The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1944
Initially published in 1942 under its original title, this novel was reissued two years later to tie in with the 1944 movie adaptation starring Edward G Robinson and Joan Bennett.
Professor Richard Wanley is vaguely dissatisfied with his life. He has unfulfilled professional ambitions, and his long-term marriage has become too comfortable. His best friends, respected attorney Duras Lalor and top doctor Moberley Blakestone caution him against such restlessness. Still, one night, after a few drinks, he allows himself to be picked up on the street by high-class prostitute Alice Fete. After they have sex at her apartment, her lover Claude Mazard bursts in and attacks Wanley in a jealous rage. During the life or death struggle, Alice hands Wanley a pair of scissors, and he stabs Mazard to death. Although it's an obvious case of self defence, Wanley realises that involvement in such an affair will ruin his life. Together, he and Alice decide to cover up the killing by disposing of the body. Unfortunately, Mazard is a famous financier, and his disappearance makes front-page news. Even worse, his body is quickly discovered, and Lalor is intimately involved in the subsequent investigation…
I had read somewhere that Fritz Lang's famous film adaptation was only very loosely based on the original novel, but that commentator had obviously never read it. The movie is very faithful to the source material with only minor differences, save for the ending and the status of Alice. In the book, she's a high-class call girl, apparently happy to turn an extra trick, even though she's being kept in luxury by a rich sugar daddy. Wanley goes back to her apartment for sex; it's as simple as that, although no financial transaction is explicitly mentioned. Wanley refers to her in his mind as 'a harlot,' which he does so consistently that it robs him of some of the sympathy he might receive as a 'victim of circumstance.'
That state of affairs was utterly unacceptable in a Hollywood film of the 1940s, of course. So Alice, in the lovely form of Joan Bennett, becomes a euphemistically 'kept woman' who never displays any overt romantic interest in Robinson, either before or after the killing. When she invites him to her apartment in the early hours, it's because she's the model who posed for the painting he so admires in the window, and she offers to show him the preliminary sketches! Ridiculous, of course, and likely a sly piece of humour inserted by screenwriter Nunnally Johnson.
Both film and book are primarily concerned with the psychological effect of murder; the guilt, the fear of getting caught and the escalating paranoia. These lead to Wallis' lead character making a series of stupid mistakes, which can reasonably be read as an unconscious desire to confess and escape his inner torment. These blunders are handled with somewhat less subtlety in the film, although it could be argued that these play better into the film's more fantastical ending. Wanley's eventual fate in the book is more the result of this mental trauma, although there is a little ambiguity about his actions at the climax. However, one interpretation of these final events was as out of bounds for Hollywood as the notion that a murderer could escape punishment, making it understandable that the ending was changed. The film's resolution addresses these issues quite efficiently, but, unfortunately, the twist is a tiresome cliche and has been a source of controversy ever since.
As a novel, it's a clean, entertaining read but, in my opinion, comes with one major caveat. Although told in the third person, we spend almost the entire narrative in Wanley's head. So we get a great deal of meditating on his crime and the possible clues he may have left behind. This does become quite repetitive after a while, especially toward the conclusion. I'm sure this was by design; the better to inform the reader of Wanley's state of mind and how that plays into the final outcome. However, the story drags a little as a result, and some judicious trimming might have made for a tighter, more focused narrative.
There is limited biographical information on Wallis available. He was an American ex-newspaper man educated at Yale, published initially as a poet. He wrote almost a dozen mystery and crime novels, beginning in 1931. These often featured the exploits of Inspector Wilton Jacks, who appears in a small supporting role in 'Once Off Guard'. He passed away in 1958. Coincidentally, his UK editions were almost exclusively published by Jarrold & Sons and were likely printed at the St James Mill works, the site of which happens to be about one and a half miles from where I live!
Entertaining enough, but nothing very special. Worth a read if you're a fan of the film and want to compare and contrast.
Leave a Reply.