Invisible Ink: No 89 - Boileau and Narcejac

Here's an example of two good writers making one brilliant one. Pierre Boileau was born in Paris in 1906, while Pierre Ayraud, aka Thomas Narcejac, arrived two years later in Rochefort-Sur-Mer.

They were both winners of the prestigious Prix du Roman d'Aventures, awarded each year to the best crime novel, both loved locked-room mysteries, both came from seafaring families and admired the classic French adventures of Arsène Lupin and Fantômas. Boileau was the first to start writing, and when Narcejac wrote an analysis of his work, they began to correspond. Growing bored with the mechanics of traditional mysteries, they wanted to explore tension and character. So, two years later, they began writing together. They set out to create a new style, separate from English puzzle-mysteries and American violence, by building ironic situations where victims, often possible murderers themselves, were more interesting than detectives.

Like the Coen brothers, they developed a series of guidelines for their dramas, the key being that the hero should not be able to wake up from his nightmare. Hitchcock chased the rights for Les Diaboliques but failed to get hold of it and made Psycho instead. The story of a wife and mistress who set out to murder the headmaster who torments them was turned into a brilliant film with Simone Signoret, directed by Henri-Georges Cluzot.

Hitchcock enlisted the duo to adapt Vertigo for the screen. Their stories flirted with the fantastic and the macabre, erupting full-blown into the novel and film Les Yeux Sans Visage, with its haunting image of a woman in a china face, and gruesome monochrome scenes of surgery.

Again we have a 1960s Panther paperback to thank for bringing their brilliant black comedy Choice Cuts to the UK. It told the story of a surgeon who uses the body parts of a guillotined gunman to provide transplants, until the murderer's limbs decide to start reassembling themselves. It was filmed as Body Parts.

After this they changed tack completely, writing the "Sans Atout" books for younger readers, about a boy detective. Narcejac continued after his writing partner's death in 1989, and died nine years later. Their collection Forty Years Of Suspense was never published in English. As far as I can tell only two of their 76 works have been translated. It's staggering to think that when so much bad crime writing is published in the UK today, these award-winning seminal volumes still remain beyond reach.