Sunday, April 10, 2016

Vertigo, by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A modern classic that examines identity and obsession. 

Originally published in English as The Living and the Dead (the French title is D’entre Les Morts, which translates as “from among the dead”), this 1954 crime novel by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud was made famous as the basis for the 1958 Hitchcock masterpiece, Vertigo. It’s generally now published under that title.

It is the eve of the Second World War. France is preparing herself for the inevitable. Industrialist and war profiteer Paul Gevigne has called on his friend, Roger Flavieres, to help him solve a somewhat personal problem. The industrialist’s wife, Madeleine, has been acting very strangely. She has become obsessed with her great grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, a mentally troubled woman who eventually committed suicide. Could Flavieres secretly follow Madeline and find out what is wrong? Flavieres once worked for the police, but after witnessing a colleague plummet from a rooftop to his death, he’s never been the same. He now works as a lawyer.

It’s a strange request. Gevigne would investigate himself, but he’s so busy he doesn’t have the time. Flavieres reluctantly agrees. Pretty soon he’s become obsessed with the mysterious and troubled Madeleine, who seems to wander around Paris in a trance like state. When she throws herself into a river in an apparent suicide attempt, Flavieres is there to save her. The two  embark on a turbulent and passionate affair. Things reach their tragic end when Madeleine falls from a church tower. Favieres feels guilt over the death. He was there when the accident happened, but his fear of heights stopped him from helping her. Nearly out of his mind, Flavieres travels to Africa. Four years later, with the war over, he returns to France. He meets a  woman who looks uncannily like Madeleine. Her name is Renee Sourange. Could Renee be Madeleine, back from the dead? No, it’s impossible. Or maybe there’s some other explanation.

At a mere 170 pages, Boileau and Ayraud pack a lot of punch in this intense psychological thriller. The writing is crisp and tidy, unravelling its mysterious plot with superb precision. The truth of what really happened to Madeleine Gevigne isn’t revealed until the very last pages, leaving the reader totally enthralled throughout. While Vertigo is ostensibly a murder mystery, it also provides much meditation on themes of identity and obsession. It asks us who it is that we really love. Is it our idea of the person, or the person themself?  Fascinating, disturbing and ingenious.

Vertigo, by  Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud. Published by Pushkin. ISBN: 9781782270805 RRP: $19.99

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