Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac were a writer pair who dedicated themselves to writing incredible crime fiction through the 50s to the 70s. While Boileau came up with the plot and the story, Narcejac wrote the books, adding great dialogue and cold as ice descriptions. The pair inspired great films as well given that Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques” were based on their stories.
Les Louves, which was published in 1956, is a typical noir from the pair. Set during the Second World War, the story starts with two POWs fleeing the German camp to get back to France. One of them, Bernard, dies in a train accident on the way to Lyon and the other, Gervais decides to usurp Bernard’s identity to trick Bernard’s godmother, Hélène, into sheltering him. Gervais, who had killed his wife before the war, has no regrets in resorting to trickery. But little is he prepared for the strange events that his duplicity would trigger.
While Gervais is the main protagonist of the story, the novel is far more interested in the three women who drive its plot. Hélène and her sister Agnès, live in a small oppressive apartment and their rivalry and pettiness trap Gervais into a web of deceit and lies. The arrival of Julia, the sister of the dead Bernard, who does not give away Gervais’ game for base reasons of her own, makes the plot take another twist. Needless to say this noir is absolutely unputdown-able. Each character schemes and plots to destroy the other. Every one doubts the other in a perfect huis-clos, what with a war raging outside.
Boileau-Narcejac use the wartime atmosphere to add another layer of dread and despair to the proceedings. The writers pet themes of identity, doubles and deception (remember Vertigo?) are all present and the pair seems to have fun playing it up to a crescendo. Their characters are all bent and each has a motivation, deliciously evil, to act the way they do.
A story that is close to seven decades old hasn’t aged a bit. Diabolic to the core, Les Louves is an absolute success of atmosphere, plot and character. Everything that makes French Noir, such a great genre!
Les Louves is available widely in translation as The Prisoner. Needless to say it is best enjoyed in its original French. In case you would like to start reading French literature in French, you can always enroll yourself for an online French Course at Babel School of Languages 🙂