Man, I was smooth. I told my friend, Look, all you have to do is grab it and put it in your pocket like it’s no big deal. Like this. We were halfway out of the store and all was quiet when my friend said, That was easy, wait here. The key word, of course, is “halfway” out of the store. Soon as we hit the mall, some big lug was on our tail and we were toast. It’s possible I smarted off to the guy a bit. It’s possible that’s why he called the cops. It’s certain that an hour later, we were both downtown in a detention cell. What are you in for? this scary tough kid asks. Stealing a necklace, I say. Oh, man, you should be home watching Popeye. I didn’t ask what he was in for.
This is more or less how Marnie begins her life of crime, with a minor theft at the age of ten. Thankfully, it’s also where the parallels with my own life end. When we first meet Marnie, she’s passing a cop who wishes her a good night. She wonders what he’d say if he knew what was in her handbag. Over a decade later, she’s graduated to felony theft. Warrants have been issued for her arrest. But she doesn’t mind: the warrants are all under false names in towns she’s long since left behind. Now she’s on the move again.
But this time she picks the wrong target, or the wrong man to work for. Mark Rutland, of Rutland’s Printing, is a lonely widower whose wife died very young. Marnie captures his imagination. While it can’t be said she encourages his attention, she doesn’t entirely rebuff him either. It’s enough for Mark to fall in love. When Marnie makes her move, Mark catches her. Believing he can help her, he coerces her into marriage. And that’s when Marnie’s uncomplicated, if criminal, existence comes to an end.
I didn’t know until I saw the credits that Alfred Hitchcock’s film was based on this novel, or any novel for that matter. Unlike many of the books his films have been based on — Psycho, The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, to take those I’ve read myself — this one doesn’t seem to have come down to us with a reputation in its own right. I find this strange for two reasons. First, Winston Graham, the author, wrote over 40 books, including 12 in a series popular in Britain. Second, and more significantly, I think this book is better than the others I’ve read. Head and shoulders better.
Perhaps it has something to do with its genre. Where the other books are all considered thrillers, this one is classified as a crime novel. Whatever that is. I have to admit, if that was all I had to go on, I doubt I ever would have picked up this book. So let’s make this a little clearer: Marnie is a psychological suspense story that happens to involve crime.
Not that the crime is incidental — Marnie’s M.O. is richly detailed. Watching her go about the business of ingratiating herself into a company, planning the heist, and then carrying it out is one of the pleasures of the book. But what really makes it enjoyable is Marnie herself, who approaches her “work” with a detachment and matter-of-factness that is both funny and frightening. She’s pathological, but utterly charming. (She reminds me a bit of Julie Bailey, Cornell Woolrich’s dazzling angel of vengeance in The Bride Wore Black.)
Of course, Marnie’s crimes are only one manifestation of her mental condition. The other is her detestation of men. One leads to her marriage, the other threatens to destroy it. Though Hitchcock’s film is, in terms of plot, remarkably similar to Graham’s book, the two are unique in that their emphases are different. The movie pushes Mark into the foreground; the book, narrated by Marnie herself, keeps him at a distance — though not quite far enough away to suit Marnie. And we can’t help but sympathize with her. She was, after all, virtually blackmailed into marriage. But where the movie can be seen as a war for dominance, the book details a war of suppression. Mostly that means running away — distancing herself from Mark, going out with his hated cousin and business partner — but Marnie is too bright not to consider the implications of her lifestyle. As Graham drops one clue after another about the source of Marnie’s derangement, we begin to sympathize with Mark, as well, or with his aim at least. This isn’t about a man trying to tame a woman; it’s about a woman discovering that she has a problem. And it’s all played out against a tense backdrop of crime, jealousy, frustration, and intrigue.
With this book, at least (and now I’m curious about all those other books), Graham shows himself to be, like Hitchcock, a master of suspense.