Although I hadn’t planned to read another Marc Behm novel (after “Afraid To Death” left me less than impressed), I was searching for another book in one of my book piles when I happened to find a copy of Behm’s 1980 novel “The Eye Of The Beholder” that I’d bought sometime during the ’00s. And, since the weather was hot and the book was short, I thought “what the hell” and decided to read it.
So, let’s take a look at “The Eye Of The Beholder”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins with a private investigator called “the Eye”, who works for a mysterious detective agency called Watchmen, inc. After shooting an embezzler in self-defence some time ago, he has been relegated to desk duty. But, when a wealthy couple show up at the agency to look into their wayward son’s mysterious new girlfriend, the Eye is given the case.
Aside from a mysterious incident where the Eye falls unconscious in the middle of a park, the case seems fairly ordinary at first. He watches the couple withdraw a large sum of money from the bank and have an impromptu wedding. But, whilst surveilling the couple’s honeymoon, the Eye sees her poison her husband and dispose of the body before stealing the money.
Although the Eye should report her, he finds himself fascinated by her. So, after concealing the body even further, he decides to follow her. In every town she visits, she assumes a new identity, meets a new husband and then kills him. Soon, this obsession with the killer begins to take over the Eye’s life….
One of the first things I will say about this novel is that it is a lot better than Behm’s “Afraid To Death”. It is a quirky hardboiled tale about obsession, observation, death and loneliness. The plot is compellingly suspenseful, the characters are intriguingly bizarre and the story moves at a reasonably decent pace too.
Although this novel is technically a crime/detective novel, the story flips all of this on it’s head – with the “detective” being an obsessed stalker who tries to cover up the killer’s crimes and/or furtively warn her about incoming police attention etc.. Likewise, most of the mystery and detection in this story comes from the Eye trying to learn more about the mysterious killer that he is following. Surprisingly, all of this works really well and helps to add a lot of compelling suspense to the story.
This novel also has a number of interesting motifs and sub-plots too. In addition to a running sub-plot about the Eye trying to solve a crossword clue, there are a lot of visual motifs (eg: regardless of her disguise, the serial killer always eats pears, listens to a song called “La Paloma”, wears the same necklace and smokes French cigarettes) and other recurring things, like a dream the Eye has about visiting his missing daughter’s school. Given that this is a novel about people whose are constantly on the run and whose identities are slowly being eroded by this, these small repeated details really help to add a sense of stability and humanity to the story.
In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly matter of fact “hard-boiled” style, but is a little bit more informal than classic 1920s-50s noir novels. This informality helps to add intensity, vividness and suspense to the story in addition to emphasising the murky world that the two main characters live in too. Plus, it also helps to keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace too.
As for the characters, the novel’s main characters are really interesting and there is a lot of character development throughout the novel. For example, the Eye is an intriguingly ambiguous protagonist, who goes from being a typical grubby hardboiled P.I, to being a rather creepy stalker/voyeur to being a strange kind of unseen guardian angel. Plus, in some parts of the novel, there is at least a small amount of ambiguity about whether he is real or just a figment of the killer’s imagination.
Likewise, although the serial killer starts out as a typical mysterious “femme fatale” kind of character, we learn a lot about her and her backstory as the novel progresses, and she becomes a much more sympathetic character.
Like in Behm’s “Afraid To Death”, this novel contains numerous high-brow cultural references too. The most prominent of these is probably Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” – which provides moodily ominous quotes about death, evil etc.. during various parts of the story. Likewise, despite the fact that one main character is a stalker and the other is a serial killer with a tragic background, both of them seem to be fairly cultured- which adds an intriguing level of stylised strangeness to the story.
In terms of length and pacing this novel is really good. At an efficient 213 pages in length, it never really feels bloated. Plus, although some earlier scenes where the killer meets several victims feel a little bit repetitive, the novel soon adds enough compelling twists and events to keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace.
In terms of how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged better than I’d expected. Although the novel contains some dated descriptions, a few brief moments of homophobia (although it’s nowhere near as bad as “Afraid To Death” in this regard) and the atmosphere/style of the story seems more “1960s/70s” than “1980s” ( although, if it was written a year or two before publication, then this might explain it), the story is still a surprisingly compelling tale that is just as intriguingly weird today as it probably was in the 1980s.
All in all, this was a much better book than I expected! It is a compellingly bizarre tale of two strange characters living a suspenseful life of crime. It has complexity and a bit of depth and it tells a fairly focused story too. If you only read one Marc Behm novel, then read this one instead of “Afraid To Death”.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.