This tale of psychological suspense marked the literary debut of Catherine Arley (the pen name of Pierrette Pernot), who celebrated her 90th birthday last December. Originally published in France as Tu Vas Mourir (and later reissued as Mourir sans toi), it appeared in the UK in 1959 as Dead Man’s Bay in a translation by Jehanne-Marie Marchesi. It remains one of only a small number of her books to have been made available in English. It begins with our protagonist in the grip of fear in an isolated clifftop cottage in Brittany …
I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“A solitary woman in an isolated house in the middle of winter was an ideal victim.”
André and Ada have been married a long time – theirs was never a grand passion, but the mild and inexperienced young woman was ultimately glad when the older, domineering man provided her with money, comfort and a modicum of affection. In need of peace and quiet after suffering a nervous breakdown, André buys her a quiet little cottage to help her recover. But when he is unexpectedly called back to Rennes for work, he leaves her alone, which proves to be a serious error of judgement as she is just not able to cope. Before long she is utterly, totally and completely terrified out of her wits.
“Her heart stopped beating on the instant. Reason had died and terror entirely filled the house, crushing her to make more room for itself.”
This brief description only summarises the initial premise of this book, which although quite short (my Fontana edition, pictured above, runs to 160 pages) does at least in the second half thrown in several welcome twists, though in truth many may find them a tad predictable. In fact it isn’t very original and in particular reminded me a lot of Patrick Hamilton’s stage play Gas Light, which was filmed twice as Gaslight (first in 1940 in the UK and then remade in Hollywood four years later). This is not just because of the similar plot – after all, the a vulnerable woman who is isolated and seems to be going mad when strange, unexplained events take place is a suspense staple, let’s face it – but because it actually reads like a stage play, albeit in prose form.
“The play has just begun”
The whole action neatly breaks itself into three acts and it is almost entirely dialogue driven. There are only six speaking parts and there are only two settings – the cottage and the local shop where Ada spends part of an afternoon. And that really is it it – although there is a dramatic death at the clifftop for the climax, we never see it or have it described, only hear it in the distance, as we would if we were watching a play. This makes for a pretty peculiar reading experience, especially as Arley has one of the characters directly refer to the plot as a stage drama. This is also emphasised in a very verbal climax, which is mainly made up of an uninterrupted monologue that lasts fifteen-pages! Which would be OK if one felt that the author was trying to make a point through this technique – but if she was, then I’m afraid it escaped me.
“Two days in an isolated house, with fear as her only companion, and here she was deploring the fact that a tramp had not raped her”
Other books have done something similar to this, turning stage plays into novels – such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon and Richard Matheson’s Now You See It … (which I reviewed here) – but with much better results. Here the whole experiment feels contrived and a bit synthetic. In a way, it just feels like a play that has been hurriedly novelised, though I can find no evidence that a play version ever existed. Which makes this a mild curiosity at best and at worst a rather dull hybrid. And it really doesn’t help that Ada is just plain exasperating – this is her reaction when a stranger turns up at the cottage:
“Two days in an isolated house, with fear as her only companion, and here she was deploring the fact that a tramp had not raped her”
Arley, best known for Woman of Straw (which was eventually turned into a play, and a film), was suggested to me by mystery author and historian Martin Edwards. For his take on the book, check out his blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? He quite rightly points out that it is something of failing that there are no really sympathetic characters and that even poor Ada is so absurdly hysterical from the word go that rather than feel sorry for her you just wish someone would sit her down and get some sense into her! I did enjoy this rather odd book, but only as a mild curio – otherwise, I would have trouble really recommending it. Most mystery buffs will figure out what is going on very early on and will thus feel deflated by the conclusion; most general readers will find its theatricality confounding as it offers no real advantage for this approach. For me, I’m afraid this suspense novel mildly interesting but otherwise just plain unsatisfying.
The I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘place in the title’ category:
I really only know Arley from Woman of Straw – must actually get that movie out of the shrinkwrap.
