THE KEY TO NICHOLAS STREET (1952) by Stanley Ellin


Way before Peyton Place and the like, with this novel Stanley Ellin once again demonstrated his ability to stay ahead of the literary curve, using the investigation into a domestic death to explore the petty (and not so petty) jealousies and betrayals lying behind the facade of suburban respectability.

I offer this review as part of Rich’s celebration of 1952 mysteries over at Past Offences; Bev’s Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge; Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for reviews, click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, today hosted by BV Lawson at In Reference to Murder

“You don’t have to worry about wiping off the lipstick” she said. “I’m not wearing any.”

Stanley Ellin’s sophomore effort details the fallout from a murder in Sutton, a small town about 100 miles out of New York City. The narrative is subdivided into five sections, one for each member from a single household who all get to narrate their own story. First is Junie, the 19-year-old domestic who works for the Ayres family at 161 Nicholas Street. Mrs Ayres (Lucille) rules the roost, looking after her weak-willed husband Harry and their children Robert and Bettina. Junie also does some extra chores for their new neighbour, flame-haired temptress Katherine Ballou, a successful commercial artist who recently moved in at number 159. The arrival of her friend, cynical charmer Matthew Chaves, and his involvement with Bettina, sparks off a series of family dramas culminating with Junie’s discovery of la Ballou’s dead body at the bottom of her cellar after an apparent accident. When Lucille next takes over the narration, we learn that the death was definitely murder and that she really isn’t too sorry to see her neighbour go:

“So I stood over the serpent that lay with her head crushed in the dust, and knew the nightmare was over”


It turns out Harry had been having an affair with Ballou and he is the next to narrate the story, detailing his year-long adventure into romance. This is the longest of the five sections, covering the whole period of the affair and its sad but inevitable conclusion once the domineering Lucille puts her foot down. The children then take over the narration, providing complimentary but contrasting views of the events, embroiling the butcher, Bob Macek, Junie’s dim lug of a boyfriend, who becomes the prime suspect. Central to the narrative structure is the role played by outsiders Chaves and Ballou (whose name unfortunately kept making me think of the Jane Fonda comedy Western Cat Ballou, based on the 1956 novel by Roy Chanslor), who have shaken off the pretensions of small town living in favour of a seemingly more honest big city vision. It is through this contrast that the theme of the book is revealed, examining the way that on the well-to-do Nicholas Street appearances are much more important than reality, where what the neighbours think is much more important than what you actually do (as long as you don’t get exposed). This is how the young Chaves explains it to Bettina:

“My dream is just you and me, Betty, and to hell with success and all the trimmings”

As we progress through the narrators in the Ayres household, switching perspectives as we go, we eventually reach a conclusion, one that reveals the motive and the events leading to the death, what was important about who had access to the eponymous spare key to Ballou’s house and also, in a nice reversal, who the actual detective is (the formal investigator, town sheriff Morten Ten Eyck, is really not up to the task). This is a very satisfying novel, one that updates the epistolary, multi-narrator approach of Wilkie Collins (and, more recently, Kenneth Fearing) to tell an intimate story amid some well-drawn and plausible characters so that we can examine the roots of a crime and consider how such things might happen in the real world and who should truly be held responsible.

In France in the late 1950s a series of film critics, including Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Agnes Varda and Jacques Rivette launched the Nouvelle Vague (‘New Wave’), an iconoclastic movement that sought to shake up what they perceived as the staid state of cinema of the day. The first of them to make the move behind the camera was Claude Chabrol and in 1959 adapted Nicholas Street into À double Tour (which means ‘double lock’ but the film was mainly released either as Leda or as Web of Passion in English-speaking territories). A very young Jean-Paul Belmondo (who briefly appears nude in one scene straight from the book) co-stars as Chaves, here turned into a Hungarian named ‘Laszlo Kovacs’ (a name also attached to Belmondo for his role in Godard’s Breathless, which followed shortly afterwards). Of course, it is also the name of the Hungarian cinematographer who made his name in the 1960s but at that point had no real credits to his name but none the less it may have been a nod to him.


It is not surprising that this book appealed to Chabrol, with its critique of middle class hypocrisy, and his films are at their considerable best when focusing on provincial life, highlighting the foibles of the petite bourgeoisie. Thus, Ellin’s tale proves an excellent foundation on which for him to build, though it has to be said, this is not a complete success. Set in a picturesque part of the countryside (it was filmed at Aix-en-Provence), the basic plot is very faithfully derived from the novel, though it dispenses with the multiple narrators, using a complex flashback structure that is handled with great virtuosity but which, some critics complained, also derails the momentum of the film, which is partly true. There are also many superficial changes: Katherine Ballou is now Léda Mortoni (Antonella Lualdi, who incidentally turned 83 last month) while Macek is Roger, a muscle-bound milkman instead of a butcher. Harry and Lucille Ayres become Henri and Thérèse Marcoux, and instead of running a hardware store he is now the owners of a vineyard.


