My first experience of the French crime/suspense duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac was the recent Pushkin Press reissue of She Who Was No More (1952, tr. 2015) and…well, I didn’t love it. But Adey lists this novella and so back on the horse we clamber.
It’s…an odd one. Without that earlier experience of their hallucinogenic, tumbling prose style I think I’d like this a lot less — and maybe had I read this first I’d like that one a lot more — but there can be no denying that inside the nightmarescape of confusion and melodrama Boileau-Narcejac have crafted something brilliantly French and (one feels) deliberately difficult to pigeonhole. Gleeps, how in the hell am I going to write anything about this one…?
The edition I read was the Hutchinson translation from 1959, which pairs this novella with a much longer novella entitled ‘The Evil Eye’/’Le Mauvais Oeil’ (1956) which John Norris has written about most enthusiastically here, motivating Martin Edwards to follow up with equally fulsome praise. I didn’t get to that one, partly because of its length — I pretty much had one day in the British Library to read and write notes on all the stories featuring this month — and partly because I think I can do only so much Boileau-Narcejac at any given time. It’s not that I don’t find them enjoyable, but I don’t find them enjoyable in the way I enjoy, say, Freeman Wills Crofts (and I can only do so much Crofts in a day) or John Dickson Carr. I can feel the tendrils of Boileau-Narcejac gradually entwining around me and pulling me in, but I’m not fully indoctrinated into their school of Gallic alacrity just yet. I need some jokes to break it up, y’know? Or a clever deduction or something.
Yeah, I’m a philistine. And I don’t even spell that with a capital P. Clearly there’s no hope for me.
Hello, darkness, my old friend…
‘The Sleeping Beauty’/’Au Bois Dormant’ (1956) is the tale of Pierre-Aurelién de Muzillac du Quilly, who with a name like that can only be some French nobility cast into exile and keen to exact his revenge. Sure enough, following the death of his mother, he heads back to his homestead to reclaim that which has been snatched away, and it’s pretty clear from the outset what manner of ride we’re in for:
I was near to fainting with joy and fear, with bitterness and hope. I wanted to cry aloud with anger, and I cast myself down on the bed, overwhelmed by the violence of my sentiments.
Baron Herbeau, head of the family now occupying Pierre-Aurelién’s family pile — “They have bought it (for a song, let me tell you in confidence)” — is unaware of the return of Monsieur le comte, and any attempt to get to know the man and his intentions are foiled by the fact that the locals obviously have long memories and “[n]o-one who belongs here would acknowledge them if they were to show themselves in public”. However, it transpire that “[t]he Baron has been living for years in terror of this day. You have only to show yourself and he’ll be off”.
Pierre-Aurelién is not purely out for revenge, however, he’ll settle for a simple reacquisition of what is rightfully his, and so offers to buy the man out of the castle seen as his birthright, reasoning that Baron Herbeau will have a family to support. And then it just so happens that this family includes a daughter, the comely 20 year-old Claire, with whom Pierre-Aurelién is rather taken at first sight:
[A]lready I was in love with a young girl whom I had hardly seen as she stood in the gathering twilight at the edge of the great terrace; and I was filled with hatred for such a love. For a long time I stood leaning at my window, watching the moon mount slowly into the heavens, listening to the dogs barking to one another across the still acres of the country air.
We’re 20 pages into a 60-page story at this point, and it’s more Mills & Boon than Locked Room. It’s all very courtly, with a lot of heaving bosoms implied, and far too much being excited at seeing someone through a window or riding their horse in some woodland. And then things start getting weird…
I’ll break off here from too much detail, and content myself with saying simply that two events are witnessed which stand in stark contradiction to each other, and from which the impossibility arises. And Boileau-Narcejac aren’t simply done with that, either, as they then throw poor Pierre into a situation where Event A (let’s say…) is the only possible outcome and yet Event B is what results. The whole thing would be a damn sight more effective if it a) wasn’t written in such a turgidly era-appropriate way, and b) was consequently about half as long.
However, the resolution is marvellous.
It works on a number of levels, among the most pleasing being how clear it becomes that Boileau and Narcejac can write supremely focussed prose when the spirit takes them. Sure, it may not fully satisfy the (shall we say) burden of proof, but at the same time it coolly and calmly throws events into a structure that makes sense of a majority of what has been baffling hitherto, including a some very smart repurposing of accepted truths. Yes, is undeniably French — a key part of the solution shares DNA with Gaston Leroux’s genre standfast The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907), and sort of explains why this is set Way Back When rather than contemporaneously with its writing — and it turns out to be brilliantly motivated alongside those surprising resolutions. I’m still not entirely sure that all the olde worlde detail is needed, but then I said that about that chapter in The Plague Court Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson and just about everyone else disagrees with me, so maybe I’m not the best judge.
And so I leave this with mixed feelings still about the Boileau-Narcejac brand. The destination is superb, but the journey bumpy, and while I want to criticise the overwrought and sinew-straining alacrity of most of the writing I also cannot deny the smart and semiefficient way it conjures up a world where a rational solution is just as satisfying (and likely…!) as a left turn into, I dunno, lycanthropy would be. If you get the chance to read this, I’d recommend you take it, and I come away wanting to read more because of its flaws rather than in spite of them. Maybe I should try to track down some of their individual works to get a sense of what each of the brought to this team up, or maybe I need to familiarise myself with more work in this genre from this era and provenance. I legitimately don’t know: the relative sparsity of either complicates my next step either way, but I’m flagging B-N (or maybe just B, or just N) for further examination in 2019.
I’m also going to use this novella to edge closer to completion with my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, filling in the category A historical crime.