This certainly sounds like an odd writing technique, even more so given you couldn’t find a discernible reason for the staginess.
Woman of Straw was on Italian TV a lot when I was growing upo, due to the presence of Gina Lollobrigida – it is even out on Blu-ray now. This novel is rather odd really. It is interesting but … I have another of hers on the TBR so will see how I get in with that!
I’ve only seen the movie once, or maybe twice, so I really ought to open it up.
I’m not crazy about that huge monologue you mentioned in the book!
I was being pretty kind about that – basically it’s the villain of the piece going on, and on, and on – pretty diabolical frankly! Again, as a play much more justifiable, but on the page …
Yes, that sounds rather excruciating. You do have to wonder why a writer would adopt that technique.
I can only assume that she wrote is a play, perhaps as a vehicle for herself even and then thought better of it. Sheer surmise on my part but I’d love to know the truth of it. She is still around as far as I can tell. Trouble is, only a few of her books are in English and bibliographic and biographic data seems to be scant (in a language I understand)- and indeed for one of the others of her that I have, READY REVENGE, I can;t even figure out what the hell it was called in French – I hate it when editions don;t bother to include that kind of info!
That sounds like a reasonable enough theory.
If only I could prove it – but hey, I had to get some mystery out of this book 🙂
Strange that there is so little data available on her work though – we’ve grown accustomed to the opposite with many writers.
Apparently she didn’t really get published regularly even in France until the 1970s, even after the success of WOMAN OF STRAW. Makes me think that it is possible, if you believe Wikipedia, that READY REVENGE was first published in the English translation … I’ll keep digging!
Do so, that’s all rather intriguing.
Will do 🙂
Ready Revenge is the translation of Le Talion.
Really? Brill, thanks Santosh, that has really been bugging me! 🙂
Ready Revenge was first published in 1960 and Le Talion later in 1962 !
It does tend to support my theory that it came out later in France … fascinating!
Sorry to hear this one just didn’t work for you, Sergio. Shame, too, because the very first part of the premise did sound promising. But I know just what you mean about an over-the-top sort of character. As you say, that sort of character garners little sympathy from the reader. Well, I suppose they can’t all be winners…
Thanks Margot – it may be that it it just shows too clearly that this was the author’s first novel …
Ouch, sounds dreadful. Thanks for slogging through it so others don’t have to!
Thanks Chris – well, unpicking it afterwards was quite good fun. It is unusual and although ultimately disappointing, I’m glad I did (at least it didn’t take up a lot of my time 🙂 )
Sorry it wound up not being very good, Sergio. I hadn’t heard of Arley before…It doesn’t sound like I’ve missed much.
Well, this was her debut and she ended up having a very long career eventually – I suspect Woman of Straw is much better. I will try her Bev again (you’ve been warned)
I will be interested to see if you like Woman of Straw better…
I certainly preferred the movie Bev!
Well, doesn’t seem worth reading !
However, I’ll try to get Woman Of Straw (both book and film).
Thanks Santosh – I had to put anybody off, but I can;t see this one really getting anybody that excited now. STRAW the movie is a good little genre movie as I recall.
I have since obtained Woman Of Straw (both book and film)
Great – Let us know what you make of them – I’ll be reviewing READY REVENGE before I get round to that one though!
Catherine Arley is an unfamiliar writer to me. From your review, I may not make her acquaintance.
Well, I would say, rent the movie Woman of Straw starring Sean Connery, which was adapted from her best-known novel – see what you think!
I really don’t understand. The woman is “completely terrified out of her wits” simply by being alone in her cottage? Huh? I’ll certainly skip this one.
I agree – it really does make it virtually impossible to sympathise as she is so hysterical from the word go when nothing has happened to her yet …
Richard , I understand it quite easily. A lot of people can’t stand to be alone. It’s easy for me to see how someone uncomfortable with being alone can go mad in a prolonged isolation, especially these days with everyone so furiously typing out messages on their phones in an effort to stay connected.
