Sex and Murder, Zola Style

One of the greatest crime novels of all time was written in 1868. The author was Emile Zola. The city was Paris. The book was Therese Raquin. Zola is not normally considered a “crime author” and, in truth, his subject matter ranged far beyond the usual parameters of the genre. He’s just a great writer. Period. But when he dealt with the dark side of humanity, it was as raw, brutal, and sexually charged as anything Chandler, Cain, or Thompson would write in the next century.

The basic plot of Therese Raquin is simple enough. A young woman is trapped in a marriage she never really wanted. She has a lustful affair with another man. Then they decide they’re sick of always having to sneak around the dull-witted husband. So, they kill him. And then it starts to get really ugly. Therese and her lover, Camille, have to deal with the pragmatic details of getting away with murder. Which they do. For a while. Until it all gets too be to much and..I’ll stop there. It’s good. Really good. Like “The Postman Always Rings Twice” kind of good. It was Zola’s third novel and a huge hit. Enough so, that he probably didn’t mind the accusations that Therese Raquin was nothing but pornography and all the scandal that followed.

Oddly, it’s another of Zola’s many novels that many people think of when they think of sex and murder; La Bete Humaine. This is in no small part due to the film made of it in 1938, which was directed by Jean Renoir and the, not very good, American film, called Human Desire, directed by Fritz Lang in 1954. Both films, and the book, involve not one, but several people, that would qualify as sociopaths by today’s standards. The plot features the sabotage of a crowded passenger train. The book’s description of that rail catastrophe, alone, makes it worth reading. But, overall, La Bete Humaine is not Zola’s best work. Not that it’s bad. Even bad Zola books are still pretty good. The words are as fresh and alive today as they were in Nineteenth-Century France. But the best of his books are, flat out, great.

Speaking of great, let me talk about just one more Zola novel. It’s twice as long as Therese Raquin and not a crime novel in any way. It’s called Germinal. The book many consider Zola’s best. It’s about coal miners in the north of France. They spend most of their days in conditions that make not getting your labor-law-required thirty-minute break on time seem truly petty. They spend what little free time they have drinking cheap beer and fucking in the fields. And then the mine floods.

Without giving too much away, let me tell you about a moment in the book that still haunts me. I read Germinal years ago, and I still remember it vividly. Most of the miners die in the flood. But there are a few survivors trapped below. One of them clings to a tiny ledge, high up on the wall, so that they don’t drown. They feel something in the water, softly bumping into their leg. Then it stops. A few minutes later, the gentle bumping happens again. Then the trapped miner realizes what they’re feeling is a corpse. A bloated body being moved by the current in the flooded mine. Rubbing against them. Drifting away. Bumping into them again. Over and over, not for minutes, not for hours, but for days. Now, just imagine what the author who came up with that can do when his subjects are lust and murder. No wonder Therese Raquin is so damn good.