She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

A study of evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Fernand Ravinel is a travelling salesman, often away from the home he shares with his wife, Mireille. This makes it easy for him to spend time with his lover, Lucienne. But, in time, the pair decide this isn’t enough – that Mireille has to be got rid of. And so they set out to murder her. Their plot at first looks like it’s going to be successful, but then a strange thing happens, and gradually everything starts to go wrong… and as it does so, Fernand’s mind begins to unravel.

This book comes with a request from the authors for readers to tell nothing about the plot so as not to spoil it for other readers, so I’ve restricted my little introduction to slightly less than is given in the publisher’s blurb. In essence, the book concentrates on Ravinel’s state of mind, showing how guilt and remorse soon knock him off his emotional balance, sending him on a spiral into delusion, depression and finally threatening even his sanity. But there’s also a mystery element that stops this being a simple character study – something strange is happening and, while Ravinel in his delusional state is willing to consider a supernatural element, the reader is left looking for a rational explanation.

Narcejac and Boileau

Unsurprisingly in a man who is plotting to murder his wife, Ravinel is not a sympathetic character. He’s self-obsessed, rather cold emotionally, seeming unable to truly love either of the women in his life, and he’s something of a hypochondriac. But although this makes it pretty much impossible to empathise with him, it still leaves him as a fascinating subject for a character study. Boileau-Narcejac use his weaknesses and character flaws brilliantly to create a compelling picture of a man driven to the edge of insanity. They are the authors who wrote Vertigo on which the Hitchcock film is based, and there are some similarities between the books. Both blur the line between villain and victim, concentrating on the effects on the central character’s mind as he is drawn into a plot that spirals out of his control, and both veer close to mild horror novel territory as he gradually loses his grip on reality. And both are dark, indeed.

For me, this one isn’t quite as strong as Vertigo. Mainly, this is because the solution seems pretty obvious from fairly early on which takes away some of the suspense. It still leaves it an intriguing and enjoyable read though, partly because it’s so well written and partly because it’s less clear how the story will be allowed to play out. As strange events lead Ravinel to become more disturbed, there’s a truly chilling effect – it’s easy to understand why he is so badly affected by them. Both the Boileau-Narcejac books I’ve read have been fundamentally about evil, but they seem to see weakness of character as an integral part of that evil, so that the books are less about the incidents and more about the psychological impact they have on the perpetrator.

I trust I’ve been vague enough to suit the authors and if you’re now wondering what on earth this review is going on about, I can only suggest you read the book! It has also been made into a film more than once, but the consensus seems to favour the 1955 Clouzot version, Les Diaboliques, which I am now looking forward to watching…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 12 of 90

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….With relatively few exceptions, they [Golden Age crime writers] came from well-to-do families, and were educated at public school; many went to Oxford or Cambridge. . . .
….Theirs was, in many ways, a small and elitist world, and this helps to explain why classic crime novels often include phonetic renditions of the dialogue of working-class people which make modern readers cringe. Some of the attitudes evident and implicit in the books of highly educated authors, for instance as regards Jewish and gay people, would be unacceptable in fiction written in the twenty-first century. It is worth remembering that theirs was not only a tiny world, but also a very different one from ours, and one of the pleasures of reading classic crime is that it affords an insight into the Britain of the past, a country in some respects scarcely recognisable today.

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….It had to finish like this. Sooner or later he had been bound to discover what was concealed from other beings – that there was no real distinction between the living and the dead. It’s only because of the coarseness of our perception that we imagine the dead elsewhere, in some other world. Not a bit of it. The dead are with us here, mixed up in our lives and meddling with them…. They speak to us with shadowy mouths; they write with hands of smoke. Ordinary people, of course, don’t notice. They’re too preoccupied with their own affairs. To perceive these things you’ve got to have been incompletely born and thus only half involved in this noisy, colourful, flamboyant world…

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….When we reached the crest of the steep winding brae leading into it, the smoke from the straw chimneys was the only visible sign of life. Otherwise one might have imagined that some terrible scourge had made an end to all the inhabitants and no one had come near the clachan since from a superstitious dread.
….Green hill rising behind green hill – they raised in me a brooding, inherent melancholy. I felt this place had lived through everything, had seen everything, that it was saturated with memories and legends. I thought of it submerged under the sea, of the ocean receding farther and farther from it; of glaciers creeping down the mountains, forming the glens and ravines; of the mountains as spent volcanoes covered by the impenetrable Caledonian forest. And now there was nothing more for it to know and it was waiting for the clap of doom.

