Monday, March 12, 2012

Inverted Murder à la française

« Pourquoi? » répéta Chaubard, dans sa dernière lueur de conscience.
L’individu chuchota : « Je pourrais vous répondre que c’est parce que vous êtes vulgaire et parfaitement antipathique, mais ce ne serait pas exact. C’est surtout parce que vous vous appelez Chaubard, et qu’à ce titre vous devez être trouvé mort sur le pont des Arts à cinq heures du matin. »

***

“Why ?” Chaubard repeated, in his last glimmer of consciousness.
The person whispered: “I could answer you that it is because you’re vulgar and perfectly unsympathetic, but that wouldn’t be accurate. Above all, it is because your name is Chaubard, and as such, you must be found dead on the pont des Arts at five o’clock in the morning.”

— René Reouven, Souvenez-vous de Monte-Cristo (Remember Monte Cristo)

That's not Raymond Chandler...
Good morning (or afternoon, or evening—it’s all relative, really) everyone and welcome to yet another special edition of At the Scene of the Crime! Today I am joined by blogger extraordinaire Xavier Lechard, who writes At the Villa Rose.

It’s hard to believe that this blog has already been around for an entire year, and I’ve made my fair share of discoveries in that time. I’ve found out, for instance, that Raymond Chandler wasn’t the St. George who slew the dragon of Golden-Age-style plotting, despite what many critics will tell you. I’ve also found out that there is an entire world of mysteries that was hiding in plain sight: the world of the French-language mystery. We Anglophones are often led to assume that Georges Simenon was the only non-English speaking writer of mysteries out there. Folks, we are being swindled—the truth couldn’t be any more different!

This journey of mine started back in May, when I read and reviewed Le Roi du désordre (The Lord of Misrule) by Paul Halter. I had read much about this French author, and I glowered in misery when I couldn’t find any of his novels to read in the original French. But finally I managed to convince my parents that it was a perfectly reasonable idea to spend $30 on an omnibus that contained The Lord of Misrule… and the book served a dual purpose. It reminded me why I love mysteries, but it also warmed up my French and my desire to find out more about French-language mysteries.

Fast-forward to today. My bookshelf contains 22 of Halter’s novels. My Kindle has four more titles. I’ve got an entire page running on this blog, devoted to his work! But my interest in French detective fiction goes even further. I’ve suddenly got books like L’ingénieur aimait trop les chiffres (translated as The Tube) by Boileau-Narcejac on my shelf. I’ve got two omnibuses of works by S. A. Steeman. And finally, I own three omnibuses of works by René Reouven.

It is this last author I’d like to bring your attention to. Earlier this year, I read Reouven’s fabulous book Tobie or not Tobie, where he rewrote the Book of Tobit as a mystery, complete with an impossible crime! It was a triumph on every level that left me hungry for more. I made up my mind to buy something else and I ended up purchasing Souvenez-vous de Monte-Cristo (Remember Monte Cristo). The choice was a strategic one— I have always loved the Alexandre Dumas novel.

René Reouven discussing Sherlock Holmes.

But time is a cruel mistress, and I hadn’t read any more Reouven since December. When I was planning these crossover reviews, I suddenly realised that the best possible thing to do was to invite Xavier for a cross-blog review! As a native French speaker, Xavier has known about the French mystery landscape for years, while I am just starting to discover it. His knowledge far eclipses mine—and hey, he’s a fan of René Reouven! So the idea was pitched, and Xavier agreed to come here today. As luck would have it, he hadn’t yet read this book, so we would both read it for the first time…

I apologize for the extremely long introduction, but I am very excited to reacquaint myself with Reouven and to welcome Xavier to this blog! Xavier, the floor is yours!

***

Hello Patrick, and many thanks for your invitation. I'm delighted to be here on this wonderful blog and still further delighted to discuss one of my all-time favorite crime writers. 

I was approximately your age when I "discovered" Reouven. The book that started it all was the Sherlockian pastiche L'Assassin du Boulevard (The Boulevard Assassin). To be frank, I didn't expect much of it. I had never heard about the author and while I was and remain to this day a sucker for anything Sherlock, I was all too aware that apocrypha rarely lives up to the original. Also, I must confess that I was at the time strongly biased against French crime fiction: To me, only the Brits and the Yanks could do a good mystery. There were of course exceptions like Leroux or Halter but they were exceptions. Ah, youthfulness...

