We return to Barry Forshaw’s crime desk, where our expert delves into two of crime fiction’s key influencers, Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud (aka Thomas Narcejac), who wrote under the nom de plume Boileau-Narcejac.
Les Diaboliques: France’s deadly duo
Their influence on crime novels and cinema has been prodigious – so why isn’t the critical stock of Boileau and Narcejac higher?
When Alfred Hitchcock saw the effect Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques /The Fiends (1955) had on audiences, 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 the Les Diaboliques has subsequently been borrowed so often, it is now overfamiliar.
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 le Morts /From Among the Dead /The Living and the Dead (1954), and it was this book that provided the basis for one of the director’s supreme pre-Psycho masterpieces, Vertigo (1958), recently voted the best film of all time in a Sight & Sound magazine critics poll. While one might demur from that judgement, it’s a welcome turnaround from the unenthusiastic critical response 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 also wrote intelligent critical essays on the genre, along with a number of children’s stories. (While prowling les bouqinistes 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’; capably enough written, but frankly I was looking for something as good, and as adult, as Les Diaboliques.)
Voyeurism and obsession
Perhaps their most celebrated collaboration came in 1952 with Les Diaboliques, filmed (as mentioned above) two years later by Henri-Georges Clouzot, without the team’s collaboration, in which the corpse of a murdered husband 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 – though 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 and 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 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, admittedly, was always functional rather than organic – and the many imitations have retrospectively cast a perception over their own work 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 and Narcejac, including such economical thrillers as The Victims (1965) and The Evil Eye (1959).
Barry Forshaw’s latest books are Nordic Noir and British Gothic Cinema. He is also the author of British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia.