06/11/2007

Alan Grimes, Public Benefactor Number One

Though some efforts had been made in recent years, as evidenced by the international success of Fred Vargas, French mystery fiction remains little-known in the anglosphere except for a few household names such as Gaston Leroux, Maurice Leblanc or Georges Simenon - who was actually a Belgian. Only the die-hard francophile mystery buff has heard of René Reouven, Jacques Decrest, Stanislas-André Steeman (another Belgian) Louis C. Thomas, Jean-François Coatmeur, Noël Vindry, Georges-Jean Arnaud, Brice Pelman, Frédéric Dard or Gaston Boca. That's why fans should be grateful to hematologist-turned-translator Alan Grimes for finally introducing to English-speaking readers one of the greatest French mystery writers of all time, Pierre Véry.
While Golden Age is most often associated with the American/British likes of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellery Queen, French authors of the time did produce some outstanding detective fiction. Along with Pierre Boileau (of later Boileau-Narcejac fame) and the aforementioned Decrest, Steeman and Vindry, Véry was one of the Big Four and certainly the most popular, as several of his books were made into successful films, eventually prompting him to quit mystery fiction and become a full-time screenwriter.
As a result of the genre not being taken very seriously, French Golden Age was much more freewheeling than its Anglo-Saxon counterpart; there was no Ronald Knox or S.S. Van Dine to promulgate rules and no one would listen anyway. Every author went his own way, according to his own tastes and imagination, with little regard for orthodoxy, which doesn't mean they were lacking in the plotting department.
Véry tellingly always favored his own neologism "roman de mystère" (novel of mystery) rather than the generic "roman policier" as a label for his books. Mystery and the atmosphere surrounding it were more interesting to him than the solution and the deductive process. Another term he used to describe his work was "contes de fées pour adultes" - fairytales for grown-ups. In accordance with those views, a typical Véry novel is as irreal (surreal?) as you can get: people doing nonsensical testaments before hanging themselves, gangs using crystal vipers as their signature, criminals specializing in the destruction of clocks are standard fare. Protagonists are just as quirky. Ever-broke lawyer Prosper Lepicq, first appearing in Meurtre au Quai des Orfèvres, is one of the oddest detectives in literature, investigating cases so that he can take the culprit as his client. Véry's heroes tend to be dreamy, wildly imaginative and it's no surprise they are often children or adolescents like in Les Disparus de Saint-Agil, probably his most famous novel thanks to Christian-Jaque's remarkable film adaptation, or the exquisite Les Métamorphoses. All that gives Véry's works a charm found nowhere else in the genre, either in France or abroad.
Good, I hear you say, but the plots? Do they live up to their weird premises? Well, yes and no. Anyone expecting to find Christie-like deceptions will be sorely disappointed, though Véry was quite able to manage brilliant tricks when he wanted to - see Les Quatre Vipères, arguably one of the best locked-room mysteries ever written, and a positive stunner. But Véry could write, could tell a story, could create memorable atmosphere and characters, all that in a distinctive poetic fashion. I won't say you cannot be a fulfilled mystery fan if you haven't read anything of him, but it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration.
So, if my plea made you curious to see what the fuss is about, I suggest you ask Mr. Grimes; he has already translated provincial drama Goupi Mains-Rouges and its sequel Goupi Mains-Rouges à Paris and plans to release two more vintage Vérys, Le Thé des Vieilles Dames et L'Assassinat du Père Noël next year. A benefactor I told you.

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