Frantic by Noël Calef, translated by R. F. Tannenbaum
Originally published in 1956 as Ascenseur Pour l’Echafaud
English translation first published in 1961
Julien Courtois finds himself in a bit of a financial bind. And the only way out is murder. He’s even got the perfect plan. While his secretary believes him to be in his office, he climbs up a rope to an upper floor and stages his victim’s “suicide.” It all works according to plan. But on his way out of the building, he remembers that the rope is still dangling out of the window, leading right down to his office! Rushing back into the building, Julien manages to get stuck in the elevator when the janitor turns off the power for the weekend. At the same time, a young couple steal Julien’s car from in front of the building, and his wife, thinking she’s watching Julien drive off with another woman, assumes the worst. And so begins a torturous set of circumstances. While Julien remains trapped in the elevator, his life gradually becomes unraveled by a vindictive wife and a couple of teenagers playing at being gangsters.
Julien Courtois is a man pushed to his financial limits. He is living well outside his means and has long since exhausted the goodwill and generosity of his friends and family. His most immediately problem however is that he has borrowed a sizable sum from a moneylender that has long since come due. With no prospect of making the payment, his financial troubles are certain to become widely known and ruin seems sure to follow.
Julien Courtois has an audacious plan however that, if it works, ought to erase that debt and enable him to start afresh. He intends to be seen to go into his office at the end of the workday, then quickly scale the outside of his building, murder that moneylender several floors above (retrieving evidence of his debt in the process), and then return to his own moments later to leave for the weekend, giving himself an unbreakable alibi. It seems like a perfect plan and everything seems to have gone smoothly until he remembers he forgot to remove a piece of evidence that will give the whole thing away. Frantically he dashes back inside only to get trapped in the elevator in the now-deserted building…
One of the joys of an inverted mystery for me is trying to figure out what that crucial piece of evidence might be. What makes Frantic particularly entertaining though is that while Julien is focused on that item inside the building, we are made aware of dangers lying outside it that he cannot anticipate. Even knowing what characters are up to, it only becomes clear in the final few chapters of the novel how each of those elements will come together to bring about his destruction. It’s a very satisfying structure which Calef delivers beautifully.
There is lots to enjoy in just the way that this story is set up. For instance, I appreciate that Julien has carefully considered a number of steps in his plan – timing it to perfection and carefully thinking through the problem of how to ensure his debt disappears. It feels like a rather solid plan with lots of attention to detail yet the thing he neglects is, in contrast, so simple that his failure to think of it is all the more striking.
I similarly enjoy the way the other story strands clearly escalate Julien’s problems, often combining in unexpected ways to throw him into deeper jeopardy. There are so many wonderful, ironic moments here and when they are finally brought together it is done brilliantly to deliver a really striking, Ilesian finish.
It should be said that this is not going to be one of those inverted stories where you feel sorry for the protagonist. While Julien clearly exerts a charm on some of those in his life, the book is also clear about his character faults which include womanizing and deceit. Sure, I was entertained following him and I did wonder if he might get free but I never hoped he would get away with murder. What makes it compelling is the tension inherent to this rather incredible situation.
I was perhaps a little more sympathetic to some of the other characters in the story, not least the young woman who takes his car for a joyride with her boyfriend. Though she has committed a crime, I felt I understood her well by the end of the story and also that the resolution of her story was really memorable. I would say that even the most sympathetic characters are still not all that likable and so if you are looking for a mystery story where you will have a character to root for, this is perhaps not the read for you.
Calef balances each of these story strands well, never allowing us to go too long without checking in on the other characters. This not only helps to keep the action moving, it helps balance the tone. This is particularly important given that the characters are in effect operating independently of each other, even if the threads will ultimately overlap, as it allows for a sense of variety.
It was, all-in-all, a rather quick and punchy read. Calef writes in an engaging way, effectively conveying the tension of a situation and describing any moments of action very clearly. Throw in a rather grabbing and imaginative starting point and you have the ingredients for a very readable story which had me engrossed right up to its very effective conclusion.
It’s such a visually-minded story that I find myself excited to go off and watch the movie adaptation. Happily I already own a copy of Elevator to the Gallows (though I have yet to see it) so I will hope to find time to sit down and watch it at some point soon. I will, no doubt, let you know what I think. In the meantime, if you have read the book or seen the movie I’d love to hear what you make of it.
The Verdict: A rather entertaining crime story, laced with ironic developments and a strong sense of tension.