January 15, 2015
(++++) TRULY SCARY WHAT-IFS
Syndrome E. By Franck Thilliez. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. Penguin. $16.
Bred to Kill. By Franck Thilliez. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. Viking. $27.95.
If you already think real life is frightening, you do not want to make the acquaintance of Franck Thilliez. A French thriller writer with more than two dozen books to his credit, Thilliez is now becoming known in English translation through Syndrome E and Bred to Kill (published in French as Gataca), two novels in a series featuring a fairly typical duo of dogged-but-damaged detectives becoming involved in some decidedly atypical cases. Syndrome E, which dates to 2010 in French and 2012 in Mark Polizzotti’s translation, and which is now available in paperback, is the earlier of the two chronologically, although there are even earlier Thilliez books – one series about one of the detectives and one about the other – to which Syndrome E sometimes makes reference (confusingly for those who, as English speakers, do not have access to them). The investigators, who meet in Syndrome E for the first time, are Lucie Henebelle, a single mother of twins – one of whom is hospitalized when Syndrome E begins – and Inspector Franck Sharko, who goes even beyond being one of those darkly brooding antiheroic types familiar from the worlds of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The plot mover of Syndrome E involves, or seems to involve, an occurrence right out of Kôji Suzuki’s novel Ring, the book that inspired both a Japanese horror film (1998) and the American The Ring (2002). That is, there exists in Syndrome E a film that does terrible things. Its opening scene is virtually identical to that of Un Chien Andalou – a fact that, curiously, no one in the book recognizes until a character who appeared in the fictional movie actually draws attention to the famous and notorious film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. What characters do find out is that the fictional film causes horrific effects in some of those who view it – such as a man named Ludovic Sénéchal, who sees the movie and goes blind. Panicked, he calls a speed-dial number at random and connects with Lucie, his ex – who still has some friendly memories of their time together. And soon she is investigating, without knowing it, the same thing that Franck is: he is focused on five bodies found buried at a construction site, their hands cut off, eyes removed, and tops of their skulls gone. The autopsy reveals some very strange details that soon have Franck – and Lucie, who has contacted him about Ludovic – working on a world-spanning investigation that involves France, Belgium, Egypt and Canada. They are searching for the person or people who made the bizarre film and for the film’s connection to the mutilated bodies – and, not surprisingly in the thriller genre, they soon find themselves on the trail of some extremely dangerous people in very high places.
Although the basics of the plot make Syndrome E seem like just another noir thriller with chemistry eventually developing between its protagonists, Thilliez resolutely refuses to let the book slip fully into cliché, and as a result turns it into something more thought-provoking and considerably scarier than most works in the genre – whose conventions it nevertheless upholds. For example, Franck is not just a burned-out officer of the law who is still mourning his wife and child: he has symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia – this is why he now has a desk job as a profiler – and he keeps seeing, and speaking to, a hallucinated little girl named Eugenie, who critiques him at every turn and may remind some readers of the hallucinations of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. as detailed in the biography and film A Beautiful Mind. Franck’s boss tells him, “Your illness does some funny things to your head, a kind of stew that lets you grasp things nobody else can sense.” Nevertheless, Franck may simply be too strange for some tastes – in which case the developing chemistry between him and Lucie, a more-conventional character who nevertheless attains depth in Thilliez’ hands, may be hard to accept. What is not difficult to believe is the eventual discovery of what the film and the construction-site bodies have in common: something that is not supernatural, as in Ring, but is all too plausible – and backed by considerable scientific research (which Thilliez dribbles out throughout the book). Incidents of collective hysteria and subliminal messaging, references to real historical events, and an appearance of the conventional, convenient and typical-for-the-genre bugaboo of the nefarious CIA, are mixed together skillfully to produce an ending that in some ways seems a little flat (it is a touch didactic) but that certainly ties up the many loose ends of the plot neatly. Polizzotti’s translation is only so-so: it keeps things moving well but contains some oddities, such as multiple references to “neon” rather than “fluorescent” lights and repeated use of the obsolete term “pedal pushers” to refer to Capri pants; and there are some odd word choices, such as a statement that bullets were “recuperated” after victims were shot (rather than “recovered” or “removed”). Also, a few passages in Syndrome E that are not up to the narrative level of the rest of it appear to originate with Thilliez himself, such as some condescending remarks about Egyptians and their predilections. But if Syndrome E has a number of flaws, it has many more strengths, if by “strengths” one means story elements that are significantly more plausible and thus significantly more frightening than those in many other contemporary thrillers – in whatever language they are written.
Franck and Lucie work together again in Bred to Kill, which has considerable similarities to Syndrome E despite significant differences in plot specifics. Here the science comes from the fields of paleontology and genetics, the travel takes readers from Paris to the Alps to the Amazon jungle, and the mystery spans not decades but thousands of years, all the way back to the days of Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. Here Thilliez interweaves speculation about the reasons for the survival of left-handedness in a right-handed world with a denouement that depends heavily on scientific explanations – indeed, there is a touch too much science near the book’s end, which some readers may find distracts them from Thilliez’ otherwise well-done focus on Franck and Lucie as evolving characters. Also here as in the previous novel, the book starts rather slowly, but the pace soon picks up and even becomes frenetic at times. And here as well as in Syndrome E, there is some awkwardness in the translation, or even out-and-out errors, as in having a scientist use “moths” and “butterflies” as synonyms.
All these matters, good and bad, are parts of what will quickly become, for readers, a recognizable Thilliez (or at least Thilliez-in-English) style – all at the service of another story that begins with a gruesome death that is not at all what it seems to be. This one is the killing of a graduate student named Eva Louts at a primate research center – clearly a tragic animal attack and no more, except that the chimpanzee that supposedly killed Louts knows sign language and uses it to give her own version of the story – one that checks out. This is quite a twist, and like so much in Thilliez’ books, it is one that at once seems bizarre and outlandish – yet lies clearly within the realm of possibility. It is Franck who investigates what he realizes is murder, reluctantly bringing in Lucie – now bereaved and even more deeply damaged than before – for assistance. It is Lucie who finds, in a glacier in the Alps, evidence of a long-long-ago crime – and proof that someone else has gotten to that evidence first. All this is tied together in some entirely logical ways (Louts was visiting left-handed prisoners who had been convicted of horrible crimes) and in some that stretch the bounds of coincidence but nevertheless fit the plot and characterizations very well (one of those prisoners was the man responsible for the death of Lucie’s daughter). Thilliez is scrupulously fair to readers here, more so here than in Syndrome E, whose title is never explained: in Bred to Kill, the original French title, coupled with the revelation of the full name of the killer of Lucie’s child, will immediately ring alarm bells in anyone with a modicum of familiarity with genetics and DNA – although it takes Lucie and Sharko longer to figure things out.
Bred to Kill will not provide readers with much respect for human nature, either in the present or in the dim past, and will surely leave some wondering whether brutality and extreme violence are deeply embedded in the human genetic code – a question that in fact has been raised recently by real-world scientists studying chimpanzees and finding that aggressive violence appears to be innate among chimps and not caused by their interactions with humans. That troubling determination, the result of a 54-year study, occurred only in 2014, long after Born to Kill was published in France in 2011. But the recent discovery only makes the fictional search and findings of Franck and Lucie all the more chilling and all the more resonant with real-world events – which is very far from a comforting thought. Indeed, there is precious little that is comforting in these very dark novels (whose lack of more than the slightest touch of levity may cause some readers to find them somewhat difficult to get through). Everyday life can be scary on its own. Just beyond its bounds, in Thilliez’ fiction and perhaps in fact in the very near future, matters may be considerably more terrifying.