Their influence on crime novels and cinema has been prodigious – so why isn’t the critical stock of Boileau & Narcejac higher? When Alfred Hitchcock saw the effect on audiences of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (‘The Fiends’) (1955), he realised that this Hitchcockian French film – with its superb orchestration of suspense (including horror in a bathroom) and twist-filled plotting of immense ingenuity – would have been absolutely perfect material for him, and subsequently proceeded to make a film utilising very similar tactics, Psycho (1960). In the original novel of Les Diaboliques, Ravinel has drowned his wife Mireille in her bath, and, aided by his mistress Lucienne, he has dropped her body into a river to suggest suicide. But as Mireille is dead, how is she able to correspond with him from beyond the grave? (Details were tweaked for Clouzot’s film). Regrettably, the plot for Les Diaboliques has subsequently been borrowed so often, it is now over-familiar.
The prolific and ingenious French writing duo, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who had produced the original novel on which Clouzot’s film was based, had written another ingeniously plotted book, D’Entre les Morts (‘From Among the Dead’/‘The Living and the Dead’) (1954), and it was this book that provided the basis for of one of Hitchcock’s supreme pre-Psycho masterpieces, Vertigo (1958). This was recently voted the best film of all time in a Sight & Sound magazine critics poll, and while one might demur from that judgement, it’s a welcome turnaround from the unenthusiastic critical repose it initially received. The influence of the duo – principally through the films made of their work, notably a long-running series of psychological thrillers from Britain’s Hammer studios – continues to this day. But this immensely professional team of Gallic scribes was not only responsible for much inventive crime fiction but wrote intelligent critical essays on the genre, along with a number of children’s stories. (While prowling les bouquinistes alongside the Seine years ago, I picked up, in some excitement, several books by the authors, only to find when I returned to London that they were the duo’s ‘juveniles’. They were capably enough written, but, frankly, I was looking for something as good – and as adult – as Les Diaboliques.)
Boileau was born in Paris in 1906 in the Ninth Arrondissement, and became a voracious consumer of American crime fiction as well as such eventful serials as Fantomas. His first detective novel was Deux Hommes sur une Piste, published in 1932, inaugurating a lengthy career, only interrupted by wartime service when he was a prisoner of war. Thomas Narcejac (a nom de plume; his real name was Pierre Ayraud) was born in 1908 at Rochefort-sur-Mer, and his literary influences included Arsène Lupin (the discovery of the crime novel in 1916 was accompanied by the loss of an eye from an accident with a gun). He inaugurated his writing career writing for the series Le Masque in 1946.
The team’s first collaboration, L’Ombre et la Proie, appeared in instalments from 1951 to 1952, producing a series of joint efforts that appeared every year for several decades. Some of these pieces were spins on their beloved Arsène Lupin.
Perhaps their most celebrated collaboration came in 1952 with Les Diaboliques, filmed two years later by Henri-Georges Clouzot without the team’s collaboration: the corpse of a murdered wife vanishes only to make a shock reappearance. Clouzot’s film switched the sex of the victim and murderer, and inaugurated a lengthy series of sleight-of-hand murder plots along similar lines. In fact, it’s comfortably the most channelled plot in crime fiction and films, although perhaps ‘the most ripped-off’ plot might be a less charitable but more on-the-nose description. Two years later, the novel From Among the Dead/Cold Sweat was filmed as Vertigo by Hitchcock, but the director famously revealed Boileau & Narcejac’s major plot twists halfway through the film, stating that he was more interested in the psychology of voyeurism and obsession than in merely deceiving the audience who, he calculated, would – in the context of a film – guess the novel’s carefully concealed dénouement.
A further eight novels by the duo received film or television treatment, and the writers were responsible for some remarkable screenplays themselves, such as Franju’s celebrated (and poetic) Les Yeux sans Visage ‘Eyes without a Face’ in 1959 and, a year later, the same director’s Pleins Feux sur l’Assassin. Their own expertise in the mechanics of thriller writing was matched by an impressive scholarship regarding the genre. Both men were acute critics of crime novels. But the question remains: why has their star faded in recent years? Perhaps it is the fact that the machine-tooled plotting was sometimes foregrounded at the expense of characterisation. The latter was always functional rather than organic – and the many imitations have retrospectively cast over their own work a perception that they themselves are mechanical in their manipulations of narrative. But many a less-accomplished writer has held the stage longer. It is perhaps time for a reappraisal of the extensive oeuvre of Boileau & Narcejac, including such economical thrillers as The Victims (1965)and The Evil Eye (1959).
Reviewed by Barry Forshaw
SHE WHO WAS NO MORE/LES DIABOLIQUES
Written by Boileau-Narcejac
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Sainsbury
Published by Pushkin Vertigo (2015)
Barry Forshaw’s books include Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, the Keating Award-winning Brit Noir and Nordic Noir. Other work: Death in a Cold Climate, Sex and Film and the British Crime Writing encyclopedia (also a Keating Award winner). He edits Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk).
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of BLACK WATER LILIES by Michel Bussi
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of THE BOOK OF MIRRORS by E.O. Chirovici
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of THE SLEEPING CAR MURDER by Sébastien Japrisot
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of ALEX by Pierre Lemaitre
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of THE TREE EVANGELISTS by Fred Vargas
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of THE HIDDEN CHILD by Camilla Lackberg
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST by Åsa Larsson
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of FACELESS KILLERS by Henning Mankell
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of SISTER by Kjell Ola Dahl
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of VICTIM 2117 by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of LAZARUS by Lars Kepler
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of MEXICO STREET by Simone Buchholz
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of THE ROCK BLASTER by Henning Mankell
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of AFTER SHE’S GONE by Camilla Grebe
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of THE REUNION by Guillaume Musso
Read Barry Forshaw’s #RivetingReview of KILL THE ANGEL by Sandrone Dazieri