NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY by William Goldman

“What if there were two [Boston] stranglers, and one got jealous of the other?”

This was the germ for what would become William Goldman’s No Way to Treat a Lady, originally published in 1964 under the pseudonym ‘Harry Longbaugh’, the real name of the outlaw ‘The Sundance Kid’. Written in just 10 days this brief novel is 160 pages long and broken down into 53 chapters and is an exciting, blackly comic work reminiscent of the best of the Ed McBain thrillers of the time.

In his memoirs Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman vividly recalls how he suddenly found the idea for this novel following a brief report in a newspaper about the possibility that more than one individual was actually responsible for the series of crimes attributed to the ‘Boston Strangler’ (a theory that now seems increasingly likely in some quarters). Perhaps as a result there is a strong tabloid zest to the writing, which alternates third person narration with diary entries. These are further interspersed with several newspaper snippets as the strangler narcissistically follows his rising media profile as he murders one woman after another all the while taunting the officer in charge of the case, Morris ‘Moe’ Brummell, ironically so nick-named following a childhood disfigurement that has left him tied to his ultra-possessive mother and drawn to beautiful if ultimately unavailable women.

The murderer has a penchant for disguises and the book is able to spring several cunning surprises by withholding his identity in the early sections of the novel through misleading / limited physical descriptions of characters, something that inevitably was not possible in the 1968 film adaptation as Rod Steiger, the star of the film, was inevitably recognisable throughout, whether masquerading as a priest, a camp hairdresser or even in drag as seemingly frightened nanny. The book has several comic and romantic interludes but also focuses on the strain, complexity and difficulties of parent-child relationships which link Brummel with the killer, who after murdering ‘motherly-looking’ women undresses them and then paints red lipstick kisses on their foreheads.

It would be unfair to give away too much of the plot though it is worth noting that Goldman uses one of the aforementioned newspaper reports to deliver a brutally well-executed shock towards the end that I can’t imagine most readers would anticipate. The movie adaptation, co-starring  George Segal as (a now un-scarred) Brummel and the luminous Lee Remick as his kooky girlfriend, predictably omitted it and pretty much re-wrote the entire ending. The book was later also turned into a musical – not particularly well-reviewed on its official Broadway opening in 1996 (previous workshop versions had been performed over the previous 10 years) it has subsequently been revived with some success.

The novel is easy to find second-hand and is well worth seeking out, not least as an early indicator of the narrative dexterity (and, some might add, misanthropy) which Goldman would more famously display in such later best-sellers as Marathon Man and Magic.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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11 Responses to NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY by William Goldman

  1. Pingback: G is for … William Goldman | Tipping My Fedora

  2. Colin says:

    I always really liked the movie version of this. Steiger and Segal, two actors who can grate on occasion, are very good. And it features one of Lee Remick’s better performances too.
    I had no idea the book went in a different direction at the end – I must try and chase that one down.

    • Cheers Colin – as you can probably see from my review, I was deeply in love with Remick, though I know her occasional kookiness can be a bit annyoing. She’s great in Anatomy of a Murder of course, where she is meant to be a bit irritating, but I love her even in more standard fare like the mind cntrol thriller Telefon. Goldman’s book is much less conventional in its outlook – would love to know what you make of it.

      • Colin says:

        I forgot Remick was in Telefon, which is a great little movie. She was a big improvement on Jill Ireland, who Bronson seemed to find a role for in almost all his movies.

        • Well, the sheer wonderfulness of Lee remick aside, if I were married to Jill ireland, I would want to get her to co-srar in all my movies too! Did you ever see Love & Bullets? I don’t know how but I think I saw that at the cinema when it came out even though I was only about 11 or 12 but I’ve always liked that from their on-screen partnerships.

          • Colin says:

            I’m pretty sure I did, but so long ago I couldn’t say a thing about it. Jill Ireland was unquestionably attractive but I never rated her as an actress. She seemed to have one expression only. I’ve almost always found her the weakest link in any of Bronson’s films.

          • Ah, too harsh my man (as Bob Culp would have said to Cos in I Spy – god what a great show that was, definitely doing a post on that one soon), though I would be hard pressed to come up with a list of Ireland movies not co-starring either of her husbands I”l admit ….

          • Colin says:

            You know, now that you mention I Spy, I remember watching late eps ages ago and recall it being pretty good. Do you have the US DVD releases? Is the picture quality acceptable? I’ve been curious about this for a while now.

          • I have all three seasons and I think the DVD picture quality is remarkably good actually – they pack about 6 or 7 episodes per disc, which did worry me, especially as the sets are very cheap, but I was really surprised at how good they were. OK, not top tier transfers like Star Trek or Mission impossible but much, much better than average and truly an absolute steal at the price.

          • Colin says:

            Cool! Thank you – looks like my credit card is in for a bit more abuse then.

          • I really reccomend those DVD release without any reservation – Culp also wrote seven of the episodes (which are, in my opion, seven of the very best) and he provided audio commenatries for all of them. That’s pretty much it on the extrss front but he provides some fascinating insight.

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