My latest entry for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is Praying Mantis, by Hubert Monteilhet. I’ve never heard anyone discuss the novel, even though it is a brilliant example of Eurocrime (but from a period when Eurocrime was distinctly unfashionable.) But I became aware of it back in 1982, when it was (I think) the very first film made specifically for Channel Four Television. It starred Cherie Lunghi and Jonathan Pryce and I thought it first-rate. Ever since, I’ve been trying to track down a copy, and a few weeks ago, I finally saw one in Jamie Sturgeon’s latest catalogue.
The novel was published in 1962, and it was Montheilet’s debut – and a brilliant one too. I’ve read one other of Monteilhet’s books, the excellent Return from the Ashes, and he seems to me to be good enough to be bracketed with those masters of suspense Boileau and Narcejac. Catherine Arley and the better known Sebastian Japrisot were other authors of the same era who worked in much the same territory.
The story is clever and compelling. A professor called Paul Canova takes out an extremely valuable insurance policy benefiting his wife. When his wife dies, he re-marries a beautiful but heartless woman, but before long he has an affair with a young student called Beatrice. Beatrice marries one of her teachers, Magny. But Magny has become embroiled with the second Madame Canova….
The telling of the tale is ingeniously handled – it’s done by extracts from letters, a diary, a tape recording and so on. Beatrice soon uncovers a cunning murder plot, but before long the reader is thrown into confusion about who is plotting against whom. Definitely a book that deserves to be better known.