The novel is fairly claustrophobic – we never see inside Ballou’s home, only her cellar, and the story plays out in three locations: the Ayres home, Ballou’s New York apartment and Chaves tiny little room where he tries to convince Bettina (in the film Elisabeth) to throw away convention and settle for love rather than material possessions. The film, with its beautiful locations and eye-popping colour (courtesy of the great Henri Decaë), is much more expansive and the tone on the whole is lighter, even vaguely comedic, especially in the beginning when, like in the book, Junie (now changed to Julie) taunts her nosy neighbour (now the gardener) by parading in her underwear in the morning. Music-loving Richard is now much more openly lusting after her, though as played by André Jocelyn he is rather manic and peculiar all the way through. Belmondo too, for the first half at least, plays the role in a fairly antic fashion – once Léda’s body is found however the film turns darker and less frivolous.


The comedy is somewhat overdone, and the love scenes between Henri and Léda fail to convince due to the very wooden playing by Lualdi, who is certainly pretty enough for the role but is otherwise stiff and unconvincing throughout. By comparison Madeleine Robinson as the overbearing wife is much more powerful and engaging, which does tend to unbalance the story as we never really share or understand Henri’s passion for Léda. Equally, while the long romantic tryst shown in flashback where Léda and Henri wonder though fields of yellow, green and red flowers ultimately seems a bit trite because there is no rapport between the two actors and the presentation seems to go overboard in trying to compensate for this. The revelation of the murderer appears fairly early on, 20 minutes before the end, leading to a very long and technically impressive flashback, expertly edited and staged, showing what actually happened. This is actually an improvement on the novel as the motivation is clearer and psychologically a bit more convincing but it is a failing of the film that, for all its formal dexterity (Chabrol was a close student of Hitchcock), we don’t really care enough about the central characters. This is not the first and last time that such a charge would be levelled at the French auteur …

DVD availability: In the UK the film is available from Studio Canal as a standalone release or as part of the very nice Jean-Paul Belmondo Collection box set, under its original title, and it looks absolutely first-rate with bright and bold colours and the right aspect ratio too. In the US it has been released also under its original title on DVD by Kino.

À double Tour (1959)
Director: Claude Chabrol
Producer: Ralph Baum, Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim
Screenplay: Claude Chabrol, Paul Gégauff
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Art Direction: Bernard Evein, Jacques Saulnier
Music: Paul Misraki
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Antonella Lualdi, Madeleine Robinson, Bernadette Lafon, Jacques Dacqmine

I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘book I had to borrow’ category (as it turned out I only had this one in Italian – thanks Mum and Dad, as ever). And it’s my second bingo too!


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

This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Claude Chabrol, Friday's Forgotten Book, New York, Scene of the crime, Stanley Ellin. Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to THE KEY TO NICHOLAS STREET (1952) by Stanley Ellin

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Thanks as ever for such a thoughtful and informed review. The book sounds like an interesting look at the social mores and values of the day as much as anything else. Not surprising really given its era. And as I read your review of the film, I couldn’t help but wonder at how often those many superficial changes are made in book-to-film adaptations. I don’t know enough about film-making to really understand the nuances, but it seems to me that so many of those changes are not necessary. I suppose I’m just being cranky…

    • Thanks Margot. In this case some of it was the suit the necessary change of locale to France (both geographic and in terms of temperament) but also to make more of the possibilities offered by colour (it was the director’s first foray away from black and white) and, not unreasonably, an attempt to fine cinematic equivalents for very literary devices. Here, for the most part, it works.

  2. BV Lawson says:

    Yes, thanks very much for this, Sergio! FYI, I’m doing FFB hosting honors tomorrow, and Evan Lewis will be handling duties next Friday.

    • Thanks for hosting Bonnie – I am slightly ahead of the game due to time differences I suppose 🙂

    • PS Actually, at the last minute I decided to switch the post I was planning for this week for the Ellin (which was for next Friday), where I had already linked to Evan – apologies for my screw up and again, thanks so much for looking after us today.

  3. neer says:

    I am afraid Sergio, I have never heard of this author but you make the book (and the movie too) sound very compelling. I will see whether I can get a copy of both. Incidentally, did the nouvelle vague live up to its promise?

    • Hi Neeru – I think Ellin is a major figure and previously profiled him here. he remains better known for his short stories (they have a lot in common with the adult work of Roald Dahl). The Nouvelle Vague blazed a trail well into the 1960s and made a huge difference i think to the cinema of its day and how we appreciate it critically with the introduction of the auteur theory.

  4. TracyK says:

    This book sounds good, with multiple narrators and perspectives. I will have to find a copy.

  5. I read this book many years ago, and think I have a copy on my shelf – great choice for 1952. But now I want to read it again, and how am I ever going to reduce the TBR pile if people like you make me re-read too? I bet you don’t even feel guilty Sergio….

