Robert Bloch: Psycho

psycho_ebookMary nodded to herself, resisting the impulse to close her eyes, and then jerked erect, scanning the side of the road through the blur of rainswept darkness. That’s when she saw the sign, set beside the driveway which led to the small building off on the side. MOTEL – VACANCY. The sign was unlit, but maybe they’d forgotten to switch it on, just as she’d forgotten to put on her headlights when the night suddenly descended.

This month at Past Offences we have been reading and watching crime fiction and film from 1959. I’m sneaking my review just under the wire…

At the urging of regular player Brad I downloaded Robert Bloch’s Psycho, inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film version and that famous shower scene with Janet Leigh.

If you haven’t seen the film or read the book: Small-town girl Mary Crane has spent most of her adult life caring for her sick mother, taking a dead-end office job to put her little sister Lila through College. A long-distance love affair with hardware-store owner Sam Loomis offers a light at the end of the tunnel, but honest Sam won’t marry until he has paid off his father’s debts. One day Mary snaps and steals forty thousand dollars from her office, with the intention of paying off Sam’s debts and starting a new life in his home town Fairvale. She gets a little lost on the way to Fairvale and has to find a motel to stay the night. The Bates Motel is run by a lonely guy called Norman Bates, living very much in the shadow of his mother, who takes a shine to Mary.

I rewatched Hitchcock’s Psycho some time last year so it is relatively fresh in my mind (it is even fresher in Brad’s – he watched it last month). You won’t get much from the book that isn’t in the film, and vice versa. The film is very true to Bloch’s text, almost scene-for-scene, although I think the order has been shuffled slightly.


Bates Motel Set at Universal Studios, Hollywood, California (c) I P Singh

In Bloch’s novel, Mary’s theft of the forty thousand dollars is handled in flashback, but Hitchcock gives it more immediacy, which I think works better. On the other hand, I think the book actually handles the central conceit slightly better and Bloch is able to hold back from the big reveal a little longer.

Granted, it wasn’t the healthiest situation in the world. Being Mother’s little boy had its drawbacks.

An interesting difference is the description of Norman Bates in the book with the gangling, boyishly handsome Bates as portrayed by Anthony Perkins.

The light shone down on his plump face, reflected from his rimless glasses, bathed the pinkness of his scalp beneath the thinning sandy hair as he bent his head to resume reading.

I think Hitchcock got this right. My sense in the film was that Mary might be able to save Bates from his situation, even the possibility of romance. That impression adds a little something to the scenes where Bates and Mary are getting to know each other.

‘That’s all right.’ His voice was faint. ‘I – I’ve never married. Mother was – funny – about those things. I – I’ve never even sat at a table with a girl like this before.’
‘But —’
‘Sounds odd, doesn’t it, in this day and age? I know that. But it has to be. I tell myself that she’d be lost without me, now – maybe the real truth is that I’d be even more lost without her.’

Romance is emphatically not on the cards, however. Mrs Bates is far too possessive.

Robert Bloch
First published in the US by Simon & Schuster, 1957
This edition The Murder Room (Orion) 2014
Source: Amazon

See also:

ahsweetmysteryblog: Some have assumed that novelist Robert Bloch adapted the story of Gein’s murder spree to create his novel Psycho because Bloch was actually living only 35 miles or so away from Gein when he decided to write the story about what might happen if the small town boy next door turned out to be a deranged killer. He was almost finished with the novel when Gein was arrested and his crimes exposed; seeing the similarities between Gein and his own fictional killer, Bloch went so far as to refer to Gein toward the end of his novel.

RogerBW’s blog: Horror writers of the 1940s and 1950s seem to have been at a bit of a loss as to what to do next; Jamesian ghost stories and “a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill” may have seemed like weak tea to men who’d been to or read about Burma or Auschwitz. At least that seems to me a good reason for the wholesale shift from supernatural horror to things one might actually meet, horror generated from people. In Bloch’s own case, “By the mid-1940s, I had pretty well mined the vein of ordinary supernatural themes until it had become varicose […] I realized, as a result of what went on during World War II and of reading the more widely disseminated work in psychology, that the real horror is not in the shadows, but in that twisted little world inside our own skulls.”


About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Classic crime round-up, Classic mystery book review, Crime fiction of the year challenge, Crimes of the Century, Film/movie, Suspense, Thriller, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Robert Bloch: Psycho

  1. I think you may have Lawrence Block on your mind at the top of this piece. Either way, great choice for 1959 Rich 😎


  2. RogerBW says:

    The thing Hitchcock dropped completely was any view into Norman’s mind. That works better in film, but I prefer Bloch’s approach of giving more information but still keeping key things in doubt.


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