Then I read the book and I was hooked at page one. Clever, witty, erudite, stylish... L'Assassin du Boulevard had it all! On the paper, blending the universe of Conan Doyle with that of French satirist Georges Courteline sounded original, but risky - Reouven made it work. I followed with another Sherlockian pastiche, Le Détective Volé (The Stolen Detective), which was even more original - Holmes investigating the death of Edgar Allan Poe! - and even better. René Reouven now had a secure place in my personal pantheon. And the best was still to come.

Souvenez-vous de Monte-Cristo was first published in 1996. It belongs to Reouven's "comedy of murders" vein, though it also displays his erudition and his passion for (arcane) history. 

***

Souvenez-vous de Monte-Cristo is not a mystery like Tobie or not Tobie. For starters, I was expecting Reouven to turn The Count of Monte Cristo into a mystery (and there would be plenty of material for such a revision!). But not only is this set in contemporary times, the novel is also an inverted murder mystery.

Our main character is César Brunel, a man who has one goal in life: become rich. And he happens to have a rich uncle, a man who came to the family fortune through unscrupulous legal tricks. This uncle’s name happens to be Loupian: Charles Loupian.

What connection does all this have to The Count of Monte Cristo? Essentially this: Alexandre Dumas took the inspiration for his novel from real life, as recounted in Mémoires tirés des archives de la police pour server à la moral et à la justice by Jacques Peuchet (1838). This book at one point recounts a tale of revenge. In 1807 a man named François Picaud became engaged to a pretty and wealthy girl, Marguerite Figoroux. His friends became envious and one of them, Loupian, persuaded the others (respectively named Chaubard, Solari, and Allut) to denounce Picaud as an English spy. Picaud was arrested and went to prison for several years, where he befriended a priest named Farina. After being released in 1814, nothing is known about Picaud until he returned to Paris fabulously rich a year later. Using his wealth, he began to avenge himself on his enemies, murdering several of them. It’s a fascinating story with all the melodrama that makes for great fiction.

But in this story, Brunel sees a fabulous opportunity for hiding a murder in plain sight, due to the fortunate coincidence of his uncle’s last name. He decides he will pose as a serial killer and recreate the deaths that inspired Dumas’ novel, leaving behind notes that say “Souvenez-vous de Monte-Cristo” (you could translate this as “remember Monte Cristo”). These notes are made by cutting out the titles of two books: Alexandre Dumas’ Le Comte de Monte-Cristo and a mystery by French author Charles Exbrayat: Vous souvenez-vous de Paco? (Do You Remember Paco?) The notes serve a dual purpose—they are a calling card but they also will distract attention by pointing to Dumas’ novel. César reasons that the police will busily try finding a connection between the victims that would form a basis for revenge.

So his first victim is a man named Chaubard, and the book opens on this murder. From there, we flash back slightly in time and we see the whole plan take form. Almost the entire book is told as a series of soliloquys by César as he proceeds with his plans. There is only a brief section of the book that is taken from the journals of his cousin, Germaine Loupian.

***

While he has become better-known for his Sherlockian pastiches and "alternate histories", Reouven's early books were contemporary affairs satirically portraying civil servants and/or the bourgeoisie. They were heavily influenced by Boulevard Theatre, with witty, epigram-like dialogue and plots often resting on confusion, coincidence and misunderstanding. Souvenez-vous de Monte-Cristo is a throwback to that period and while I wouldn't call it a major work it's an excellent book well worth of the reader's time.

As often with Reouven, the main protagonist is the brightest member of the cast, and the most fleshed-out character - a well-educated, rather cynical man of wry wit. People around him are either stupid (Germaine) or petty (Charles Loupian) or ambiguous (Edmond). His plan is somewhat risky as its success depends on the police being able to work out the correspondence between the pattern between the contemporary murders and those that occurred one century before; and even then, being a librarian with access to Peuchet's book would make him a logical suspect. And yet everything works even better than the reader (and the criminal himself) expected, thanks to an astonishing coincidence - but I can't say more without badly spoiling the book. Now the word "coincidence" may sound like "cheat" to many readers, but it really isn't. Reouven provides all of the clues leading to the surprise revelation; one might even say that it's all before the reader's eyes - and yet he sees nothing. 