  6. Excellent review – and sounds once more like the book would be better than the film!

  7. Colin says:

    I must pick up that Belmondo set at some point. I only have a handful of his movies altogether but he’s an entertaining screen presence.

  8. Santosh Iyer says:

    Though I have not read the book, I have seen the French film.
    I was disappointed with the film. I agree with all the criticisms against the film mentioned in your review. I often found the film dull and by the time I reached the end, I was past caring who the murderer was or what the motive was.

    • Hi Santosh – well, I think i liked the film a lot more than you did as among its failing i found a great deal to enjoy, but then I’m a sucker for French cinema! However, fair enough, Chabrol certainly much better films than this in his long and varied career 🙂

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        What exactly is the relevance of the title?

        • In the book? Well, on a more prosaic level it’s the clue to who the murderer is as how they got the key to get into Ballou’s house is important – obviously Ellin means the title to be taken in a broader sense to reflect on who is truly responsible. In the film the ‘double lock’ is again meant to reflect, I assume, barriers set up in society as well as what goes on behind locked doors and that probably very little can protect you, no matter how hard you try to hide. In the film it is clear that the murderer kills Leda for making them face up to what is worst about themselves

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            I was referring to the title of the film. I think that the English title “Web Of Passion” is more appropriate.

          • I’m afraid my understanding of idiomatic French isn’t even remotely good enough to comment on quite the extent of the meaning intended by Chabrol. Mind you, Italian titles can be incredibly weird in this respect though in this case it was a straight translation (A Doppia Mandata), which just means using a double lock to close your door. I quite like that actually, though it makes more sense if you’ve read the book!

  9. I’ve read several Stanley Ellin’s novels, but I much prefer his short stories. My favorite Ellin novel is THE EIGHTH CIRCLE.

  10. Richard says:

    I’m one who dislikes a novel with multiple narrators and perspectives.Too choppy for my taste, and always seems like more artifice than skilled plotting.

    • It really depends on the book though Richard – for instance, Bill Pronzini and Barry Malzberg did an incredible job with the Running of Beasts, which just wouldn’t work as well in a more traditional fashion. I think the modern thriller has adopted the approach almost as a form of padding and I agree, there are many examples where I think it adds very little. Ellin was a very clever author and here I really think it adds substance to the tale – and in the case of classics like Collins’ The Woman and White and The Moonstone, I really can’t imagine them working any other way.

  11. Yvette says:

    Another terrific review, Sergio. Even if I’m not a multiple viewpoint fan either. Though when it’s done well, I’ll go along with it. I loved THE WOMAN IN WHITE and THE MOONSTONE and I, too, can’t see how they could have been done any other way. I’ve heard of Stanley Ellin over the years but never read any. This one sounds like something I might like so thanks for the introduction. I love that line you quoted. SO of its time. 🙂

    • Thanks Yvette – Ellin was a master of the short story and that would certainly be the place to start. he has written so many great stories and some, like ‘The Specialty of the House’ I suspect many will recognise without having actually read it.

  12. Kelly says:

    I always get him mixed up with Stanley Elkin, though I know they’re very different. Maybe your review will help me keep them straight.

    • Ha” I tell you what really annoys me about that Kelly, on book shelves I see Elkin all the time bit much more rarely is there any Ellin, and that’s a real shame – a terrific wordsmith and a real innovator!

  13. John says:

    “A double tour” is a ballet term. It’s a double turn in the air. Both feet leave the floor as opposed to a pirouette which is a turn where one foot stays on the floor. Apparently the phrase is also used when talking about double locking a door. So it can have at least two metaphoric meanings in this case. I like it. But I prefer metaphoric titles than blase titles like “Web of Passion”. Sounds more like a really awful nighttime TV soap than a crime drama. I guess the movie sort of is an awful nighttime soap opera, isn’t it? Very much like a Douglas Sirk melodrama.

    I saw this movie shortly after you posted your last Ellin review. The movie was confusing at times and I remember I replayed a few scenes on the DVD I rented in order to catch up with the story. I liked Belmondo’s sexual energy and his quirky performance. I also liked the actress who played the mother. But I have to admit that I hardly remember anything about the plot. I may just read the book. But forgive me for skipping over most of that part of your post so that I can have a “virgin” reading experience. ;^)

    • I’m all for keeping your virgin status intact on this John 🙂 And thanks for that explanation of the title because I did not know about the ballet reference. I’m with you, I prefer allusive titles (as long as they are not obtusely obscure). I liked the film quite a bit and agree, there are definitely shades of Sirk, who was so beloved by Chabrol and co, but there is a soapy / Peyton Place element to the story anyway.

  14. Bev Hankins says:

    Ha! I think it’s awesome that both you and I thought of Cat Ballou upon seeing that name. (And if I try not to think of Cat Ballou, then I come up with Baloo from the Jungle Book 🙂 ). Congrats on that second Bingo!

  15. Sergio, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable reading a novel with multiple narratives either though I won’t say no to it until I have read one. On the other hand, a film version would be more appealing. I like that cover, though.

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