Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A 21st Century Thriller--"Syndrome E" by Franck Thilliez

Syndrome E (Penguin Books 2014) by Franck Thilliez  and translated by Mark Polizzottti is labelled "a thriller" on its cover. And I think that description is more precise than calling it a mystery or a "noir." In France the book is labelled a polar. A polar or a roman policier traditionally involves either a police investigation or one by a private investigator. Within the French context the roman policier encompasses novels similar to the American "noir" or the thriller. Noir, of course, is closely related to the genre of hard-boiled fiction, where the protagonist is usually not a detective; but, instead is either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Syndrome E is not a noir nor a procedural, although there is a great deal of discussion of technology--scientific, medical, and electronic--employed in the police's investigation. Technology, however, one of the more thematic threads in the novel, is the real perpetrator and ultimately the real villain ("V") of the work. The actual villain is a victim of technology or science or government as well as the actual victims, who die at the villain's hand.

In some ways, the novel could be compared to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and it certainly has a meta-fictional feel that upon intense examination becomes a novel about a text and the effect of the text upon the reader. It is also a commentary of the way that clandestine organizations--CIA, US Government, French Government, Military, French Foreign Legion, NGOs--cross international borders and exploit human suffering in the name of security. In other words, it is a text emerging from the sea-change fostered by 9/11 and the United States' and its Allies' bid for power at the End of History; and, as a consequence, it seems to be somewhat post-modern in its approach.

Further, I would argue that the traditional detective of the mystery genre is absence in this work, although there are two detectives, both characters from Thilliez's prior work, who come together in this novel for the first time. Instead of a traditional detective like Maigret, we have two wounded and scarred police officers who pursue an investigation in order to find first each other and then themselves. They use technology, of course, to solve the crimes but they are also betrayed and wounded by it. These protagonists are modern characters tied to their machines and Thilliez plays with this throughout the novel. His hyper-focus on technology lays the foundation for the philosophical underpinnings of the novel and its ultimate theme, illustrated most vividly by the detectives ultimately turning away from technology. This investment in a social theme or the novelist's comment upon a social problem marks the novel as an illustration of how writers use one of the most post-modern of genres to make a point greater than an amusement, or just a thriller.

In Syndrome E, even though technology seems to be the problem, it is really the images conveyed by the technology that are the culprit. However, images are integral to being and cannot be denied. As James Hillman says: "Image is psyche." Consequently, it is not images but the way in which the images are packaged and interpreted by the brain that becomes the underlying message of the novel. An equation can be expressed to illustrate the message or the theme: bad images conveyed to bad brains cause trouble; damaged brains have the ability to start an outbreak of bad behavior; bad men, who manipulate damaged brains for political reasons are dangerous and must be stopped. As an addendum, traumatic events can cause bad brains and traumatic events can be physical or subliminal. Another view is that bad brains arise from either genetics--schizophrenia or an atrophied amygdala--or through medical and technological manipulation by third parties. As an example, Franck Sharko, one of the two protagonists, suffers from a mild form of schizophrenia brought on by trauma; some of the victims suffer from atrophied amygdala which result in violent behavior.

The exciting force of the novel is Ludovic Sénéchal's experiencing hysterical blindness after viewing a strange fifteen minute film he purchased from the estate of a film historian and conspiracy buff. Sénéchal calls on his ex-lover, Lieutenant Lucie Henebelle of Lille police, to help him. As Lucie investigates what happened to her friend, Chief Inspector Franck Thilliez in Paris is called upon to investigate a brutal crime in Notre-Dame-de-Gravenchon. Very quickly, it becomes obvious that the film and the crimes are tied together.

Nabokov wrote that the "V" is the perfect diagram for a mystery novel. The base of the "V" marks the beginning point and from it two movements proceed: one, backward in time to reveal the murder and the past of the victim and the other forward as the detective investigates the crime. In this novel, the "V" structure is present and especially important to reach the denouement. The past is where the real action is and its secrets lie in Egypt and Canada.

The fast-paced narrative and the international search earn the novel its thriller label. And although the protagonists' have all the usual tropes attached to them, they seem thinly drawn compared to the minute details of the text. This surfeit of scientific, technological and medical details adds to the post-modern feel of the novel, as well as the rich themes underlying its action. All-in all the novel is well-researched, skillfully translated and quite readable. Theme expressed by style seems to be more important than character, which distracts from the book's ultimate seriousness as a major contender in the genre's canon. But it is certainly a fun read.

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