Friday, April 22, 2016

FFB: I'll Be Judge, I'll Be Jury - Elizaberth Hely

THE STORY: Newlyweds Mark and Laura Needham are just starting their honeymoon when tragedy strikes. Laura is attacked and killed. Suspicion falls on a unsavory grocer who showed an interest in Mark's wife. Commissaire Antoine Cirret enlists Mark's help in hunting down the grocer and gathering some evidence via subterfuge. Initially reluctant to take part in what he feels is clearly a police duty Mark grudgingly gives in and discovers he has a knack for spying and underhanded interrogation. But when he cannot separate personal feelings from police business the undercover work transforms to vigilante style retribution as the US title I'll Be Judge, I'll Be Jury (1959) suggests. And is usual with the case of unrestrained vengeance there are horrible consequences for everyone involved.

THE CHARACTERS: Elizabeth Hely spares no punches in this bravura debut performance. Mark Needham is a husband haunted, longing for love yet finding himself bereft of emotion and impotent in the bedroom. He has only two people to turn to for comfort and solace -- Alex Trevor and Andrée de Montdoux.  Alex is Laura's gay best friend, and Andrée is a former flame of Mark's. Alex notices troubling changes in Mark's usual no-nonsense behavior: he is guarded, less than forthright, and has started drinking heavily. Alex suspects his lawyer friend is too interested in Theo Bondet, the grocer, that he has turned sleuth and that his rash behavior may lead to a dangerous confrontation. He and Andrée try their best to distract Mark from the undercover work by taking advantage of Andrée's past history with Mark and her still lingering affection for him. The plan backfires when Mark is physically incapable of carrying through with their passionate affair and his frustration and embarrassment unleash an anger he has held at bay since his wife's death.

The supporting cast is just as complex and fascinating as Mark. At first Alex is presented as a typical gay character of 50s genre fiction. He's an artist, of course -- a classical pianist whose specialty is Chopin. He's self-effacing, a bit of a fop. A past love affair with a man who abandoned him to get married left Alex so heartbroken he become an avowed bachelor. He is introduced to us in a park where he is seen chasing after a Pekingese named Lillith, calling her a naughty bitch and generally acting like a cartoon of an effeminate man, though he's a hulking giant. You think he's going to be a comic character, an object of ridicule. Nothing could be further from the truth. Alex turns out to have a coldhearted thirst for revenge just as Mark does and he's no wimp or limp-wristed queen in the final terrifying scenes.

Andrée too undergoes a startling transformation over the course of the novel -- from spurned old flame, to teasing tart, to Nemesis personified. She proves she's tougher than all the men when she's willing to sacrifice her safety, nearly her life, and sustain scarring injuries for the cause. After all, she was a member of the French Resistance just like Cirret. She has to prove she still has what it takes to face off with a brutal criminal.

Every single character is a force to be reckoned with. Hely spares no mercy for her characters as she sets them loose on one another in the quest for their personal form of justice.

INNOVATIONS: Hely has set her novel in France to take advantage of that country's unusual legal system. Police have less authority than judges and in this case it is the Juge d'Instruciton who seems to be in charge of the case. It is only because he has issued a Commission Rogatoire that Cirret, a commissaire of the Sureté in Paris, has been placed in charge of the case in Beaune, in the heart of French wine country. "We don't like foreigners to get murdered," he tells Mark reassuring him with his customary sarcasm that the case is being treated with urgency. Still, Antoine Cirret is one of the most unorthodox of policemen in crime fiction of this era. By trusting Mark to use his skills as a lawyer to entrap Theo Bondet and to find out things that the grocer might otherwise hide if questioned by police Cirret unwittingly sets in motion the stratagems that fuel this very Hitchcockian story.

THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Hely is the pen name chosen by Nancy Elizabeth Brassey Younger for her crime fiction. Hely was the wife of William Younger and part of a long line of writers all related in one way or another to bestselling thriller writer Dennis Wheatley. William Younger, who also wrote crime novels under the pseudonym William Mole, was Wheatley's beloved stepson. In fact, this book -- originally published in Hely's home country as Dominant Third -- has an endearing dedication page marked "For Mole, with love". Hely's biographical sketch on the rear DJ flap mentions her love of wine, a book about wine and a travel memoir of Portugal she and her husband wrote, her fondness for Pekingese dogs and that Hely included "an engaging one in the cast of characters." The scenes with Alex and Lilith, the dog, are one of the very welcome examples of Hely's wry sense of humor in an otherwise stark story of relentless tension and angry retribution.

