In 1956, French hardboiled crime author Noel Calef wrote a paperback called “Elevator to the Gallows” (“Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud”) that was followed by a highly-regarded French film adaptation with a Miles Davis soundtrack. The novel was translated into English and released by Fawcett Gold Medal under the title “Frantic” in 1961. The book was not reprinted for decades thereafter and is regarded as a crime fiction rarity coveted by serious paperback collectors. Black Gat Books (a Stark House imprint) recently re-released the novel in English sparking a major literary event for fans of classic noir fiction.
Julien Courtois is a successful owner of a Paris-based import-export firm who is working late on a Friday night. He has a dutiful wife at home and a desirable secretary at work. He also owes a good bit of money to the loan shark who works one floor above his office in a high-rise urban building. In the novel’s opening scene, Julien executes an exquisitely-planned murder of the loan shark whose body is sure to be found at the office when people return to work on Monday.
The novel’s central action begins when Julien attempts to make his getaway from the office building and finds himself stuck in the building’s elevator. Remember, it’s after-hours before a weekend and there’s a corpse upstairs waiting to be found. Moreover, this is before cell phones and modern alarm systems, so Julien has a real dilemma on his hands as the minutes become hours alone inside the small elevator’s compartment.
“Frantic” reminded me of a very good episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” in which the everyday hassles of life create the twists and turns spoiling an otherwise successful crime. The translation of the prose from the French by R. F. Tannenbaum is serviceable, but it’s clear that you’re reading a translated work. In any case, the core plot is pretty great and a reader is never lost as Julien deals with his confined-space dilemma.
While Julien is confined to an elevator, the events of the short novel are not. The action shifts to Julien’s wife who is convinced that her husband’s absence is proof of an affair, and sets out to find her missing man. The central story about a killer trapped in an elevator was terrific. However, the author filled out the novel with side plots involving several couples navigating their relationship issues that made for a cumbersome read at times. I kept wanting to skim over those sections to get back to the main plot. All the storylines converge later in the novel, so I suppose the filler was ultimately forgivable.
Black Gat Books is to be commended for rescuing this novel from the dustbin of history and preserving the original cover art for this re-release. I don’t think the book was a crime fiction masterpiece, but it wasn’t dreadful either. It was interesting to see what the French version of a Fawcett Gold Medal crime novel was like, so I suppose it was worth my time. Consider this a weak recommendation.
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