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Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac #bookreviews

VertigoI’ve watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo several times but never realised that this tale of mental disturbance and obsession was based on a French novel called D’Entre les Morts (translated into English as From Among the Dead). 

The plot of the film is essentially the same as that of the novel though the characters’ names are different and Hitchcock makes far more about the vertigo suffered by the protagonist. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac set From Among the Dead in Paris and Marseilles but Hitchcock went for San Franscisco, presumably because its relative proximity to Hollywood made it more economical.

More significantly the historical context is eradicated from the film version.  From Among the Dead is set against a background of World War 2 and the ugliness of war deepens the sense of displacement created by the plot. The book opens in a period called ‘the phoney war’ when people in France wait uneasily for the hostilities that seem inevitable.  Some in France, like the industrialist Paul Gevigné, stand to profit from the war but others, like his old university friend Roger Flavières feel they are living on the edge of an abyss. “The future was … a blank. Nothing had any real meaning except the spring leaves in the sunshine – and love.”

The pair haven’t seen each other for several years but Gevigné, now a prosperous shipbuilder, tracks down his old friend because he needs help. His wife Madeleine is behaving strangely, experiencing attacks which leave her in a frozen, trance-like state . She denies going out in the afternoons but Gévigne has evidence to the contrary. Is she lying (and if so, for what purpose) or is she suffering a mental disturbance affecting her memory? Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her but Gevigné isn’t convinced. Adding to his anxiety is the fact Madeleine’s great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, suffered from a similar mysterious affliction and committed suicide when she was twenty-five, coincidentally Madeleine’s age now. His old friend Paul used to be a police detective so who better to help him by following Madeleine and solving the mystery?

Flavières is initially reluctant to help. But after just one sighting of Madeleine he’s dazzled. This is a woman whose beauty is as mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa, but with a sadness that he finds endearing.  “It was no longer a question of watching her, but of helping her, protecting her,”  he reflects after seeing her at the theatre one night. And so his fate is sealed. As he trails her through the streets of Paris, Flavières — who has never before been in love — becomes obsessed by his friend’s wife.

He was making a fool of himself of course. Torturing himself into the bargain, living in a constant tumult of painful impressions. Never mind! Beneath that tumult was a peace and a plenitude of joy such as he had never known. It swallowed up the frustrations of recent years, the fears, the regrets.

His delight is short-lived. On an excursion into the countryside, Madeleine throws herself off the tower of a church and dies. Her death brings part one of the book to an end, coinciding with the fall of France to the Nazi invaders.

Flash forward four years. The war is over and people in France are picking up the pieces of their lives. Paul Gevigné is dead and Roger Flavières is an alcoholic, tormented by the loss of Madeleine and his guilt that he couldn’t save her. His doctors tell him that for his own sanity he should get out of Paris.  On his last night in the city he goes to the cinema and sees in a newsreel a girl who closely resembles Madeleine.

He persues her, courts her and takes her as his mistress but the relationship goes downhill because Flavières tries to remake her in the image of the dead woman, dictating what she wears and the style of her hair. Believing his mistress is really a reincarnation of his lost love, his hold on reality becomes ever more fragile.  Flavières comes across as a bully at this stage, never letting up for moment in his determination to force his mistress to confess that yes, she is Madeleine.

Vertigo is a dark and stylish tale about a man in torment. A man who is destroyed by his infatuation for a woman and his search for the truth. Although we sense from the outset that things are not going to turn out well for Flavières, that feeling of inevitability doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the novel.  The first part is a little on the slow slide but the tension ratchets up significantly in the second part, coming to a satisfying twist in the final pages. But by then it is too late for Flavières. His life is in ruins.


D’Entre les Morts was published in 1954. Apparently Boileau and Narcejac wanted to move away from the conventions of Golden Age mysteries. They wanted to turn victims into conspirators and protagonists into perpetrators and operated to a rule that “the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare”. The English version came out in 1956 and the film in 1958.

In 2015 Pushkin came out with a new edition as part of PUSHKIN VERTIGO, their new imprint for crime classics from around the world, focusing on works written between the 1920s and 1970s.




What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

23 thoughts on “Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac #bookreviews

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  • I’ve read quite a few from the Pushkin Vertigo series and they’ve (mostly) been very good. There was one I didn’t care for, but otherwise a good bet.

  • Although I like Jimmy Stewart, this Hitchcock film was never a favorite of mine. It felt like two separate stories, and I had a hard time seeing the lovable Stewart as a truly pushy person in the second half. I would think losing the context of a war on their doorstep changed the feel of the book dramatically.

    • I blow hot and cold on Jimmy Stewart. When he’s good he’s very very good, but he has also made some second rate films. The film Vertigo doesn’t have as much of the darkness as the book

      • Yeah, the tone just really didn’t work for me. I’d much rather watch Rebecca, The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, or even the later film, Frenzy. As much as I love Rebecca with Joan Fontaine, I don’t think the magic is quite the same in Suspicion!

        • Frenzy is a new one for me… off to look that up

        • It’s dark humor about a murderer. It came out in the 70s and thus is in color, too!

  • I can’t remember if I’ve seen the film or not, but I can certainly say that I’ve often found that the book is superior to a film. Inevitably, they have to leave things out, and inevitably there are things that can’t be conveyed in film…

    • I found that happening again this week when we watched Girl on a Train. The book was vastly superior – it didn’t help that the director decided to change locations and set the film in New York. It really didn’t work – the houses were set back too far from the road to allow anyone in a passing train to see them clearly. Wheras in London you are right up close…

      • So you can scare yourself nicely when you read the book!

  • I loved this and, much though I’m a Hitchcock fan usually, felt it was far superior to the film. The wartime setting really added to the sense of displacement, as you say, and Flavieres is a much deeper, more complex character than Scotty in the film. I also found the first half slowish, but wondered if that was because it was so like the film that I knew what was going to happen. The second half diverges quite a lot from the film and I found myself completely engrossed in it. Thanks for the reminder!

    • The wartime setting was such a surprise and added so much to the overall atmosphere. I suppose once Hitchcock decided to set his version in USA, then it would have been impossible to bring in any kind of war reference.

  • This isn’t for me, but I like the sound of the imprint in general. I shall be looking out for future publications.

    • This is the first I have read from the imprint but they have a few that look interesting

  • I love the film but I’ve never read the book – sounds wonderfully dark, though, I really must give it a try! 🙂

    • It gets darker as it progresses. The scenes where he is pushing his mistress to agree she is the dead woman are uncomfortable

  • I, too, have seen the film Vertigo several times….and did not realize it was based on a book. Thanks for sharing.


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