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….“There is so much lying going on around that I could scream. All my friends, all my acquaintances, people whom earlier I never would have thought of as liars, are now uttering falsehoods at every turn. They cannot help but lie; they cannot help but add to their own lies, their own flourishes to the well-known falsehoods. And they all do so from an agonising need that everything be just as they so fiercely desire.”

Ivan Bunin quoted in Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths

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….“No one’s going to harm a hair on my precious uncle’s head. He’s safe enough. He’ll always be safe – safe and smug and prosperous and full of platitudes. He’s just a stodgy John Bull, that’s what he is, without an ounce of imagination or vision.” She paused, then, her agreeable husky voice deepening, she said venomously, “I loathe the sight of you, you bloody little bourgeois detective.”
….She swept away from him in a swirl of expensive, model drapery. Hercule Poirot remained, his eyes very wide open, his eyebrows raised, and his hand thoughtfully caressing his moustaches. The epithet ‘bourgeois’ was, he admitted, well applied to him. His outlook on life was essentially bourgeois and always had been. But the employment of it as an epithet of contempt by the exquisitely turned out Jane Olivera gave him, as he expressed it to himself, furiously to think.

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 124…

Episode 124…

Oh, my! The TBR has reached 199 – will I be able to reduce it before any other book arrives to tip me over the 200 cliff? It’s partly the tennis, but mainly it’s all these Russian books, fact and fiction. There seems to be something about Russia that makes every book massive. When you start looking forward to books about mathematicians as light relief, then you know there’s something wrong! On the upside, I haven’t requested any review copies at all in June so far – isn’t that impressive? Admittedly I also haven’t finished any, meaning the total of outstanding books for review is still 35…

Gratuitous pic of the best clay court player in the history of the universe…

Back to books! Here are a few more that I hope to get to soonish, including three of my 20 Books of Summer

Crime

This has been on my TBR ever since I read and enjoyed Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo back in September ’15. Given that it’s only novella length, I should really have been able to fit it in before now…

The Blurb says: Every Saturday evening, travelling salesman Fernand Ravinel returns to his wife, Mireille, who waits patiently for him at home. But Ferdinand has another lover, Lucienne, an ambitious doctor, and together the adulterers have devised a murderous plan. Drugging Mireille, the pair drown her in a bathtub, but in the morning, before the “accidental” death can be discovered, the corpse is gone–so begins the unraveling of Ferdinand’s plot, and his sanity…

This classic of French noir fiction was adapted for the screen by Henri-Georges Clouzot as Les Diaboliques (The Devils), starring Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot, the film which in turn inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

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Factual

Courtesy of the publisher, the British Library. The book is actually to accompany an exhibition they’re holding about the Revolution which I won’t be able to attend. But the book itself sounds interesting, and at first glance looks very well illustrated. It doesn’t look it from the cover photo but it’s actually a largish, coffee-table book in terms of style, though the contents look far from superficial…

 The Blurb says: One hundred years ago events in Russia took the world by storm. In February 1917, in the middle of World War I and following months of protest and political unrest, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. Later that year a new political force, the socialist Bolshevik Party, seized power under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. A bloody civil war and period of extraordinary hardship for Russians finally led to the establishment of the Soviet Union. This book accompanies a major exhibition that re-examines the Russian Revolution in light of recent research, focusing on the experiences of ordinary Russians living through extraordinary times. The Revolution was not a single event but a complex process of dramatic change. The story of the Revolution is told here through posters, maps, postcards, letters, newspapers and literature, photographs and personal accounts. Leading experts on Russian history reveal the Revolution as a utopian project that had traumatic consequences for people across Russia and beyond.

