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The Ballad of the Running Man

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Pan, London, 1963
(first published by Hamish Hamilton, 1961)
price: 2/6; 192 pages

The blurb on the back:

‘Great riches are coming to you, lady dear,’ Mrs Spade had said, gazing at the cards.
Paula had laughed. Her husband, Rex, was only a hack crime novelist.
’I see a coffin...and a Club man who brings you terrible sorrow.’
Paula had told Rex. They'd laughed together over it.
One sweating evening, eighteen months later, she watched Rex screwing down the coffin lid ...

opening lines:
It was in the late summer of 1960 that the body of an unknown man was discovered in circumstances of peculiar horror by two English schoolmistresses on vacation in Haute Savoie.

This is a splendid little thriller, in which a husband and wife concoct a series of life insurance frauds, based on the supposed death of the male partner. Inevitably the consequences of their actions catch up with them, culminating in a superbly tense showdown in Switzerland between the con artists and an insurance assessor. Hard to say anymore without revealing the twists and turns of the plot, but trust me, this is fun stuff, and was deservedly nominated for an Edgar Award.

Amidst the action, there are some nice little observations on life and human nature. And I’m particularly fond of the idea that the protagonist dreams up this elaborate scheme as a way of getting out of his career as a pulp writer, a life that was proving less than satisfactory:

Industriously he banged out half a dozen books a year. Measured only in terms of the labour involved, it is quite something. To spin six different plots a year - even to a formula; to invent a fresh set of characters for each - however rudimentarily they are conceived; and to get down some five hundred thousand words a year - however crudely - is no mean effort. And contrary to his expectations, Rex was to learn the bitter truth that writing does not become progressively easier with practice, it becomes harder. He discovered that the mere act of writing depletes one's spontaneity, the flow of invention gradually dries up. (p.13)

As the cover indicates, this was filmed in 1963 by Carol Reed as The Running Man, with a screenplay by John Mortimer and with a cast starring Laurence Harvey, Lee Remick and Alan Bates. Sounds good to me, but I haven’t seen it.

Shelley Smith had previously written Background for Murder (1942), This is the House (1945), Death Stalks a Lady (1945), Come and be Killed (1946), He Died of Murder (1947), Man with a Calico Face (1951), Man Alone (1952), An Afternoon to Kill (1953), The Party at No. 5 (1954), The Lord Have Mercy (1956) and Rachel Weeping (1957).


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