07/08/2008

Jean Paul Török's "L'Enigme du Monte Verita" - Review by Henrique Valle

Jean-Paul Török (born 1936) is a French movie historian and critic, script writer, director and professor of narratology. Apparently, L'énigme du Monte Verita is his first novel. In the book's foreword, he professes to have written it with the purpose of «composing a detective story of the old kind» that, irrespective of plot, finished with the finishing sentence of John Dickson Carr's The burning court, which has fascinated him ever since he has read it for the first time. In fact, from plot structure and atmosphere to writing style, L'énigme du Monte Verita is one of the most perfect Carr pastiches ever penned. But to regard it as a mere pastiche would be unfair: this is also one of the most interesting detective novels of the last years.

It is 1938 and Europe is on the verge of war. Pierre Garnier, a brilliant young French academic and specialist of Edgar Allan Poe, and his wife Solange are in Switzerland to participate in an international symposium about the mystery novel. The symposium takes place in Ascona, a town located in the fringes of the Monte Verita (in Italian, Mountain of Truth) by the Lac Majeur. In the early 20th Century, a mystic that proclaimed to be the reincarnation of Christian Rosenkreutz, the founder of the Rosicrucian Order, lived in the mountains among his followers. Under siege by the hostile population and the police, the magus imitated the original Rosenkreutz locked himself in a grotto to meditate and pray to the telluric powers to show him a solution to the crisis. The grotto's entrance was then blocked with heavy rocks and there was no other way out. On the fourth day the populace went in – but there was nobody inside.

The whole plot develops under the spell of impossibility cast by this legend. During the symposium, a lecturer claims that impossible crimes do not occur in real life. Dr. Hoenig, a German psychiatrist and police consultant (and also a nasty Nazi) claims the opposite, and announces that he will prove it in the course of his lecture, even if it involves the exposure of some of the persons present. Afterwards, Dr. Hoenig tells Pierre Garnier that he has positive proof that his wife has been previously married to three other men, at least two of which had been murdered in seemingly impossible ways, implying that Simone is the murderess. Pierre is plunged into a whirlwind of doubts, fuelled by his wife's mysterious past. And then, before his lecture, dr. Hoenig is stabbed to death in a hermetically sealed room where nobody else was found, the murder having occurred in front of two witnesses who were watching by the window and who swear not to have seen the murderer go out. Nevertheless, when supposed to be dead, Dr. Hoenig is seen walking in the outside with a knife sticking out of his chest. The body finally appears inside the Rosenkreutz grotto – which only entrance was covered with solid iron bars.

The plot is typically Carrian, and in fact its main idea seems to have been derived from Till death do us part (1944, published as by Carter Dickson), in which a mysterious woman is also suspected of having murdered three hitherto unknown husbands. Carrian are also the main characters of Phillipe Garnier, a "sound bright lad" whose point of view is adapted by the narrator in most instances, and of Solange Garnier, a damned woman in the tradition of Carr's Lesley Grant (in the aforementioned Till death do us part), Fay Seton (He who whispers, 1946) and Marie Stevens (The burning court, 1937), as well as the atmosphere of constant tension suggested not only by the supernatural allusions but also by hints of inner psychological discomfort of the protagonists. This is all extremely well done and well told, with only a few noticeable signs of self-consciousness. Commissioner Brenner of the Swiss police and the acting deus ex machina, an impossible crime writer with some HM mannerisms and the unequivocal name of Andrew Carter Porges, are in charge of detection. The other characters are subservient to the plot but lively and interesting.

The book, however, has some letdowns, several minor and a major one. The minor ones are the occasional lack of accuracy (it is unforgivable to mention Sherlock Holmes address as "217B Baker Street"!), some anachronisms (for instance, it is highly unlikely that an academic symposium on the mystery novel, such as described in the book, would have been held as early as 1938) and, most of all, the constant academic repartee between the characters. This latter is always erudite and witty, mostly relevant to the plot and very seldom pompous – therefore, we are not in the presence of a pseudo-intellectual take on the detective novel. But this kind of Michael Innes' donnish silliness doesn't go very well with the sombre background. The major letdown lies in the alternative solutions, both of them far from original in the annals of mystery fiction, which any experienced reader of impossible crime mysteries will reach well before the end of the book (they are even more obvious if one considers the literary-theoretical subtext of the novel). Moreover, the solutions are not completely (even if they are mostly) fair-play. The winks at historical facts and characters (one of them is an obvious parody of Umberto Eco, and some other portraits can be spotted by an attentive and informed reader) are superfluous but unlikely to distract.

All in all, this is an interesting and elegantly written book that doesn't show it's frailties until the end, therefore making for a pleasurable and stimulating read. Despite of being a pastiche, and to some extent a satire, of mystery novels, it holds reasonably well as a detective story in its own right, unlike most of the similar attempts made by exiles from other quarters of literature. Furthermore, it's also very effective in sending a few shivers down the reader's spine along the way. This book also makes a strong case for those who think that the future of mystery fiction now, more than ever, lies outside the realm of the massified and standardized Anglo-American publishing markets.

Jean-Paul Török, L'énigme du Monte Verita (France Univers, 2007, 214 pp., 19€)

05/08/2008

One Step

So the unimaginable finally happened: a thriller meant and marketed as such has found its way to the Booker Prize. Whether Smith wins or not, a precedent has been set, and crime fiction's piccolo mondo will never be the same again. But is it really cause to rejoice? Have the walls finally tumbled down, and should they?
If you are of the persuasion that genre fiction is a ghetto and being embraced by mainstream critics as a "great writer" is the Valhalla any self-respecting author should seek, then it's great news and there's more to come and already coming. With "crime writers" being increasingly taken seriously and mainstream luminaries crossing the Rubicon, hopes are that, as Sarah Weinman suggests, "the so-called genre wars are lurching toward, if not an end, then at least a tentative cease-fire", the very thought of which is probably having the unlamented Edmund Wilson doing triple axels in his grave.
However, if you are the kind that has no problem with being in a ghetto as long as you're the one holding the keys, then you might be more skeptical. Granted, the lines have blurred - but only on one side. The mainstream did not recede one inch, while mystery fiction has moved increasingly closer. We are still hearing and reading sornettes about "transcending the genre" every time a crime/mystery novel satisfies to orthodox criterias of good writing - and specialized critics are not the lesser offenders. It was hoped the genre would finally be accepted on its own terms; instead it has accepted those of the mainstream. Hardly reason for enthusiasm.
So, depending on your stance, the future of the genre may look bright or gloomy, a prospect of either long-awaited recognition or dissolution in the muddy waters of general fiction. Whatever may be, good reviews and even better sales make certain the move will continue for better or worse and Tom Rob Smith's Booker nomination is just one step in that direction. A giant one? Time will tell.

04/08/2008

Quote of the Day

Frances Fyfield in the Sunday Times:

I hate novels being used as social criticism — it's like being whacked over the head. Ian Rankin does it a lot, which I think is a mistake. It's got to be a bit more elemental than that, otherwise your book's not got a very long shelf life. Better for that sort of perspective to emerge as a natural result of the story you're trying to tell.

Gotta read her books!

(via Sarah Weinman)