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Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I must say that early reviews of this one have dampened my enthusiasm considerably. Unlike the blurb which makes it sound balanced and nuanced, reviews seem to suggest it’s actually another of the great Indian misery novels – you know, the ones that suggest everything about life there is horrible and hopeless. If so, I imagine it will quickly be thrown at the wall as my tolerance for these books lessens each time I read one. But we’ll see…

The Blurb says: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness transports us across a subcontinent on a journey of many years. It takes us deep into the lives of its gloriously rendered characters, each of them in search of a place of safety – in search of meaning, and of love.

In a graveyard outside the walls of Old Delhi, a resident unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet. On a concrete sidewalk, a baby suddenly appears, just after midnight. In a snowy valley, a bereaved father writes a letter to his five-year-old daughter about the people who came to her funeral. In a second-floor apartment, a lone woman chain-smokes as she reads through her old notebooks. At the Jannat Guest House, two people who have known each other all their lives sleep with their arms wrapped around each other, as though they have just met.

A braided narrative of astonishing force and originality, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at once a love story and a provocation-a novel as inventive as it is emotionally engaging. It is told with a whisper, in a shout, through joyous tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Its heroes, both present and departed, have been broken by the world we live in-and then mended by love. For this reason, they will never surrender.

Humane and sensuous, beautifully told, this extraordinary novel demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley again, and yet another that I was tempted to go for by Cleo’s great review. This sounds fascinating, especially since people in Glasgow still talked about Peter Manuel as a kind of bogeyman when I was growing up, even though he was hanged before I was born…

The Blurb says: A standalone psychological thriller from the acclaimed author of the Alex Morrow novels that exposes the dark hearts of the guilty…and the innocent.

The “trial of the century” in 1950’s Glasgow is over. Peter Manuel has been found guilty of a string of murders and is waiting to die by hanging. But every good crime story has a beginning. Manuel’s starts with the murder of William Watt’s family. Looking no further that Watt himself, the police are convinced he’s guilty. Desperate to clear his name, Watt turns to Manuel, a career criminal who claims to have information that will finger the real killer. As Watt seeks justice with the cagey Manuel’s help, everyone the pair meets has blood on their hands as they sell their version of the truth. The Long Drop is an explosive novel about guilt, innocence and the power of a good story to hide the difference.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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FictionFan Awards 2015 – Crime Fiction/Thrillers

A round of applause please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

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All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

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There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

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…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

THE PRIZES

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For the winners!

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I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

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Nothing!

THE JUDGES

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Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

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Despite the fact that I’ve grown more and more unenamoured with a lot of contemporary crime, I’ve still had lots of good reads this year, though on looking back several of them are reissues of older books or have taken a slightly quirky approach. But simply because I read more crime than any other genre, this is still the section that is hardest to decide. So because the choice was so hard, I’ve decided also to list the nominees that didn’t quite make it into the final list. All of these books were great reads, and I look forward to reading more from each of these authors in the future.

NOMINEES

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the voices beyondThe Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin

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Young Jonas is spending the summer on the island of Öland at the resort owned by his family, the Klosses. One night, he takes his dingy out onto the sea. Drifting in the darkness, a sudden shaft of moonlight shows a boat approaching and he doesn’t have time to get out of the way. He manages to climb aboard the boat before his dingy is sunk, but what awaits him there is the stuff of nightmares – dying men (or are they already dead?) on the deck stalking towards him and calling out in a language he doesn’t understand. This brilliantly atmospheric opening sets the tone for a book that combines a mystery in the present day with a story that takes us back to the USSR in the days of Stalin. Plot, writing, research, characterisation – all top quality, and it finishes off as atmospherically as it began. A great read – frankly, this could easily have been the winner.

