Friday, 17 October 2014

Forgotten Book - Nightmare (1975)

There are several books called Nightmare - I've covered Lynn Brock's intriguing book with this title previously - but today my subject is the novel of that name by Arthur La Bern. Until I found this Pan paperback in a dealer's catalogue, I only knew of La Bern as the author of Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, which became Hitchcock's serial killer film Frenzy, with a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer. So obscure did poor old La Bern become that even Shaffer spelled his name wrongly in his entertaining but somewhat unreliable memoirs. Yet he was not always obscure - far from it.

La Bern was born in London to French parents, and liked to describe himself as a Gallic cockney. He became a journalist,spending time as a crime reporter and also as a war correspondent in the Far  East. After the war ended, he wrote true crime books about the Acid Bath Murders and the Brides in the Bath Murders, and wrote TV screenplays for, among other shows, Fabian of the Yard and the Edgar Wallace Mysteries. His fiction seems to have focused on the sleazier aspects of London life. Among his novels, It Always Rains on Sunday became a successful example of British noir film making in the late Forties. Night Darkens the Street, inspired by the Hulten-Jones case, was filmed as Good Time Girl with Dennis Price and Herbert Lom among the cast. So he was quite a considerable figure in his day, and I'd be interested to learn more about him. Can any readers of this blog cast any further light on the man and his books?

Nightmare was a novel written late in his career, and I found it surprising and at times bizarre. The blurb on the paperback cover led me to expect a story in the manner of the late Patrick Quentin books. An alcoholic barrister whose wife has left him for a gangster takes an ovedose, but is rescued and put in a mental ward. "Then someone killed his wife's lover," the blurb continues, "and the nightmare went on and on..."

But this isn't really a story about murder. It's a short novel, but constructed in an odd way. Most of the book is set in a couple of mental hospitals, and it is soon apparent that La Bern has a very dark view of them indeed. In the second half of the book there are a number of relatively lurid sex scenes and there is at times a rather trashy feel to the story, while some of the topical detail now seems dated. But La Bern was a writer who, it seems to me, used melodramatic material to try to make serious points about the sinister side of society, though not with consistent success. Here he seems keen to deliver a message about the way m which people suffering from mental illness are treated. This resonated with me, because in the same year that this book was written, I made several visits to a friend in mental hospital; all I need say is that the experience made a profound and lasting impression on me. Those were the days when ECT treatment was quite common, and La Bern's novel reflects that reality.

La Bern also makes points about the sexual abuse of the vulnerable which may well have been regarded as the stuff of fiction in the 70s, but now, when we know much more about the behaviour of Jimmy Savile and others, seem shockingly realistic. Was La Bern driven to write Nightmare by some form of direct or indirect personal experience? It seems possible, but I simply don't know. The trouble is that some other aspects of the narrative remain implausible, and the unsatisfactory story structure diminishes the book's impact. Nightmare is a flawed novel, then, but very unusual and not, in the end, anything like the work of Patrick Quentin..


Philip Amos said...

There is, I should say, a tangential but relevant link between Bern and your post on criticism, Martin. Wiki has an entry for 'Goodbye Piccadilly...", with a footnote link to a letter Bern wrote to the Times re Hitchcock's adaptation. The letter is just short of apoplectic, his detailed objections aimed more at Shaffer than Hitchcock.

I think myself that the movie is far better than he allows, changes to the novel notwithstanding. I could not help but notice that he lived in Russell Court, St. James's. He sold the movie rights to a number of his novels, and I'm inclined to think his profits therefrom more than his work as a journalist in those days the more likely allowed him to live in a decidedly desirable part of town, a pleasant walk to the London Library for a morning's research, and then a gentle saunter for a tissue-restorer and luncheon at the Diogenes Club. Judging by the tone of that letter, I think the latter might have suited Bern well.

Martin Edwards said...

Philip, that's fascinating. Thanks very much. I shall investigate further, but in the meantime, is there any more you can tell us about La Bern?

Philip Amos said...

I'm pleased you found that of interest, Martin, but I'm afraid I have no more, other than that I noticed in one entry re the movie that he lived 1909-1990. I too shall investigate a little more, for that letter alone makes me suspect he may have been an... interesting character.

Martin Edwards said...

Philip, you prompted me to check The Times archive, and I see what you mean about his diatribe re Frenzy!
I also see that he wrote an article expressing scorn about the introduction of Public Lending Right. I think the majority of writers would agree that time has proved that, on this issue, his judgment was flawed.