In typical Reouven fashion, the very same coincidence that gets him off the hook also ultimately brings his downfall. Here again, I can't say more without dropping a major spoiler, though I found the ending predictable, if ably handled. 

***

I, too, found the ending rather predictable. The twist here can be alluded to by using the book’s structure. Not counting the prologue, the book is divided into four parts. The ending of part I was where I suddenly saw the ending— I saw potential for that to take place at the end of part I, setting up a mystery for the cops and the other characters to solve. It never did happen, but the ending never left my mind, either… and when it finally does occur at the end of the final part, it isn’t particularly surprising. But the execution itself is excellent, if unsurprising.

In particular, I loved the bit in the third part that reads like a topsy-turvy episode of Columbo, where the police commissioner outlines a seemingly-perfect case to César. We all know what has happened, which is more than either of these characters know, but César is flabbergasted by these revelations. You eagerly read on, wondering whether he’s going to trip himself up in front of the commissioner or not. And you also read on to have some unclear events explained… Everything adds up nicely in the end and fits snugly into place.

César has got to be one of the most sinister and villainous murderers in all of detective fiction. I found myself hoping he would trip up somehow, especially when he manipulates his uncle’s faithful servant Marcel in such a way that leaves Marcel thankful at what an honest, good fellow César is. César is very much amoral and entirely unscrupulous, and he learns something interesting about himself: he enjoys the thrill that killing people gives him. Not so much the killing part, but rather the thrill of being in a cat-and-mouse game with the police, hoping that the police officer assigned to the case is like the English type of detective in mysteries.

César, a hater of the passé composé verb tense and an avid reader of detective fiction, complains several times about the state of the detective story. He’s particularly contemptuous towards critics and academics who refuse to look at a mystery unless “it serves as a jumping point for examining deeper undercurrents in our modern society, revealing the seed of corruption and the fundamental flaws of the fragile human condition”— you get the drill. He praises folks like Agatha Christie and S. A. Steeman, and it’s in these sections that you really get to feel Reouven’s passion for the detective fiction genre. Some folks, like Gilbert Adair, seem to hate it— you never doubt Reouven’s love for it. (All this is making me eager to tackle those Sherlock Holmes pastiches! I wonder if the recent resurgence in Holmes’ popularity can mean that we might one day see these stories translated for our English-speaking friends?)

***

I sincerely hope so but translating Reouven is a tricky thing because of his love of wordplay. In some cases (L'Assassin du Boulevard) the whole plot rests on a single pun that is extremely difficult to render into another language.

Also, Reouven is an extremely erudite writer aiming at a similar audience; his work is rife with literary and historical references. Don't get me wrong: Reouven is not obscure or pretentious. You can enjoy his books without sharing his culture and interests, but a major part of the fun is lost.

This means his Sherlockian pastiches are very different from the standard "Holmes Meets..." fare that makes up for most of the genre. Reouven takes Holmes to investigate problems like the mysterious death of Gérard de Nerval, the authorship of Shakespeare's plays or the real identity of C. Auguste Dupin, and pits him against real-life or fictional figures very remote from the Canon such as H.H. Holmes, G.K. Chesterton, Vidocq or - the crew of the Narcissus. In the process Reouven often rewrites history with so much skill that, as French critic Jacques Baudou once said, it's hard to know where history ends and fiction begins, hence the comparison with Tim Powers in my article. Though stimulating to the aficionado, I doubt Reouven's approach to be much to the taste of the casual Sherlock fan. Here and with his other work Reouven's greatest strengths (his erudition and originality) turn also to be his greatest weaknesses, maybe accounting for his relative (and, to me, scandalous) lack of popularity with the general public.