Click to see the full review

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the zig-zag girlThe Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

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Set in Brighton post-WW2, this is a great start to a new series from the author of the Ruth Galloway series. Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto served in a secret unit known as the “Magic Men” during the war. Now Edgar is a police detective and Max has gone back to his profession as a stage magician. When a dismembered corpse turns up, it has echoes of one of Max’s tricks, and as Edgar investigates it appears the solution may lie in their wartime past. Both place and time are done very well, with the shadow of the war still hanging over the characters and the world they inhabit. With an intriguing, complex plot, an interesting slant on a unique (and not entirely fictional) aspect of the war, some very enjoyable humour and a touch of romance, this is a great mystery of the traditional kind. And best of all, unlike the Ruth books, it’s written in the past tense.

Click to see the full review

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vertigoVertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

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As Paris waits uneasily for war to begin, Roger Flavières is approached by an old college friend, Gévigne, who puts an odd proposition to him. Gévigne is concerned about his wife, Madeleine. She has been lapsing into odd silences, almost trances, and seems bewildered when she comes out of them. Gévigne knows she’s been going out during the afternoons but she says she hasn’t – either she is lying, which Gévigne doesn’t believe, or she has forgotten. Gévigne wants Flavières to follow her, partly to find out what she’s doing and partly to make sure she is safe. This is, of course, the book on which the Hitchcock film was based and, for once, despite my love for all things Hitchcock, on this occasion I think the book is better. Hitchcock’s decision to elevate the importance of the vertigo aspects, as opposed to the book’s study of the effects of obsession on an already weak mind, somehow makes his Ferguson a less complex and intriguing character than Boileau-Narcejac’s Flavières. And the ending of the book is much more satisfying than that of the film. An excellent read.

Click to see the full review

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you zoran drvenkarYou by Zoran Drvenkar

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Back in 1995, a massive snowstorm brought traffic to a halt on the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. As people huddled in their cars overnight, trying to keep warm, The Traveler stepped out of his vehicle and worked his way along the line of cars, murdering the people inside. By the time the snowploughs got through, twenty-six people were dead and there was no trace of The Traveler. In the present day, Ragnar Desche has found the frozen body of his brother Oskar and is out to get revenge against whoever killed him and stole the massive stash of heroin he was keeping for Ragnar. And four teenage girls are worrying about the fifth member of their little clique who has been missing for nearly a week… This is a great book, written almost entirely in the second person through the eyes of each of the huge cast of characters in turn. Drvenkar handles this unusual technique superbly, forcing me to identify with each of them, however unlikely. It’s noir dark shot through with just enough gleams of light to keep it bearable, pacey and tense, grim and disturbing, no punches pulled – and quite stunning. I’m still not completely sure it shouldn’t be the winner…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

 

lamentation

Lamentation by C.J. Sansom

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It is 1546, and an increasingly ailing Henry VIII has swung back to the traditionalist wing of the church – in fact, some fear he might be about to make amends with the Pope and take the country back to Catholicism. The constant shifts in what is seen as acceptable doctrine have left many sects, once tolerated, now at risk of being accused of heresy. And, as the story begins, Anne Askew and three other heretics are about to be burned at the stake for preaching radical Protestantism. At this dangerous time, Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book, Lamentations of a Sinner, describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. And when a torn page turns up in the dead hand of a murdered printer, it’s clear some people will stop at nothing to get hold of the book…

I have long held that Sansom is by far the best writer of historical fiction, certainly today, but perhaps ever; and I’m delighted to say that this book is, in my opinion, his best to date. A huge brick of a book, coming in at over 600 pages, and yet at no point does it flag. Like the earlier books, this one is completely immersive – the length of it is matched by its depth. The fictional aspect is woven seamlessly into fact, and the characters and actions of the real people who appear in the novel are consistent with what we know of them through the history books. The combination of the personal and the political is perfectly balanced, and Sansom never fails to take the consequences of events of previous books through to the next, meaning that the recurring characters continue to develop more deeply in each one. There’s always a long wait between Shardlake novels, but they are invariably worth waiting for. And as England moves on to dealing with the aftermath of Henry’s death, I very much hope that Shardlake will be there to lead us through it…

