“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.