Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s Vertigo

Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
First published in France as D’entre les morts, 1954
First published in the UK as The Living and the Dead, 1958
This edition: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 1997
ISBN: 9780747531876
170 pages
Source: M. & A. C. Thompson Books, Wymondham

As is obvious from the Saul Bass cover of this edition, this is the Vertigo (originally known as The Living and the Dead) which inspired the Alfred Hitchcock movie.

The Californian setting of Vertigo the movie is so familiar that it is a little jarring to find the original story was set in 1940s France. As the book opens, the French are still in the early, ‘phoney war’ phase of World War Two. The Germans have not yet invaded but France is gearing up for war, not that this the central character Flavières is paying much attention. Flavières, to be honest, pays very little attention to anything except himself. He is an ex-cop (he left after his crippling fear of heights caused the death of a colleague) and now a lawyer. He is one of the more self-absorbed heroes I have encountered. Vertigo contains page after page of this:

With his chin in his hands, he looked coldly at himself. What did he know about love, he who had never yet loved anybody? Of course he had hankered after it, like a poor wretch gazing into a shop-window; he had, so to speak, made passes at it. But there had always been between the good things of life and himself a sort of cold, hard obstacle.

Meanwhile, Gévigne, an important industrialist vital to France’s mobilisation, is troubled by the odd behaviour of his wife Madeleine. She has begun to go into trances.

‘She’s absent-minded, as though her body no longer belonged to her, as though she had become someone else. Oh, I know it’s ridiculous, but I can’t put it better than that: she’s someone else.

One of Madeleine’s ancestors was a woman named Pauline Lagerlac who had been prone to convulsions and visions before killing herself. Gévigne fears the same could happen to Madeleine and asks Flavières to look after his wife while he, Gévigne, looks after his business. Flavières almost immediately falls in love with the beautiful and mysterious Madeleine.

He had to admit, as he got into his car and slammed the door, that he had almost from the first regarded himself as Madeleine’s husband. Gévigne was only a usurper.

The two begin driving into the countryside around Paris, until they eventually find themselves outside a remote church tower… and so finishes part one of the book. If you know the film, the second part of the story follows roughly the same structure, although the ending is different.

In tone and content, this reminded me of a Simenon romans durs from 1953 called The Iron Staircase, also narrated by a neurotic man with issues about women. I found Flavières tiresome company, but the story has just enough mystery to keep you reading despite him. Still, a tough one to recommend.


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Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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11 Responses to Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s Vertigo

  1. Interesting comparison with the Simenon (which i have not read), so thanks for that Rich – the book is quite strange and the characters certainly unlikeable. I much prefer the film myself …


  2. I had no idea that the film was based on a book: very helpful and informative, Rich, though I will probably stick with the film.


  3. MarinaSofia says:

    I find the film in equal measure fascinating and impenetrable/infuriating, so I wonder how I would find this book, Have to try it!


  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I read the book long back and I liked it. Hence I am puzzled why you find it tough to recommend.
    As far as I remember, the basic narrative and plot of the book are similar to that of the film except the ending. The book’s ending is much darker. I,however,prefer the film’s ending, which seems more appropriate, a kind of poetic justice.


  5. realthog says:

    I tried this long ago, when I was maybe 20, and got nowhere with it. I really must give it another try, especially since it’s so short.


    • westwoodrich says:

      I read it during one – admittedly long – train journey, so it’s definitely something you can polish off quickly. And to be honest that’s how I felt about it: something to be polished off. Probably not the authors’ intent…


  6. John says:

    These guys write noir in the true sense of the word, not the co-opted kind of “noir” we get these days. You’re not going to find a lot of loveable people in any noir novel or story. They’re all selfish and avaricious and sex crazed. Doesn’t bother me to read dark crime novels populated with unlikeable characters as long as they are intriguing to me. I have read nearly all of the books translated into English by this writing duo and they are rather a hit and miss team. For my tastes their best book is one very few know or talk about.

    It’s called THE PRISONER. Originally published in France as Les Louves (The Wolves, or more specifically she-wolves) it’s the darkest and most pessimistic of their books; a true noir. There are some jaw dropping scenes of cruelty in the book and the twisty plot is revealed in a tautly suspenseful manner. It far surpasses any of their other books which to my mind have very slim plots and often wispy caricatures rather than fully realized characters. Someone should turn it into a movie and do it in English. It was filmed in France in 1957 and retained it’s original title but was renamed in the English version as — of all things — Demoniac. Makes it sound like a horror movie. I’ve been trying to locate it through the DVD underground and have been unsuccessful to date. Very eager to see how it was translated to film. It could be a stage play it’s so claustrophobic in its single setting. I think it’s a remarkable story and better than they story of Vertigo or even Les Diaboliques.

    My review of THE PRISONER is here:

    I have reviewed two other (very hard to find) books by Boileau-Narcejac: Face in the Dark and The Evil Eye. Both have strengths and weakness, but pale in comparison to THE PRISONER. Hard to believe the same duo wrote all three books.


  7. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have seen the French film Les Louves, but it is too dark for my taste. I prefer Vertigo.


  8. Boileau and Narcejac were fantastic writers, and I agree with John about The Prisoner, a terrific book. Who Was Claire Jallu? is also excellent.


  9. Pingback: September 2014: Pick of the month | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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