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Literary Fiction Award

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

vertigoFrom among the dead…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Paris waits uneasily for war to begin, Roger Flavières is approached by an old college friend, Gévigne, who puts an odd proposition to him. Gévigne is concerned about his wife, Madeleine. She has been lapsing into odd silences, almost trances, and seems bewildered when she comes out of them. Gévigne knows she’s been going out during the afternoons but she says she hasn’t – either she is lying, which Gévigne doesn’t believe, or she has forgotten. Gévigne wants Flavières to follow her, partly to find out what she’s doing and partly to make sure she is safe. Flavières assumes she is having an affair, but eventually agrees to Gévigne’s request. But a few days later, Madeleine steps quietly into the river and Flavières has to rescue her – a meeting that leads to him developing a strange obsession for her, which he calls love.

This is, of course, the book on which the famous Hitchcock film is based, a film I have always admired more than enjoyed, partly because I’m not a huge fan of Kim Novak. The plot is very similar to the book, though Hitchcock has changed the emphasis to make more of the vertigo aspect. Apparently the book was originally called D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead), and this is a much more apt title. Flavières does suffer from vertigo and this was the cause of him being indirectly responsible for the death of his partner when he worked for the police, and also provides a crucial plot point later on in the book. But the focus of the book is much more on the breakdown of Flavières’ hold on reality as he comes to believe that Madeleine has the ability to return, like Eurydice, from the dead.

Vertigo_1_rgb

The book is set in wartime, with the first section taking place in Paris just as the war is beginning and the second part four years later in Marseilles as it is heading towards its end. This gives a feeling of disruption and displacement which is entirely missing from the film, set as it is in peacetime America. It is impossible for Flavières to track Madeleine’s past because records have been destroyed, and people are constantly on the move, both physically and socially, as black marketeers and weapons manufacturers grow wealthy and those who can leave the parts of France most affected by war. Flavières failed the medical for the army, for reasons left deliberately rather vague, and feels he is despised by strangers who see an apparently fit man avoiding service.

Another major difference is that in the book Flavières is a loner – or, at least, alone. He appears to have no friends and gets no fulfilment from his job as a lawyer. In the film, Scottie Ferguson (the Flavières character) has a devoted friend in Midge Wood, and is an all-round decent chap, although guilt-ridden. Flavières is not a decent chap! He is a weak man, pitiable almost, whose obsession with Madeleine seems like an extension of an already unstable mental state rather than the cause of it. As the book progresses, he steadily disintegrates, and his behaviour becomes ever more disturbing and crueller towards Madeleine for not admitting to being who he thinks she is.

vertigo-alfred-hitchcock-865414_1024_768

The book is very well written, and well translated for the most part, although with an annoying tendency to leave some phrases untranslated, such as names of paintings or institutions, meaning I had to resort to Google from time to time to catch a nuance that a translation would have made clear. Apparently, according to the notes in the book, Boileau and Narcejac wanted to create a new style of mystery, away from the standard fare of whodunnits and hard-boileds, putting the victim at the centre of the plot. Boileau was responsible for coming up with the plots while Narcejac created the characterisations. In my view, a partnership that worked brilliantly – the plot of this is fiendishly complex, and Flavières’ character is a wonderful study of the effect of obsession on a weak mind. Overall I thought it was much darker than the film, mainly because Flavières may be a victim but there is no attempt to make him out as a good guy – an example of how to write an unlikeable character in such a way as to make him fascinating. The beginning is somewhat slow but I suspect that may be because I knew the plot from the film. As it begins to diverge in the second half I found it completely riveting as it drove inexorably towards its darkly satisfying ending.

Narcejac and Boileau
Narcejac and Boileau

Unusually for a Hitchcock film, I think the book actually delves more deeply into the psychology and makes it more credible. Hitchcock’s decision to elevate the importance of the vertigo aspects somehow makes his Ferguson a less complex and intriguing character than Boileau-Narcejac’s Flavières. And the ending of the book is much more satisfying than that of the film. For once, despite my abiding love for Mr Hitchcock, on this occasion the victory goes to the book!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link