It is 40 years since the publication of Marc Behm’s hardboiled – yet stunningly surreal – PI novel, The Eye of the Beholder.
Later adapted into two films, including a 1999 version starring Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd, this mesmerising tale from 1980 is an eclectic and experimental triumph – and for me one of the starkest, punchiest noir novels of all time.
The main character, known only as ‘The Eye’, is a field operative working for a corporate private investigation firm in Virginia. His latest assignment is to keep tabs on recent college graduate Paul Hugo, whose wealthy parents are concerned about a deviant young woman their son has gotten himself romantically involved with.
The Eye, long separated from his daughter who he only sees in sporadic illusions, is mentally unstable and finds himself fixated with the woman. He watches the young couple get hitched at the local city hall in a rushed ceremony and follows them on a drive to their honeymoon, becoming very much a voyeur now. When he watches the new bride calmly kill Paul that evening, dispose of the body and enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep, The Eye becomes infatuated.
Relinquishing his professional and legal obligations to report what he’s seen, he follows the woman to New York where, adopting a different alias and physical appearance, she befriends another wealthy male victim and kills him for the cash and cards he has on him. Worrying about the shallowness of the grave she’s buried him in amongst the trees, The Eye reburies the body deeper into the woods, fearful that if she gets caught, his days of watching her will be over.
He soon discovers that the woman has plenty of aliases and wigs as she criss-crosses the nation getting her hooks into one well-heeled victim after another – sometimes setting up a longer-term scheme by playing the bride for an inheritance payout, sometimes just helping herself to a quick score.
The Eye carefully watches her habits and does some research to find out her true identity, Joanna Eris, and uncovers a tragic past that explains her emotional detachment to the murders she carries out with such a callous flair. Picking up the trail again and living off his savings after the PI firm fires him, he sees Joanna marry an extremely affluent blind man. When her husband is killed in a car accident, The Eye watches the devastated Joanna scream in genuine, gut-wrenching pain and realises that this partner wasn’t one she intended to bump off.
Following her and watching her exploits – and sometimes helping to cover her tracks when her back is turned – becomes a way of life. Years, decades, pass. His twin obsessions of his lost daughter and the haunted, murderous Joanna dominate and warp his brain. Eventually, he works up the courage to approach Joanna and speak to her for the first time, thinking he can transform their bond into something more meaningful, more real. But the fates have another ending in mind.
Despite being a slender book, The Eye of the Beholder spans 30 years and covers nearly 100 killings. It’s an extraordinary work; brutal yet tender, rapid yet epic, and of course viciously bleak. A nihilistic descent into hell. Few books have explored themes of manic desire and sociopathic behaviour with such heartbreaking lyricism and relentless intensity.
Behm, born in New Jersey in 1925, became engrossed in French culture while serving there in the US army during the Second World War, and later moved to France permanently. He was a screenwriter as well as a novelist, penning the script for The Beatles’ movie Help! in 1965. He wrote seven novels between 1977-94 and died in Fort-Mahon-Plage in 2007. A gifted storyteller, The Eye of the Beholder is undoubtedly his finest work and deserves to be remembered for many years to come.