I have a copy of WOMAN of STRAW I bought based on Martin’s recommendation when I read his review many years ago. Still haven’t read it. She sounds like Hubert Monteilhet. I have some of his books too (still unread) that I bought after reading the phenomenal PRAYING MANTISES and the almost as good RETURN FROM THE ASHES. (Both Martin recommendations, BTW!) Some of the French thrillers are exceptionally good. I wonder why Arley who was clearly emulating the Boileau-Narcejac/Monteilhet school of thriller wasn’t successful in her own country. A case of publishing sexism?
Hi John – well, actually, on the example of this book, I find it very easy to believe that publishers didn’t want to print her stuff 🙂 What’s irritating is that Ada has no reason for being terrified – she is not presented as a paranoid personality or as someone who has a particular personality that might make it hard for her to be alone – it’s just convenient for the story! Ultimately it turns out that someone is out to get her, but by that point the empathy ship has sailed!! Interesting to see you mention Return from the Ashes as I was just thinking about it last week after going to a screening of Phoenix, the new movie by Christian Petzold starring his muse, Nina Hoss as it is very clearly based on the Hubert Monteilhet, though completely uncredited.
This is completely new to me, and I was glad to read about it, but not motivated to seek it out. Maybe if there were less books out there I do want to pursue.
Well, quite! This is only a curio – I’ll be reviewing a 100% classic on Tuesday though …
Yeah, this is a pretty hackneyed plot device – the woman in jeopardy plot down to the bare bones. But still, I kind of get what you mean about enjoying the book as an oddity (or mild curio) – been there, done that.
An aside: I cannot stand a hysterical female as leading lady. Of course this is not as bad as a hysterical male in the lead role, but that’s probably just me. 🙂
Good advice Yvette – I think hysterical protagonists are just best avoided 😉
Can you read French well enough to read the book in its original version, Sergio? I’ve been thinking a lot about books in translation lately, since international (i.e., non-English) crime fiction has exploded on the bestseller lists. Not being multilingual (to my great sorrow), I often wonder how much of the original authorial voice and “core” of a book as written gets lost in translation. This is why I sometimes approach translated books with trepidation.
An excellent point Bonnie – I am bilingual in English and Italian so I tend to pick translation in either of those on the assumption that the romance languages like French and Spanish will be closer to Italian while I stick to English version of German and Scandinavian authors, though clearly this in no way accounts for the quality of the translation itself. In theory in means that i could cope with a dual-language edition if comparing parallel texts in Spanish and French, but only in the broadest sense would I be able to comment on how good the translation seemed to be.
Sergio, I don’t recall reading Catherine Arley though I’m familiar with her name. I’m sorry this didn’t work for you but I kind of like the plot.
It’s a classic situation Prashant, I agree, but if you get the chance, watch either of the film versions of Gaslight or Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear), Chase a Crooked Shadow or best of of all the original 1955 version of Les Diaboliques – time much better spent 🙂
Will do, Sergio. I will have some time next month now that I have almost been laid off from my newspaper job. The print division of my firm is closing down due to poor ad and subscription revenues, a global development as we can see. Sorry this is personal but it’s one of the reasons why I haven’t been up to date with blogging.
That is really harsh mate – I’m really sorry to hear that Prasahnt. I hope plenty of new opportunities present themselves. All the best, Sergio 🙂
Thanks very much, Sergio.
Take care chum.
Up to a couple of paras in, I had high hopes, but the way you dashed them was v entertaining! I have recently come across ‘gaslight’ as a verb (in a review I think) which surprised me – ‘he was gaslighting her’ ie making her think she was mad. Have you seen that?
New one on me Moira – not sure I approve in fact! Bad enough what they did to impact … Sorry the book’s not any better. Top my horror I realise that the Masters book I was sending you is still under a pile of paer on my desk – sorry Moira, it will get sent out, honest!
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