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Spotlight on: Passion Play by Richard Matheson

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Passion Play by Richard Matheson Richard Matheson, Passion Play

When Ray Thompson, an artist selling his homemade wine-bottle lamps door-to-door, comes across a hot-to-trot housewife, the expected happens at least until the husband returns and attempts to slip some steel into Thompson's throat. After landing a lucky punch, he escapes the fracas and decides to be honest with his wife. Due to an unfortunate case of understanding, our hero thinks his trouble is over. Then the police arrive at his door: the housewife's husband is dead and Thompson is being vehemently accused of murder. Making things more difficult is Ray's wife Helen's doubt about his guilt.

Passion Play is a straightforward noir-style crime drama of the sort popularized by James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Raymond Chandler (and by the films based on their works: Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Grifters, etc.). So steeped in the genre is it that it hardly holds any sign of the Matheson signature.

Written in the 1950s -- which would eventually see the appearance of the titles most associated with the author: I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes -- but only published now, one inevitably wonders what took so long. Certainly one of the reasons had to be our narrator's tendency, especially in the early pages, to speak like an Elizabethan. In the first paragraph this sentence appears:

". . . our radium-dialed alarm clock clarioned the dawn and I reached with sorry fingers to pull the stop."
I could immediately hear the iambic pentameter. Raymond Chandler, in particular, was guilty of such florid prose, but somehow he managed to make it work; more importantly, to fit the character. Here, there is no such success, and I began to dread the prospect of fighting my way through the book. Luckily, once the plot is firmly in motion, Matheson slips easily into the laid-back prose style of Cain, and things really start to pick up.

It's interesting to note that Passion Play was already following what would become Matheson's trademark storyline: the everyman involved with something much bigger than he is. It is unfortunate that it wasn't published when it was written because, with a little tightening, it would have made a workable addition to the film noir genre - possibly a classic in its own right, under the proper director. I could even see Alfred Hitchcock turning it into one of his "wrong man" films (taking considerable license, of course, as he always did). On its own, the book definitely hearkens back to that time and it was easy to attempt casting the film in my head as I went along.

Minor quibbles aside (just how many times can a man be hit on the head and still survive?), Passion Play is still only a minor addition to the Matheson canon. It lacks the charm of his classics like I Am Legend and seems to get lost in its own plotline, not knowing how to wrap things up properly (the "ending" is nothing you'd recognize as such). But it blazes by and fans will appreciate it as a stepping stone towards the writer we so admire, if not necessarily one that will be re-read often. Maybe some up-and-coming director with a sense of style will turn it into the film it so desperately cries out to be. Come to think of it, I haven't seen a really good noir lately. . . .

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

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