Summer lovin’ had me a blast

Now that the nights are hot and sultry, I find I’m in the mood for a bit of lust and murder.

I have loved film noir, and whatever its literary equivalent is, for many years now. Ever since I have been old enough to love it. And possibly since when I was even younger. Oh, how I would long for some torrid femme fatale lead me into desperate mazes of lust, depravity, and murder! OK, maybe not the murder bit, but you get the idea. At an age when I should have been dreaming of a Mary Poppins leading me into a magical land of gentle fantasy, I was fantasising instead of Barbara Stanwyck or Jane Greer or Ava Gardner leading me astray. I still am.

Wife and lover murder husband, and are then tied together by bonds of guilt. This seems to me the archetypal film noir plot, but, as far as I can think, this plot appears only in two film noirsDouble Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Well, a few more than two if we count remakes. The Postman Always Rings Twice has been filmed a number of times: it was given an Italian setting by Visconti in the film L’Ossessione; and was later filmed in its American setting, first in a somewhat flat adaptation starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, and, later, in what seems to me a much finer effort, by Bob Rafelson, with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson. The Visconti and Rafelson versions are both, I think, rather fine, but it’s Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity that, more than any other film, epitomises film noir for me. And it is for this reason that this particular plotline strikes me as archetypal noir.

Both Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are, of course, based on novels by James M. Cain. I am by no means well read in thrillers, but, as far as I have read, I’d unhesitatingly nominate these two as my favourites. Desire, lust, murder, sex, guilt … what more could one want? There seems to me something particularly disturbing, something uniquely horrifying, about two people committing this greatest of all sins, the taking of a human life, for the sake of gratifying their desires; there seems something particularly appalling about the coils of guilt and shame they find themselves enmeshed in, and their despair as they discover, after all they have done, that their desire is had without content. They do not need to wait for the afterlife for punishment: their damnation is right here on earth, even before the law gets to them

Without taking anything away from Cain, such a story must have had forebears. I can only think of two: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, and Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola, both published within a couple of years of each other in the 1860s. There’s Clytemnestra as well, of course, but she murders her husband on her own, without her lover’s help (although with her lover’s knowledge and approval). If we widen the net a bit to cover murders committed by any couple (not necessarily wife and lover), and of any victim (not necessarily the husband), we can find a few more examples of this plotline: very obviously, there’s Shakespeare’s Macbeth; and there’s that strange, savage story, depicted by all three Athenian tragedians, of brother and sister, Orestes and Electra, coming together to murder their mother (although the murder in this case is not motivated by desire). I am sure there are many more examples I can’t right now think of. But restricting ourselves specifically to wife and lover murdering husband, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, Thérèse Raquin and the two Cain novels are the only ones I can think of.

And, given that I am now in the mood for this sort of thing, I was thinking of re-reading all four of these books. They’re all quite short works, after all, and even at my snail’s pace, they shouldn’t take too long. And I am sure there are other stories with this plotline I can’t think of right now.

And so, over to you. Wife and lover murder husband. Or maybe, for a bit of variety, husband and lover murder wife. For desire. And they go on to suffer all the torments of Hell, even here, on this bank and shoal of time. Any other title I should include in my reading plans?

Thanks in advance.

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18 responses to this post.

  1. I’m fairly sure Agatha Christie has one or two of these. But Christie never goes into the emotional landscape of things, rather she leaves emotion (versus motive) all unspoken. A potentially suggestive but somewhat flat literary device, leaving her, I think, a genre writer.

    Reply

    • I read some Agatha Christie recently, but, as far as I found, her focus is entirely on the plot, and she deliberately flattens out anything and everything that may get in the way of the plot unfolding. What she does, she does very well, and I can understand why she has so large and so devoted a following, but while I do admire what she did, it’s not really for me.

      Reply

      • I don’t care for her either. Though her stories make perfect fodder for stage and screen.

      • They seem often to work very well in performance, as the plot itself is always ingenious, and actors can fill out her characters with their own personalities.

      • Posted by Christine Lying on June 15, 2018 at 4:59 pm

        I have usually enjoyed the many TV adaptations I have seen, but have never managed to get beyond page one of a Christie novel. For me, it is the wooden quality of the prose that acts as a complete turn-off; I have never got to the point of judging any other aspect of the work.

      • Hello Christine, I take it it was Spellchecker that so unfortunately mis-spelt your surname!

