Joe Egan is a desperate man on the run from a mysterious blonde woman who is in fact the Angel of Death. As a kid Joe encountered the woman three times, and on each occasion someone close to him died. She appears to Joe a forth time when he’s in his twenties, living a secure life with a girlfriend and a gambling habit. Upon the woman’s latest appearance Joe immediately bolts, setting in motion a pattern of flight that will continue through the remainder of Joe’s life, which sees him repeatedly criss-crossing the United States with the blonde woman, who never seems to age, avidly tracking his every move.
AFRAID TO DEATH, initially published in French, was the fourth novel by novelist/screenwriter Marc Behm. It’s been billed as a “literary Siamese twin” to Behm’s 1980 masterpiece THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER. AFRAID TO DEATH is definitely similar to that mind-roasting classic about a grief-stricken private dick shadowing a murderous seductress across the U.S., with a similarly picturesque narrative driven by an obsessive protagonist and phantasmagoric hard-boiled prose (think Jim Thompson crossed with William S. Burroughs). Here, though, the gender roles have been reversed, with the woman doing the stalking and the man on the run. Also, the suffocating atmosphere of extreme fear (the literal English translation of the book’s original French title TROUILLE) that suffuses AFRAID TO DEATH is unique.
It’s that sense of overpowering dread that drives Joe Egan on his never-ending flight, which sees him getting involved with various women and making money through his poker skills. Joe never stays anywhere for long, as the blonde woman always manages to track him down regardless of how he tries to disguise himself (at one point he even dresses as a woman to throw her off). Her appearances are often mundane but just as often uncanny (i.e. emerging from out of the middle of the ocean), and always presage the death of somebody close to Joe. Even though he’s terrified of the Blonde Woman Joe can’t help but lust after her, going so far as to outfit a girlfriend as the woman during sex. Living with such a riot of warring emotions it’s inevitable that madness comes to overtake Joe, calling into question what is “real” about his odyssey and what isn’t, to which no easy answers are forthcoming.
The novel spans untold decades in the life of its protagonist, yet (again like THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER) still satisfies as a fast-moving thriller. Its fascination is in Marc Behm’s unique but quite characteristic mingling of fear, eroticism and madness, all packed into a gripping and unerringly well-told narrative.