She Who Was No More was the first psychological thriller from the writing duo of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac to be translated into English.
Published in 1952 as Celle qui n’était plus , it had its English language debut in 1954 as The Woman Who Was No More. Since then it’s had two further changes of title: It was published as The Fiends by Arrow Books in 1957 and as She Who Was No More by Pushkin Vertigo in 2015. This last version was the one I read for the 1954 Club.
The plot concerns a traveling salesman called Fernand Ravinel who leads a mundane existence with his wife, Mireille. He’s been having an affair with Luciene, a doctor who’d treated his wife a few years before the book opens. The pair have hatched a plan to murder Mireille, make a claim on her life insurance policy and use the two million francs payout to set Lucienne up in a practice in Antibes.
Everything goes to plan initially. The pair lure Mireille to an apartment in Nantes and drown her in the bathtub, making her death look like an accident. They roll her in a carpet and drive throughout the night to dispose of her body back at the marital home in Paris. The final stage is meant to be the discovery of the body with Ravinel playing the part of the shocked, grieving husband.
But this is where the scheme falls apart. Mireille’s body is not discovered. In fact it seems to have disappeared. Ravinel is certain that she died — he was there when it happened — but can’t explain various sightings of a woman who looks exactly like his wife.
He senses something is very wrong, that “there was a trap somewhere” but is at a loss for an explanation.
Readers won’t be similarly lost however because the twist in the tale is signalled fairly early on. So the main interest of She Who Was No More lies really on the psychological aspects of the planned murder and the aftermath; on Ravinel’s rationale for killing his wife and his feelings towards his mistress.
He’s clearly a man in thrall to Lucienne though it’s a mystery why he has hooked up with her given that he doesn’t even like her (she has some habits he considers loathsome). It’s not the sex that excites him either for their encounters are often rather clinical, “brief, hasty intercourse, sometimes on a consultation room couch, within a yard of an enameled trolley on which stainless-steel instruments were laid out under a sheet of gauze.”
Maybe Lucienne’s appeal is that she represents the chance of a different life. The life insurance money will be his exit ticket from his current dreary job, and into a bright new future as the owner of a swanky shop frequented by well-heeled customers.
Everything would be different. He himself would be a different man. Lucienne had promised he would. As though seeing the future in a crystal, Ravinel saw himself sauntering along the beach road in white flannels. His face was tanned. People turned to look at him.
Boileau and Narcejacis make it a little too obvious that this is dream is the product of a weak and deluded man whose misfortune is to encounter a forceful, manipulative woman.
Even so, the book ends with a satisfying twist. She Who Was No More is a good example of European noir, not particularly well written but a good choice if you’re looking for undemanding entertainment.
She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac: Footnotes
If the plot of She Who Was No More sounds familiar, it might be because you’ll have seen or heard of a film version The book was transferred to the screen as Les Diaboliques in 1955 and remade in1996 as Diabolique with Sharon Stone in the starring role. This version, only very loosely based on the book, was a critical and box office failure.
I’d never heard of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac until I discovered their novel Vertigo (see my review here) had been adapted by Alfred Hitchcock for his film of the same name. The duo were prolific — together they wrote 43 novels, 100 short stories and 4 plays . Their novels focused on tension, unsentimental characters and plot twists within an atmosphere of disorientation. They are considered to have been highly influential in shaping a particular form of the French crime novel based on mounting psychological suspense.