***

“Scandalous” describes it very well! I’d also call it a massive conspiracy of silence on the part of the French-language mystery landscape, which is very proud of its Simenon but in the process very unfair to other authors. If only I could, I’d gladly undertake translation myself, but with copyright laws and so on being the way they are (as well as me being a mere student), that seems like an unlikely scenario to say the least.

Judging from Souvenez-vous de Monte Cristo and Tobie or not Tobie, I think you’re perfectly correct in your assessment of Reouven’s work as a whole, and I’d expand your analysis to include mystery fans in general, not just Sherlock fans. You don’t need to know a thing about the Biblical Book of Tobit to enjoy Tobie or not Tobie—but if you know it relatively well, you’ll be able to catch all sorts of fun allusions. There’s a lot of Shakesperean references in that book as well, and if you know your Shakespeare these allusions are a delight to spot. (My favourite has got to be “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead!” and the accompanying puzzled footnote.) There’s even a great reference to Gaston Leroux’s Mystery of the Yellow Room! If you don’t know your mysteries, your Shakespeare or your Bible, then you will simply not be able to enjoy the book on the same level that I myself did. And even knowing what I did know, there were a few moments where I felt like Reouven was making an allusion that simply flew over my head. But that did not affect my enjoyment of the book in the least, because it was more than a parade of wits—it was a genuine detective story, and a pretty darn good one at that. (In fact, if you don’t know your Book of Tobit, the mystery might be more surprising because some of the mystery’s events closely parallel the original text!)

Similarly, I did not know about the influence of the Boulevard Theatre in reading Souvenez-vous de Monte-Cristo. I haven’t even read Charles Exbrayat’s Vous souvenez-vous de Paco?, which is one of the books César uses to create his notes. (I’ve got it on hold from the library now, but I hadn’t even heard of Exbrayat prior to reading this book!) So I suspect there were many allusions that I was never even aware of. But I enjoyed it nonetheless. Like you said, it isn’t a pretentious book with an attitude of “aren’t-I-the-clever-one?” I didn’t need a dictionary to determine the meaning of every other word. Reouven is simply having plenty of fun, and that is a language that doesn’t need translation.

Overall, out of 4 stars, I give Souvenez-vous de Monte-Cristo 3.5. It is an unadulterated delight, and it’s fascinating to follow the main character through all the steps of his plan. The final scene with the police commissioner has got to be one of the best in any inverted mystery, as it plays like an episode of Columbo gone wrong: we know things neither the commissioner nor the murderer knows, and we see a chain of apparently perfect reasoning go off into wild directions. There’s only one real reason I’ve deducted a half-star, and that is the very last twist, which is very easily anticipated for a considerable chunk of the book.

 
 Patrick's Rating: 3.5/4 stars

***

The reference to Exbrayat I found a little surprising as his work has little in common with Reouven's. Exbrayat was a very prolific (more than 70 books under his belt!) mystery writer in the 50s-80s, one of the locomotives of the French imprint Le Masque along with Agatha Christie. He was extremely versatile, having tried his hand to suspense as well as spy fiction or Simenon-like atmospheric novels, but was most popular for his comedic mysteries featuring Scottish spinster Imogene McCarthery or Italian cop Romeo Tarchinini. Most of his works are set in the French countryside or have what were at the time "exotic" settings like Italy, the Netherlands or the United States. As can be expected, his output is of very uneven quality but when he was good he was very good. Sadly he never interested foreign publishers (Maybe he was too French?)

I agree with your rating of Souvenez-Vous de Monte-Cristo. As I said above, it's not Reouven's magnum opus but it still makes for great reading thanks to the author's ornate yet never showy prose and his considerable plotting skills. If you've never read anything by Reouven, it is a wonderful introduction; if you're a habitué it's a solid entry. Heartily recommended.

Xavier's Rating: 3.5/4 stars




***

Xavier, thanks so much for joining me today. It’s been a blast!

It’s also with this review that I’ve chosen to launch a brand-new page on the blog, devoted solely to René Reouven and his work. I’ve compiled as complete a bibliography as I’ve been able to, and as with all my other pages, it will serve as a directory to my reviews of his work. I’ve already got three omnibuses of his stuff— I can’t wait to read and discover more!

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