        I read “Murder on the Orient Express” recently to see if I was missing out on anything. (I recorded my impressions here: https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2017/11/15/murders-on-the-orient-express/) Her plotting is superb, I felt, but everything, everything, seemed to me subordinated to the plotting. I can understand her popularity, I think, but, like yourself, I can’t say i’m sold!

  2. Try the very first story published by Henry James, “A Tragedy of Error” (1864), I kid you not. It surprised me.

    Reply

    • I was quite taken aback by your answer. Henry James was about the last person I had in mind. This story is not in my collection (I have the two volume collection of his short fiction) but I most certainly need to get my hands on this one.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Christine Lyon on June 5, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    Interesting that Tom came up with something by Henry James. I was racking my brains, trying to think of a suggestion, because this does sound like a story we have all heard many times before, but the only thing that immediately came to mind was ‘The Wings of the Dove’. Of course, in that case, no one actively plans a murder, simply allows nature to take its course. From your list, I only know ‘Thérèse Raquin’, so I can claim no expertise in this genre, but I do have the impression that this plot-line has been used much more frequently than would actually seem to be the case.

    Reply

    • “The Wings of the Dove” is a wonderful novel (as an aside, it’s my brother’s favourite novel) and I suppose that, in a sense, it is indeed a crime novel: certainly, Kate Croy and Merton Densher are tied to each other by their mutual guilt.

      But no, I’m in the mood for a bit of noir-ish passion and murder this summer…

      Reply

  4. Posted by Charley on June 5, 2018 at 11:57 pm

    Oh man, that article hit at just the right time. I was over home at Christmas, clearing out my late dad’s collection and he was very much into a guy called James Hadley Chase.

    This unjustly forgotten writer was really something else. Just look at the titles: ‘Just Another Sucker’; ‘You Find Him — I’ll Fix Him’; There’s a Hippy on the Highway’; ‘Do Me A Favour — Drop Dead’; ‘Believe this… You’ll Believe Anything’; ‘Consider Yourself Dead; they go on and on.

    It’s nearly as if he was the hidden son of Micky Spillane and James Woods, who had conceived him while watching a Humphrey Bogart marathon on speed.

    Open a page of this guy’s stuff and you won’t stop till morning.

    ‘Won’t Stop till Morning’…. that could be one of his titles!

    Reply

    • I’ve been persuaded to read “The Killer Inside Me” by Jim Thompson. Not wife-and-love-murder-husband, but nonetheless, one of the great crime novels. (So I am reliably told.)

      Reply

  5. And, of course, there is “Celle Qui N’Etait Plus” by Boileau and Narcejac’ which, when adapted into the film version, “Les Diaboliques”, put a whole new twist on the story. Wife and husband’s mistress conspire to murder him.

    Reply

    • Ah yes, I was thinking about “Les Diaboliques”. (Clouzot’s film, at least – I don’t know about the book.) It certainly starts off as wife-and-mistress-kill-husband, but to say any more would be grossly unfair to those who don’t know it! 🙂

      Reply

  6. Posted by alan on June 23, 2018 at 7:57 pm

    I remember a TV story where a woman turns up who has an uncanny resemblance to a man’s wife.
    She’s more witty and vivacious than the wife but one day it appears she has left. But which one in fact remains? The drama does not resolve this question.
    I can’t remember the name of it but I’m fairly sure the evil twin story has been done many times.

    Reply

  7. Borges once wrote about how, when compared to Kipling’s late stories, things like Maupassant’s tales or Joyce’s Dubliners seem childish.

    One good example of this is Dayspring Mishandled, were a wife and her lover, a physician, slowly poison her husband to death, but that is not enough for the wife, she wants to utterly humiliate her husband, to crush him. And yet, this summary feels almost as wrong a way of describing Kipling’s dark revenge tale as to describe The Lord of the Rings’ plot as being about how “a man destroys family heirloom”.

    Dayspring Mishandled begins with a premonition of something like Buzzfeed or BoingBoing: “In the days beyond compare and before the Judgments, a genius called Graydon foresaw that the advance of education and the standard of living would submerge all mind-marks in one mudrush of standardised reading-matter, and so created the Fictional Supply Syndicate to meet the demand.” And it ends with forgiveness, or some semblance of it, anyway.

    Reply

    • Thank you for this. I must admit I haven’t read the Kipling story: I’ll have a hunt around for it. I’m afraid that although I insist that the author’s politics should not bias the reader, I do find it difficult to come to terms with Kipling. But the short stories of his that I have read are, i acknowledge, quite excellent.

      Reply

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