Being a man was too difficult.

She Who Was No More, by Boileau-Narcejac and translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

A year or so back I saw Clouzot’s superb Les Diaboliques, a film which beats Hitchcock at his own game. What I didn’t know then is that it’s based on this novel, by writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who also wrote the novel Vertigo was based on.

The plot of Les Diaboliques is pretty well-known now, despite the film famously having a plea before the end credits asking audiences not to spoil the ending for others. Just in case anyone reading this doesn’t know it though I’ll avoid spoilers here. Boileau-Narcejac meant the reader to be uncertain what was going on and if you get the chance to read this cold I suspect it’ll be much more effective.

SheWhoWasNoMore

I love these Pushkin Vertigo covers.

Ravinel is a travelling salesman. He sells fishing gear, and is so good at making artificial lures that there’s an entire page in his company’s brochure dedicated solely to his creations. It’s the only thing he’s good at.

Ravinel is married to the pretty and pleasant Mireille. There’s no great reason they shouldn’t be happy enough, save for their doctor Lucienne who’s having an affair with Ravinel and has persuaded him to kill Mireille for the insurance money. Ravinel is too weak to say no or to ask why he’s planning to kill a perfectly decent woman at the behest of another he doesn’t even particularly like.

Lucienne is the driving force here. She’s cold, ambitious and greedy. When Ravinel has sex with her it’s hasty and functional. He has a poor heart and afterwards she often checks how his pulse is faring. Personally I’d find that a little off-putting. There’s little sense she loves Ravinel.

The plan is a simple one. Ravinel and Lucienne drown Mireille in a bathtub then place the body in a lavoir, an outdoor wash-hut, so that it’ll look like she had an accident. The next day Ravinel will come home and discover her there. After a suitable period of grieving he’ll claim the insurance and he and Lucienne will go off into the sunset.

Lucienne does all the hard work. All Ravinel has to do is drug a decanter Mireille drinks from so that she passes out. After that it’s Lucienne who has to push her down into a bath, load weights on her chest to keep her under, make sure she’s dead and then wrap the body in a rug for transportation. Ravinel doesn’t even have the strength to admit what they’ve done let alone do it himself.

It wasn’t he, Ravinel, who was guilty. No one was. Mireille had drunk a soporific. A bathtub was filling up. That was all. There was nothing terrible about it, and nothing which had anything to do with crime.

The murder comes off. The next part is down to Ravinel. He has to discover the body and he has to do so without Lucienne as if she’s there it’ll raise suspicion. The problem is, when it comes time to discover the body it’s gone missing. Left trying to explain the inexplicable Ravinel’s mind begins to unravel. The structure of the lavoir means it couldn’t have washed away, but there’s no reason for anyone to have stolen it and it could hardly have wandered off on its own…

As theory after theory passed through his mind, he became once more overwhelmed by a sensation of helplessness. After a while he decided that the body hadn’t been stolen after all. But it wasn’t there. So it must have been. But nobody could possibly want to steal it… And so it went on, round and round in a circle. Ravinel felt a little pain beneath his left temple and rubbed the spot. No question of his falling ill at this juncture. He simply hadn’t the right to! But what was he to do, Bon Dieu, what was he to do?

It gets a lot worse, a lot more puzzling, from there.

She Who Was is very much a novel of psychological suspense. It’s an intensely moody book, with noirish lines like “she lifted her little veil, in which raindrops had been caught as in a spider’s web.” Ravinel though is the one caught. Boileau-Narcejac fill the book with fog, thickly but effectively laying on the atmosphere. The fog lies so heavy that Ravinel can barely drive his car or find his way down the street, but it’s the fog in his head he’s really lost in.

She Who Was clocks in at a little under 200 pages making it a concentrated café noir of a book. Ravinelle is weak and confused and Lucienne’s not the sort you’d look to for comfort. She practically bullies Ravinel into murder and he never has the wit to question what his fate is likely to be once they’re married and she’s set to inherit all that insurance money. There are also hints that he might not be the only one she had an affair with – when he looks at photos of a holiday he and Mireille took with Lucienne all the photos are of the two women happy together, none are of him. Mireille’s body isn’t the only thing Ravinel can’t see.

There’s no denying that She Who Was would be a stronger book if you don’t know what’s actually going on, which I did. The ideal reader would be as lost in the fog as Ravinel himself, only emerging from it as he does. It’s still effective even so and features a particularly chilling final line which ties the book up as neatly and disturbingly as one might wish.

Other reviews

Guy Savage reviewed this at His Futile Preoccupations here as effectively as ever and there’s a very good review at the Pretty Sinister blog here that goes into a lot more plot elements than either Guy or I do (if you know the movie there’s no spoilers, if you don’t you might prefer to read that review after). My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo is here.

 

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8 Comments

Filed under Boileau-Narcejac, Crime Fiction, French Literature, Pushkin Vertigo

8 responses to “Being a man was too difficult.

  1. Thanks for the mention. I was delighted to see this as part of the new Vertigo imprint as it certainly meets the criteria set forth in the imprint foreword.

    The book also brought up the point, one I’ve often puzzled over, why exactly you’d trust someone who could cold bloodedly plan the murder of another?….

  2. Great review Max – as I have never seen the film and don’t know the plot, I’m obviously the ideal reader for this and I’ll definitely look out for it!

  3. The film is one of my favourites, has been for a while, all of which means I’m pretty familiar with the plot. Sounds like it might be a good idea for me to leave this one for a while, at least until such time that my memories of the ending have faded somewhat.

    They were quite prolific on the screenwriting front this pair. Have you seen Franju’s ‘horror’ film, Eyes Without a Face? Another classic, hugely influential even in today’s times. They worked on the screenplay back in the day.

  4. Pingback: Vertigo – Boileau & Narcejac trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury  | A Fiction Habit

  5. It’s a good point Guy, and one this book definitely brings out. After all, they were prepared to kill once, which by definition makes them not the kind of person you probably want to put your life in the hands of.

    It is exactly the sort of thing I look to the Vertigo imprint for myself too, agreed.

    Kaggsy, you are, so you should!

    Jacqui, not yet re Eyes, but I have it and plan to. I doubt the ending will ever fade enough for you not to recognise the major plot notes here, but there are changes too not least the gender of some of the characters. It’s definitely still worth a read since I remember the film pretty clearly but there’s enough departures for the book still to be worthwhile.

  6. Pingback: The dead man had been killed by a shot from a revolver. So what was the prussic acid doing there? | Pechorin's Journal

  7. After reading all these Boileau-Narcejac reviews, I’ll really have to find French copies of their books. Same with Guy’s reviews of Frédéric Dard’s book.

    Guy asks a good question. Same as: how can you trust someone to be faithful to you if they’ve been cheating on their previous partner with you?

  8. They are fun, and quick too. Handy for when you’re busy (as we both presently are I think).

    And yes, it is a good question.

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