Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac Critical Essays

Pierre Boileau, Pierre Ayraud


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The novels of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac deal with the subject of appearances. Their main characters discover the validity of the old saying, “Things are not as they appear.” Frequently, their tales of suspense and intrigue proceed in a murky, unreal atmosphere characterized by heavy fog or creeping darkness at twilight. Characters deceived in one way or another by people whom they have trusted stumble alone through the half-lit scene symbolizing moral ambiguity and their lack of vision. Here, in this foggy place, people listen only to inner, selfish directives, abandoning both reason and decency in the process.

Generally these characters are weak individuals who lead aimless, unhappy lives, starved of meaning and romantic fulfillment. Their lives bear a notable resemblance to the empty, absurd lives led in the existentialist novels of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Puppets of fate, these characters lack inner direction, and lacking direction, they frantically grasp at straws, looking for some form of secular salvation. Love often is the most appealing form of salvation they seek: they believe that it will carry them to a place far from their boring lives.

Boileau and Narcejac offer painful portraits of normal individuals who become studies in abnormal psychology. Obsessed with an idea or a particular person, these characters gradually create a realm all their own. These private worlds would not be destructive, were it not that they lead to danger and difficulties as well as, on occasion, death.

The Woman Who Was No More

Their fantasies become the stuff of murder mysteries because their obsessions are not self-generated but rather have been created for them by others who can profit from them. In The Woman Who Was No More, for example, a character named Fernand Ravinel is monstrously tricked by his mistress, Lucienne, and his wife, Mireille, into killing himself and leaving Mireille a large amount of insurance money. Typically, the tale begins in a literal fog, this one having drifted into a French city from the sea. Accompanied by the ominous sound of a ship’s foghorn, Ravinel begins the most fateful day of his miserable life. The ship carries Mireille, whom he has promised to help murder.

The fog without is emblematic both of confusion within Ravinel’s mind and of the creeping evil enveloping his soul. Given a sampler of his thoughts, the reader immediately realizes that Ravinel is a weak, selfish egotist with no redeeming qualities. Only an ordinary traveling salesman, he somehow manages to see himself as a man wronged by a wife who cannot comprehend his greatness.

Tension builds as Ravinel talks to Lucienne about the coming murder; they will commit it together to receive money from the insurance policy Mireille recently took out when Ravinel bought his policy. Lucienne, being the stronger and more intelligent of the two, takes the lead and forces Ravinel to stick with his assigned role. Nevertheless, he cannot stop thinking about the woman whom he is about to kill and about some of the things she has done for him.

The two killers administer a sedative to the unsuspecting Mireille and then drown her in a bathtub. Initially, Ravinel denies to himself that he has done anything wrong; he numbly helps Lucienne get rid of the corpse, but he cannot stop his memories of his wife.

Brilliantly, Boileau and Narcejac allow scenes from Ravinel’s past life to rise ghostlike from deep inside Ravinel’s unconscious mind; her image begins to haunt him, giving him no peace. Almost as quickly as Ravinel finds a way to justify the crime, another vision of Mireille floods his imagination, driving him toward a nervous breakdown. The existentialist Ravinel is not troubled by fears of having offended God; rather, he has to admit to himself that life seems unrewarding and unpleasant. Nevertheless, he cannot place the blame on himself, where it really belongs. There is no self-recognition in his disordered mind, only self-pity and fear. The more he thinks, the more frightened he becomes of being discovered and seen as a common murderer.

He creates elaborate rationalizations. He blames Mireille and Lucienne, not himself, for any lack of ardor in their relations. The murder, he...

(The entire section is 1756 words.)