Saturday, September 10, 2011
A Perfect Crime, Or Two (1969) by Hubert Monteilhet
Just like the previous book that I reviewed here, this one has its author doubling as a protagonist under his own name. I hope somebody someday comes up with an interesting little monograph on the author as murderer, and this book will have to figure prominently in it - and this is not a spoiler. So, Hubert Monteilhet, a well-known author of crime fiction, is travelling in Spain when in a hotel restaurant his glance falls idly on an intriguing trio of fellow diners: a man of distinguished appearance in late middle age, a strikingly beautiful woman and a boy in his late teens. That evening and night, all three of them in turns visit the author and tell him their stories, which complement each other. And for different reasons, the author is moved to help all of them in different ways – for, apart from writing crime thrillers, he has a profitable sideline in selling recipes for perfect murders to a select and discreet clientele.
As usual with Monteilhet, the plot involves potential criminals and potential victims switching places, with murder lurking in every soul like a coiled snake, with everybody guilty – including the author! except the author is the least hypocritical of the lot about it – or that is what he likes to think. And like in most Monteilhet stories, the narrative is driven forward not by a mystery of a crime but rather by the question ‘who will end up inflicting the most pain on whom and in what way?’ And under this icing of suspense, in his guise of a monstrous and mocking cynic, Monteilhet, as usual, delivers a scathing attack on the public and private morals of our time, on moral complacency, on cynicism itself, on a society which foolishly thinks it can survive without the concept of an immortal soul. It is interesting how Monteilhet always represents himself as among those at whom his outrage is directed. There seems to be an element of self-detestation about it – something perhaps very characteristically Catholic. Could it be that, among other things, the author deplores himself for the necessity of being so entertaining about his condemnation of sin? Because, obviously, without being entertaining, one can hardly hope to reach a large audience with a moral invective in the second half of the 20th century. Monteilhet would not have been out of place in a 17th century pulpit, while these days he has to preach through the low medium of crime fiction. But the entertainment, happily, is of the most erudite, highbrow, almost arcane variety. And the writing – in the original French - is a joy.
Unfortunately, the translator, Patricia Allen Dreyfus, or perhaps the publisher, Simon and Schuster, found it necessary to dumb down the English version by omitting something like a third of the original text, including some of its most outrageous dark comedy, and editing large chunks of what remained, including the crucial ending. Some amusingly post-modernistic passages also got the axe, like Monteilhet’s reference to his American translations! A very funny discussion of the (excellent but unfaithful) film adaptation of his earlier crime classic, Return from the Ashes, survives.