The Big Sleep to Gone Girl, books followed the reels

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Getting acquainted with books after watching a movie.


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Fri 20 Aug 2021, 10:48 PM

With crime fiction, I was an author binger once upon a time. In my early teens, I devoured James Hadley Chase books like there was no tomorrow. I’d buy second-hand pulp fiction with my limited pocket money, one every week, and started building a library in a secret corner of my room.

My father considered Chase a corrupting influence and had given me a lecture when he chanced upon me reading Like A Hole In The Head, so I had to keep my active archive ‘underground’.

Once I ran through his collection — Calcutta’s Free School Street, renamed Mirza Ghalib Street, but always Free School for us, had brilliant “old books” stores which housed Chase’s entire repertoire — I switched to Agatha Christie and went on to consume her collection in rapid courses.

Looking back, Chase and Christie were my pillars while I chased crooked shadows. I never accorded any other crime writer that kind of elevated honour; and even though I ran a fine-tooth comb through the welter, from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a criminal pattern ensued: I would get acquainted with books only after I watched a movie. And when I read the printed words, I gave the lead characters a face: Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, for instance; and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl.

It probably started with Rebecca: the Hitchcock movie that I watched on (the state-run Indian channel) DD one weekend, and couldn’t get enough of. I wanted to watch it again immediately, but obviously couldn’t because those were days of one-offs with no repeat function.

I could read the book instead, it was suggested. The one by Daphne du Maurier. It wasn’t really textbook crime fiction, more a love story set in spooky mansion called Manderley, where the protagonist felt “ghosted” by the dead first wife of her husband, whose abstract decoction hung around in rambling corridors and remote wings. But there’s a whiff of a murder and a subsequent investigation and delicious thrills. I read the book enthusiastically and marvelled at Maxim and the nameless narrator who I equated with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine respectively.

Ditto with Strangers on a Train — again a film made by Hitch (in 1951), starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker — that made me want to revisit the trail, this time on paper. It was then that I learnt the book was written by Patricia Highsmith, in 1950, who was considered avant-garde and a little weird (which is perhaps why she wrote ‘psychological thrillers’ in an age when women were supposed to have been had a more ‘wholesome’ literary mettle), and had famously remarked “I choose to live alone because my imagination functions better when I don’t have to speak with people.”

James Hadley Chase, who I so adored as a young teenager, had been inspired to take to writing crime fiction after he read The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. Cain wrote the book in 1934, and acquired the mantle “hardboiled”, and a movie was made sometime in the 1940s starring Lana Turner and John Garfield. I watched the 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, on VCR sometime in the early 1990s — in rapt attention — and turned to the pages of the book soon after.

The hardboiled Mr Cain had also written Double Idemnity, which I never read because I caught several “editions” of the book on reel. The “original” Billy Wilder film with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G Robinson, made in 1944, that had that great line “How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

The “unofficial” remake Body Heat, made in 1981 by Lawrence Kasdan, with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (she was nicknamed ‘Turn on Turner’ following its release). And then the steamy Bollywood Jism that made stars out of Bipasha Basu and John Abraham.

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