Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Praying Mantises - Hubert Monteilhet

The French are especially good at crime novels populated with adulterous, scheming lovers. Monteilhet in his first work of crime fiction took this quintessentially French idea doubled the usual number of adulterers, and added an eavesdropping subplot that turned this suspense subgenre on its head. Knowing as little as possible about the plot of this book is the better than having too much revealed. I'll try to be careful in discussing the story.

In a nod to the Victorian novelists Monteilhet also constructs his novel in the epistolary form. The book consists solely of letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles in telling the story. The focus is on two married couples: Paul and Vera Canova, a university history professor and his Russian emigrant wife, and Beatrice and Christian Magny, M. Canova's secretary and her husband who happens to be a teaching assistant to M. Canova. The book opens with a series of letters from M. Canova to his bank and a life insurance company outlining his plans prior to a wedding. I cannot help but think of Double Indemnity whenever life insurance is mentioned in a crime novel written anytime after the 1940s. You can be sure that the Byzantine instructions about the life insurance policy and how the money is to be handled and dispersed will play a pivotal role in the story. From there the story twists and winds its way through the machinations of the three other main characters.

The most interesting aspect is that the story begins as a murder plot conspiracy then deftly turns it around. As with most of the works of Boileau and Narcejac the story is taken over by one of the intended victims. This character discovers the plot prior to its culmination and then goes about constructing a devious plan in order to gather evidence of the premediated murder to be used against the plotters. And this person allows the murderers to carry out their plan almost as planned. The key word there is almost. What follows this decision is a cruel plan of vengeance exacted upon the murderers. Typical of this type of suspense tale the ending has a some satisify-ingly ironic touches.

If you are looking for a break from a steady diet of whodunits and want to sample something with a more exotic flavor then look no fruther. The Praying Mantises is far from typical fare and will more than satisfy a craving for something delectably diabolical. That it also garnered two literary prizes for Monteilhet certainly underlines its value as a creme de la creme work of crime fiction.


  1. I love epistolary novels, John! This sounds like something I might like to read. I'll try and find it. The problem with your recommendations is that sometimes they are so esoteric, they defy my finding them. HA!

    I can only wonder what you're going to write about tomorrow for Forgotten Friday. I haven't given it much thought yet, so I better get to looking around my shelves. The pressure's on!

  2. Yvette -

    I read of a series of French thriller writers on Martin Edward's blog and I'm on a French kick now. This was one of his FFB books two years ago when Patti Abbot first started the Forgotten Book meme. The Chicago Public Library had listed several Monteilhet books but this was not in the catalog. When I went to the shelves - there it was! Then while checking it out, the clerk told me it had not been catalogued in the conversion. I had to go back up to the 7th floor and have a librarian add the book to the computerized system. The book is so unusual that NO ONE had taken it out in over 15 years when the CPL converted to a computer catalog! I have a knack for finding these. It's not the first time I've had to do that. This year alone, I've had to do it three times.

  3. Glad you liked this one, John. The TV version was very good too, and I keep hoping it will be shown again. Maybe one day....

  4. "In a nod to the Victorian novelists Monteilhet also constructs his novel in the epistolary form."
    Actually, this is a clear nod to Choderlos de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons. The epistolary novel originated long before the Victorian era, and Monteilhet paid homage to the French 18th century writers on more than one occasion.

    1. I'm well aware of the beginnings of the novel in epistolary form in the 18th century. I learned all about Samuel Richardson's Pamela and other works in my 18th century lit course way back in my college days. But my references to the books I write about on this blog tend to be about crime fiction specifically. Perhaps I ought to have written "Victorian sensation and crime novels" to make the comment more pertinent.