Obituary: Thomas Narcejac

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AN ENTERTAINING subject for a graduate thesis would be the development of literary and artistic symbiosis, the phenomenon of writers and artists working in tandem.

In Britain we have the two Gilberts, one with Sullivan, the other with George. Sweden gave us the outstanding thriller writers May Sjowall and Per Wahloo. From Argentina come Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares who, as Honorio Bustos Domecq, invented the puzzle-solver Isidro Parodi. Nor should we forget the bicephalous buddies of Japanese manga comics, Hiroshi Fujimoto and the Pollux to his Castor, Motoo Abiko, over 30 years in harness under the joint name of Fujio-Fujiko. The comical Italians Fruttero and Lucenti ("Fruit and Nuts" to their British fans) are great exponents of umorismo in their deadly pot-shots at Italian bourgeois stereotypes. They even collaborated with Charles Dickens and a whole slew of literary detectives in a detailed, scholarly investigation of the unfinished text of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a many-handed masterpiece, and the best of all the "solutions" so far presented.

In post-war France, the thriller team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac led the field, both in quantity and quality, of this distinguished fraternity of partners in crime. After Georges Simenon, they were the most popular exponents of the roman noir in France, and their fame soon spread throughout Europe and the rest of the civilised world.They published 43 novels, a hundred or so short stories and four plays. In the Sixties, I worked as a literary translator for the English edition of the Paris review Realites and translated several of their short stories, a most enjoyable task, for their style is elegant, precise and witty. Narcejac was the literary half of the team, Boileau the genius of the diabolically intricate plots.

Narcejac was a graduate in literature and philosophy from the Faculte des Lettres in the Sorbonne. After spells of provincial school teaching, he began his literary career in 1946 and published his first novel, La Mort est du voyage ("Death on Tour") in 1948. He met Boileau when he was awarded the Prix du Roman d'Aventure for this novel, a distinction the older Boileau had received 10 years earlier for his Le Repos de Bacchus. They discovered a common interest in the detective novel.

Narcejac had already published a scholarly work on the subject, L'Esthetique du roman policier, in 1947. In their youth, both had devoured the works of Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, W.W. Jacobs, the great Algernon Blackwood and Maurice Leblanc, creator of the classic French detective Arsene Lupin, whose adventures they were to parody in a popular series beginning in 1973. The title of a later philosophical work by Narcejac, Un machine a lire: le roman policier ("A Machine for Reading: the detective story"), well sums up their approach to their ambivert art.

However, they were confronted by an invasion of American thriller writers - Chandler, Hammett, Goodis among them, and were determined to challenge this new wave by introducing crime fiction far removed from the "locked room" enigma-type tale, in works that became known as suspense a la francaise. They started off under a joint pseudonym, an anagrammatical scramble of their surnames, Alain Bouccareje, with their first collaborative work, L'Ombre et la proie ("The Shadow and the Prey", 1950). They abandoned that grotesque pen name in favour of their real names for Celle qui n'etait plus (1952), translated under the ridiculous title of The Woman Who Was (1954). Hitchcock wanted to film it, but Henri-Georges Clouzot won the rights and made the great classic Les Diaboliques with Simone Signoret and his wife Vera Clouzot. It was the first of many films that were made from the French team's thrillers.

Hitchcock got his revenge by making Vertigo (1958) with James Stewart and Kim Novak, billed in France as Sueurs Froides ("Cold Sweats" - a title that evokes to perfection the general tone of the novels). Hitch adapted his masterpiece from the 1954 novel D'entre les morts, translated in 1956 as The Living and the Dead. Les Louvres (1955) was filmed in 1957 by Luis Saslavsky, starring Micheline Presle and Jeanne Moreau. Les Diaboliques suffered a remake in 1996 by Jeremiah Cechik with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani. Narcejac collaborated on all these filmscripts. But not on the last-named.

Even the best of friends must part, and so must literary twins. Pierre Boileau died in 1989, after composing with Narcejac their four-handed memoirs, the diverting Tandem ou trent-cinq ans de suspense (1986). In such long-lived artistic partnerships, when one of the pair dies, the other stops writing, as if overcome by grief and by the impossibility of ever finding a comparable replacement. Their last collaboration was, significantly, J'ai ete un fantome (1989).

Perhaps to help him occupy his solitude, Narcejac went on writing and produced what were naturally his most "individual" works: Le Bonsai (1990), Le Soleil dans la main (1990), and the exquisite La Main passe (1991), which is representative of all his gifts of playful logic, the marvellous, the macabre and the fantastic. He spent the last years practising his favourite hobby, fly fishing, the ideal occupation for a literary widower.

Pierre Ayraud (Thomas Narcejac), writer and dramatist: born Rochefort- sur-Mer (Charente-Maritime), France 3 July 1908; twice married (two daughters); died Nice, France 10 June 1998.