Spells of Evil, first published in 1961, is a little-known suspense novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, but it ranks with their more celebrated mysteries. As so often with these two writers, an outlandish story-line is made engrossing by virtue of their talent for creating a truly macabre atmosphere. Why most of their books have so long been out of print in English translation (and some have never been translated once) is inexplicable.
It’s not unusual in Boileau-Narcejac (and the other French writers who worked in the same vein) to find a charming yet weak-willed male protagonist falling in lust with a sexy but duplicitous woman, with fatal consequences. So it is here. Almost all of the story is told by a vet, Francois Rauchelle, who lives on the coast with his quiet wife Eliane. After he is called out to help a mysterious widow, Myriam Heller, who lives with a tame cheetah and an African maid, he embarks on a dangerous affair. But he soon has cause to worry that Myriam may be able to use black arts learned in Africa (the spells of the title) to murderous effect.
Boileau-Narcejac achieve their effects through a combination of clever plotting, intense prose and a choice of striking visual imagery. Myriam lives on an island linked to the mainland by a narrow causeway, and only accessible at low tide. Her bizarre domestic set-up is described vividly, as is Rauchelle’s terror when he finds himself caught in a trap. It all builds towards a startling climax from France’s masters of the surprise ending..
The blurb of the UK edition (which was translated by Daphne Woodward) gives too much of the story away, but it’s such a good and original story that the publishers’ error does not spoil things. And I do agree with the blurb writer on this: ‘The reader will fondly imagine that he knows exactly what is going to happen, but he will always be wrong.’