Friday, January 19, 2018

FFB: Heart to Heart - Boileau & Narcejac

THE STORY: One evening a singer and her piano playing lover have an argument with the singer's composer husband ending in the piano player killing the composer. The two lovers cover up the murder by making it appear that the husband died in a car accident. But their trouble is only beginning. Only a few days later the wife receives a package from, she thinks, an unknown admirer. Inside is a record and when it is played she hears the final song her husband composed called "Heart to Heart." In an odd mix of devotion and hatred he asks her to record it while simultaneously accusing her of his murder. If she records the song he promises all will be well, but if she refuses he will send on a letter to the police. Then she learns that her friend, a music publisher & producer, also received a package -- the manuscript of the music along with a set of lyrics. He also wants her to record the song. Will she give in to what appears to be blackmail from beyond the grave?

THE CHARACTERS: Heart to Heart (1959) was originally published in French under the title À Coeur Perdu (To a Lost Heart), a more fitting title encapsulating the themes of obsessive love, jealousy, possession, and retribution. As usual for Boileau and Narcejac, the story is told from a male viewpoint.  Almost exclusively we see all the events through the eyes of Jean Leprat, the pianist lover who mortally wounds Maurice Faugères when he strikes him on the head with a heavy candlestick. I noted only one scene when the story shifts to Eve's viewpoint and Jean is not present. Otherwise, we are lost in Jean's obsessive world. It is almost strictly a two character piece with the story focusing on the aftermath of the crime and Eve and Jean's embroiled love-hate affair. They are typical of the tortured lovers that fascinate these French writers. Jean like Fernand Ravinal, the protagonist of She Who Was No More, is trapped by his emotions and lost in his thoughts. Interestingly, prison imagery is prevalent recalling their masterful thriller The Prisoner (Le Louves) published four years earlier. Jean muses over his desire to be free of the woman without whom he cannot live with lines like this: "To think that I love her so much -- as though I were some kind of animal and she were my mate!" Also like Ravinel Jean finds himself at the mercy of a controlling ghost of whom he remarks: "Eve belonged more to a dead man than to the living one."

Faugères' method of revenge is music. All three know that the song "Heart to Heart" will be an instant hit with its beautiful melody and lyrics describing intense longing. Jean describes the song this way: "It was a love song with a taste of tears, the rather embarrassing pathos of a farewell. But the refrain was virile stirring. It proclaimed the triumph of life." But Eve cannot sing such a song that is clearly her husband's plaintive call to her. The song is indeed recorded, but by Florence, a woman singer who was Eve's rival and who she feels is less talented, hardly an artist. Of course the song becomes a huge hit playing on the radio many times a day. And the two lovers cannot escape the song. Jean hears taxi cab drivers whistling the tune. Eve is annoyed when a elevator boy hums the song. It plays over the speakers in stores. Everywhere they go they hear the song. Jean comes to the horrible realization that Maurice Faugères "was stronger dead than alive."

INNOVATIONS: The police get involved when there are faint hints of foul play at the scene of Maurice's car accident. But it becomes a full blown investigation at the novel's midpoint with an unexpected murder of a supporting character that comes as a shock to the reader. Borel, the lead investigator, has as his primary clue only the sound of a woman's voice. A cab driver reports to the police that he dropped off a woman in the vicinity of the building where the crime took place. The most distinctive feature he can remember was her low and resonant voice, a voice like a radio singer. And so the book becomes not only about music and lyrics and the emotion carried in a powerfully written song but sound of all types. It's a brilliant addition of how sound and voices can become a surreal form of haunting that will eat away at the fragile consciences of our guilty duo.

Further building on the device of the several recordings that the dead Faugères has somehow managed to send to his wife and her lover the writers have Borel conduct an experiment in recording of his own. The policeman tracks down several woman singers and recording artists and asks them to speak the lines spoken to the cab driver and records them on tape. He plays all of the voices for Eve but she catches on quickly. She not only speaks the few sentences into the tape recorder she says, "Why did you not ask them to sing?" And then for the first and only time in the novel Eve sings the song "Heart to Heart." We never get to read the lyrics (a wise choice on the writers part) but we are told this:
She sang the first verse softly, her eyes fixed on Leprat. It was for him that she was singing. For him and for Florence, whom she was crushing with her talent. Florence ceased to exist. The challenge lent unbearable poignancy and sadness to Faugères' words. His song of farewell to Eve was transformed, in this police office, into her farewell to Leprat. Her face gradually became suffused with inexpressible grief, her voice took on inflexions that came from the blood, from the entrails; it was lacerated, agonized, and triumphant.
Sound -- whether it be the spoken voice, the singing voice or music itself -- is the real force of haunting in this story of obsession and possession. There may be the imagined ghost of Faugères reaching out to them but for these people for whom sound is such an important part of their lives, for whom music is an energy more powerful than their love for each other, it is sound that will be their undoing.

Danielle Darrieux (Eve) and Michel Auclair (Jean) in Meurtre en 45 tours (1960)
THE MOVIE: The novel was adapted for the screen as Meurtre en 45 tours in 1960. Freely adapted is more accurate. Extensively changed with most plot elements rearranged, the only features that remain unaltered are the characters' names, their relationships, and the recordings sent to Eve after her husband dies. In this rewritten movie version we never really know who killed Maurice until the rather ridiculous ending. Throughout the movie Eve and Jean suspect each other of causing the car wreck that kills Maurice. Gone is best part of the book -- the ingenious use of sound and music as methods to prey on their guilt. The screenwriters were clearly influenced by the success of Les Diaboliques (1955) and play up the possibility that Maurice may in fact be alive. The movie can be seen online in both French and English. Unfortunately, the English version is dubbed rather than subtitled.

EASY TO FIND? If you read French you are in luck. There are multiple used copies in various editions of À Coeur Perdu, all at cheap prices, from numerous US, UK and European dealers. Nearly all of these French books are paperback reprints. But the 1959 English edition (translation by Daphne Woodward) from Hamish Hamilton is a scarce and highly collectible book. There was only one hardback edition published in English and no paperback reprints that I know of. Currently there are only two copies available for sale: one is offered by an Australian dealer for US$108 and the other from the estimable Mysterious Bookshop in New York City for $125. Both are in fine condition and include the handsome DJ as shown from my copy up at the top of this post.

This is my second favorite suspense novel by Boileau & Narcejac. It stands out as an example of that all too rare work in genre fiction -- an artistic crime novel. They continue to explore their favorite themes of obsessive love and guilty consciences, incorporate the ghost and haunting angle, and the powerful metaphoric use of music and sound makes it all sheer brilliance. Though it all ends in genuine tragedy the book also has very slight touch of the detective novel in the second murder investigation that ought to please the purists. If you are fortunate enough to find a copy I highly recommend this. I'd go so far as to claim that this is superior to their other two well known books made famous by the movies Vertigo and Les Diaboliques, but not quite at the same level as their masterpiece The Prisoner.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, John. Another one I wish was in ebook format.