The First Crime Noir Novel

In 1867, the struggling young writer Emile Zola was trying desperately to write a successful novel. He aimed to publish a serial roman-feuilleton, a popular form that was the French version of the English penny-dreadful or the American dime novel. These ancestors of pulp fiction were widely read and enormous sellers, which appealed to Zola. He was chipping away at an imitation of Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris, which had appeared more than twenty years earlier. Zola called his book, Mysteries of Marseilles. Some critical sense made him set it aside and begin a new piece about people impelled by desire to commit murder. This was the novel Therese Raquin.

Later, Zola was to claim that his characters in Therese Raquin were no more than brutes controlled by their own instincts, machines that lacked free will. He cooked up a scientific rationale for this and critics have declared that Zola’s work inaugurates the new school of Naturalism. In fact, Therese Raquin is an extension of Gothic fiction and an exemplary pulp novel.

Zola as a pulp novel. It works!

Therese lives with her aunt and is married to her cousin, Camille, a sickly youth. Their marriage is passionless and childless. The three live above a dim shop in a sunless gallerie or arcade and Zola emphasizes the lightless character of Therese’s life. One day, Camille brings home a friend, Laurent, who recognizes immediately Therese’s dormant desire. Soon enough they begin an affair. Aflame with sexual energy, they decide to murder Camille so that they can live together. They plot a picnic and boating excursion on the Seine for the three of them. There, Laurent pitches Camille overboard, then capsizes the boat and pretends to rescue Therese. Camille drowns but his body is not found right away and Laurent daily goes to the morgue where unidentified corpses are kept. He looks into the faces of the dead every single day. What begins as a somewhat amusing diversion for a man who thinks himself above the common lot soon becomes a horror that gives him nightmares. He resolves to go only once or twice more. On his next visit he sees Camille’s body “looking at him through half-closed eyes”.

No one suspects Laurent and Therese, but they gradually become seized by fear of what they have done and then by guilt.  Everything, including Camille’s mother Mme.Raquin, reminds them of the deed they have committed. Even so, they marry but they find sex impossible, for Camille’s corpse lies between them. Mme. Raquin has a stroke and is both paralyzed and speechless. The couple become careless around her and she comes to realize what her niece and her husband have done and to hate them. Now the couple must live in the same cramped space with someone whose every glance pierces them.

detail from Fritz Eichenberg's illustration for "The Black Cat"

 One element is a direct homage to Edgar Allen Poe. Camille had a cat that Laurent now believes hates him. The cat stares at him and Laurent thinks that Camille has somehow transferred into the animal. He despises the cat that reminds him constantly of his crime and finally hurls it from a window against the wall of the next building. The cat’s back is broken; it falls onto the glass roof of the gallerie and moans and howls throughout the night. This is very much like what Poe did with “The Black Cat” where the murderer accidentally walls up the cat with his victim and then must hear its cries, cries that he associates with the dead woman behind the wall.

Eventually the murderous couple grow to hate and distrust one another. Each plots to murder the other but when they realize this, both commit suicide via the weapon they planned for the other. Mme. Raquin is left to feast her eyes on their bodies, “eyes that crushed them with brooding hate”.

"Double Indemnity" linocut by Warren Criswell:

Therese Raquin was a huge commercial success. Critics despised it, calling it “putrid” and saying it should be banned. This, of course, only added to the novel’s sales. Zola recognized this and openly laughed at his critics even as he defended the scientific basis of his work. He turned the book into a play that was also successful. Banned in England for years, the play was bound to be a sell-out when it finally escaped censorship there. But Therese Raquin‘s notoriety does not explain why the work has endured and been adapted to at least five movies, a half dozen television series, an opera, a musical (with music by Harry Connick, Jr.), and many stage versions.

poster for a 1928 version of Therese Raquin


Let’s look at the plot: a young woman in a joyless marriage meets a young man who sexually attracts her. The two commence an affair. The young man, who thinks himself smart, is in reality a stupid puppet of his own emotions. The two plot to murder the husband and succeed, only to discover that now they distrust one another and are unable to live with their crime. This, of course, is the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

So far as I can discover, James Cain never mentioned Therese Raquin. He may never have read it, but I suspect he must have seen one of the movie versions. This is not to accuse Cain of plagiarism; his work removes Zola’s more Gothic elements, such as the paralyzed old lady, and he wrote more natural books that are not (I think, but I am not a critic) considered Naturalism. The black cat continues though, especially in Postman where it serves as a sacrificial warning to the couple not to commit the crime. And Cain’s work, too, was labelled disgusting and pornographic and so on. There were two European films of Postman before Hollywood was allowed to film an American version. Double Indemnity soon followed. Leigh Brackett, the preferred writer of director Billy Wilder’s screenplays, refused to have anything to do with the production, calling it “filth”, and so Raymond Chandler (who also disdained Cain’s work) was brought in. Well, you know the result.

Hollywood tries to recapture pulp.

So Emile Zola created the template for the basic noir plot — a psychological examination of criminal behavior and ordinary people who commit terrible crimes. James Cain Americanized noir, probably under the influence of Ernest Hemingway or Sherwood Anderson or others of the era like Ring Lardner (“Haircut” must have been read by Cain). It is a very sturdy template, too, and readable in any era by those who have committed or contemplate crime, by those swept away or who want to be swept away by passion, and by all of us voyeurs who enjoy a good story about folks like us who go too far.

Therese Raquin is available on-line for free or: 
Penguin Classics Therese Raquin

The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and Selected Stories contains the three novels, various short stories, and a pretty good introduction. Recommended.


2 comments on “The First Crime Noir Novel

  1. Ross Klatte says:

    Good review of Zola’s novel, and good also on noir.

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