QUOTES: "Hate is nearly always destructive. It's only rarely that hate can be used constructively. In your experience, you've never had to hate; not until now. Your country has never been occupied. Occupied. An odd word for cataclysm. Our children learnt to hate while they were young. They learnt to hate with discretion; to use their hatred as a stimulus to their intelligence. Do you imagine that a resistance movement could have existed if every Frenchman had spat in the eyes of Germans? No. We hated with smiles, those of use who had to, and we did it because, when the time came to stop smiling, we knew them."

"To live close to your enemy. Smile at him, talk to him, listen to him; admire and flatter him; gain his confidence. Learn him by heart. Then you can break him."

"Young people are belligerent animals, my dear Andrée, and we were no different from the rest."

"This is not a dog. This is my psychoneurosis. I wrap it in mink to keep it in a good temper."

TV ADAPTATION: Four years after the book was published I'll Be Judge, I'll Be Jury was adapted for "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour." The script was by Lukas Heller with direction by James Sheldon. For unknown reasons Heller decided to transplant the entire story from France to Mexico and most of the supporting players were re-written to suit his needs. The cast included Peter Graves as Mark; Albert Salmi as the rapist/killer renamed Theodore Bond; Rodolfo Hoyos played a Mexican version of Cirret named Inspector Ortiz; and Ed Nelson appeared as Alex Trevor who, of course, was not gay but was married to Sarah Marshall playing Louise Trevor, the substitute for Andrée. The basic plot of a backfired revenge scheme remained the same with a different twist in the finale due to the change in locale.

EASY TO FIND? I'm happy to report that this is one book that is in ample supply. Both hardcover and paperback editions of the US edition which goes by the title reviewed here are numerous. Hardcovers first editions are scarce in the UK under its original title Dominant Third, but copies of the Panther paperback seem plentiful. No contemporary reprints have been published, but I have suggested the book for reissue to a well known reprint house. Cross your fingers that they agree with my assessment.

The Antoine Cirret Crime Novel Trilogy
Dominant Third (1959) - US title: I'll Be Judge, I'll Be Jury
A Mark of Displeasure (1961)
The Package Deal (1965)

The last book was also adapted for a TV movie retitled The Smugglers starring Shirley Booth and Donnelly Rhodes as Antoine Cirret. I think he's on vacation on a cruise in the book and the story follows the "busman's holiday" type of crime plot. In the TV movie adaptation Booth is a woman traveller who unwittingly becomes a pawn in a smuggling operation. Unsure of whether or not this sticks to the original plot. I have yet to find a copy of that last book, but I'm on the hunt!

8 comments:

  1. This is the kind of book I often tend to avoid, no matter how well done. I do read 'psychological suspense' but on the whole I find them depressing - that's, of course, partly the point of walking on the 'wild side' but while I like Highsmith (for instance) a lot, I can only stand her books in very small doses - which means I'm a bit of wuss obviously! Really like hearing about the TV adaptation John - thanks for that - that's two in a row, right? Nice! :)

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    1. You are not a wuss, Sergio, if you managed to make it all the way through that Swedish dismemberment thriller. ;^)

      I think you'd get a lot out of this. It's not just a revenge thriller. And despite all the quoted passages about hate it's not at all misanthropic or nihilistic. In fact, there is an intrinsic morality in the book which I thought one of it's best attributes. The characters are strong-willed, intelligent people who struggle with their decisions before resorting to violence. I even made a note that some of the book reminded me of Zola! I was reminded of scenes in La Bête Humaine and Thérèse Raquin when reding this book. I think the book is very timely in a world plagued by reactionary, rash gun violence mostly committed out of a "I don't get mad, I get even" mindset. It's one of the best books I've read this year.

      I forgot to mention that Antoine Cirret, the intriguing and flawed policeman, became a series character for Hely and appeared in two other books. I've just added them to the post. I'll be reading the second one next month.

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  2. This sounds really interesting. I never knew Mole's wife was also an accomplished writer.

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    1. I'll be reading/reviewing two of Mole's books next month. The whole Wheatley clan -- mostly on the his wife's side -- was so talented. They were writers, artists, musicians.

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  3. Good review, John. I am going to hunt down a copy. Thanks.

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  4. Enjoyed your review, John. I opened it half-wondering if it might be a polite parody of Spillane's I the Jury, but became intrigued as I read along. I shall look for it.

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  5. "The Smugglers" is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hm4wioF9vQ

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  6. This sounds like a very good book but also one I don't want to read. I enjoyed learning about this author, though.

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