I’m looking in the wrong places. I can definitely see me returning to B-N at some point, I’m curious to see what they did elsewhere and I rarely write off anyone after one book; theire reputation must surely come from something notable in their writing, it’s just a case of whether I can get a glimpse of it in what I can find.

      Certainly having gone in expecting something at least a little detective-y and not getting that at all has been a salutary lesson, and if you say I shouldn’t expect this from anything else the wrote then that’s definitely something I’ll keep in mind. Look forward to you review later this month.

      • Saunders asked for permission to rewrite Le Repos de Bacchus and Boileau allowed it. Your snipe about “borrowing” the story is unwarranted. My guess is that you would thoroughly enjoy The Sleeping Bacchus as it’s a genuine detective novel with three impossible “miracle problems.” Very action packed and often witty. It’s also one of the finest detective novels I’ve read without a murder.

        • No snipe intended, though I guess the quote marks do make it appear a bit sarcastic — my apologies; I was trying to avoid anyone going “Well, actually, she did more than just borrow it…” and have instead had the opposite effect. Ha.

          Part of me would still prefer to read the Boileau first, I guess because I’m more of a fan of original forms of something — like, I typically go for the short stories that are expanded into novels before reading the novel, for instance. I assume Saudners’ solutions are the same as Boileau’s? Though, to be fair, even if she finds her own brilliant variation on them, the book is difficult enough to track down anyway so it’s not like I can rush out and snap it up for a pittance.

  6. Saudners was a man. I figured the “she” was also a joke, but then you continue to refer to him as a woman in the comment above. He was one half of the writing team of “Francis Beeding”. The other was John Palmer.

    Years ago you could find cheap copies of THE SLEEPING BACCHUS. Nearly every time I write about a book the cheap copies being sold online go in a couple of days and the others get their prices inflated. Ugh.

    • No, my jokes are better than that…

      Thanks for the correction; I thought the male Hillary was spelled like that, with two Ls, but as I type that I remember Hillary Clinton…man, life is confusing sometimes.

    • Yes, John,, now only a few used copies of The Sleeping Bacchus are available, the minimum cost being 50 dollars plus shipping. Of course, I know that it is a trifling amount for you !

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