Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Ben Ames Williams' Leave Her To Heaven

Leave Her To Heaven was a 1944 bestseller by Ben Ames Williams. The movie adaptation from 1945 is now much better remembered (indeed it’s one of the half dozen best Hollywood movies of the 40s). I’ve developed an interest in tracking down the source novels of some of my favourite movies and I was lucky enough find an affordable used copy of Leave Her To Heaven (it is of course long out of print).

The book is told in flashback. Richard Harland recalls the events of six years earlier which left him a broken man.

Richard is a 30-year-old novelist. He is unmarried and his parents are dead. His only relative is his twelve-year old brother Danny. Danny has all but lost the use of his legs, the legacy of a bout of polio. The two brothers are unusually close. Richard is a kind of father as well as big brother to Danny.

The story started on a train, heading for a holiday in on a ranch in New Mexico. On the train is a beautiful young woman and she’s reading one of his novels but it sends her to sleep. This annoys him but the girl fascinates him. When he gets to the ranch he finds that the same girl is also going to be a guest there.

Her name is Ellen Berent. Her father, to whom she was devoted, was a bird collector. He died a year ago. Ellen is at the ranch with her adoptive sister Ruth and her mother. Harland becomes increasingly obsessed with the 22-year-old Ellen. Everyone says Ellen is an odd girl, and she is. She is strong-willed to the point of being a control freak. The only person for whom she really cared deeply was her father. She had a bit of a fixation on him (this was 1944 and authors were Freud-crazy at the time).

Ellen seems to transfer her father fixation to Richard Harland. He reminds her of her father in a way that no other man has done. She needs a replacement for her father, and she chooses Harland. She falls in love with Harland, but it’s a particular kind of love. It’s passionate but it’s intensely possessive. She had always wanted to have her father all to herself. Now she has decided she’s going to have Richard all to herself. Richard isn’t sure he wants Ellen but then they get caught in a wild storm and they’re in real danger and suddenly he feels close to her.

They marry immediately. Ellen has what she wanted, but there are two problems. The first is that she broke an engagement to State’s Attorney Russ Quinton in order to marry Harland. She had never taken the engagement seriously but Quinton took it very seriously indeed and he’s a man who holds grudges. The second problem is Danny. The two brothers are very close and Danny is now utterly dependent on his older brother. Ellen will have to share Richard with Danny. That might not work out so well.

It works out very badly indeed. And then a terrible event occurs.

But while Richard is in a state of shock Ellen announces that she is pregnant. There are more shocks in store for Richard Harland. And just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, they get much worse.

This is a murder mystery of sorts, but with complications. There are two deaths. The circumstances of both are unusual and ambiguous. This is not detective fiction. We, the readers, know too many of the circumstances of the deaths beforehand although we don’t know everything. There is some mystery, but not much. It’s also a courtroom drama of sorts. I dislike courtroom dramas unless they’re written by Erle Stanley Gardner. Courtroom dramas are inherently dull but he knew how to make them gripping and exciting. Willians throws in a few surprises but the courtroom scenes are still a hard slog. And they go on and on.

The movie version arouses controversy over whether it qualifies as film noir or not, and it can also be debated whether the novel is noir fiction or not. In both cases the main argument in favour of noir status is Ellen, who certainly has some major femme fatale qualities.

She’s not quite a typical femme fatale. She is however a monster. We come to understand her motivations even while we are horrified by her behaviour.

The major problem is that the impression given by the novel is that the author thought he was writing Serious Fiction rather than a mystery. He actually has a rather brilliant mystery/crime plot but he gets bogged down with lengthy descriptive passages, and unnecessary details about minor characters. The book is much too long. The movie tightened things up a great deal and this is one of the reasons the movie is superior to the book. The movie also made Ellen slightly more sympathetic, or at least slightly more ambiguous, and this made her more interesting.

The book is worth reading if you’re a fan of the movie. I've reviewed the movie Leave Her to Heaven (1945) as Classic Movie Ramblings.

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