27/09/2009

Lost in Translation: René Reouven

To write about René Reouven is for this blogger a source of both greatest pleasure and deepest frustration. Pleasure, because the man happens to be one of my all-time favorite mystery writers. Frustration, because readers of this blog unless they are fluent enough in French will never be able to read any of his books. Despite being one of the most important authors to emerge in the genre in the second half of the twentieth century and having won both of his country's top awards for crime writing, Reouven remains a French-French phenomenon. This makes him a logical choice to inaugurate this new feature.

René Reouven was no debutant when his first mystery, Octave II, appeared under Denoël's famous Crime-Club imprint in 1964. As René Sussan (his real name) he had already published two mainstream novels, La Route Des Voleurs (Thieves' Road, 1959) and Histoire de Farczi (The Story of Farczi, 1964) which received the Prix Cazes, starting a long series of prizes and accolades. He had also made a foray into science-fiction with Les Confluents (1960) and would become a noted writer in this genre under both his real name and his pseudonym.

Crime-Club, later to be known as Sueurs Froides, was home to what has come to be called "suspense à la française" a homegrown genre which emphasized clever plotting, usually revolving around complex machinations, and elegant writing in the fashion of the imprint's locomotives Boileau-Narcejac. CC's regulars included authors relatively familiar to English-speaking audiences such as Hubert Monteilhet or Sébastien Japrisot, but also less lucky ones such as Louis C. Thomas or Jean-François Coatmeur. Alike them, Reouven would stay faithful to Denoël and its crime imprints for the whole of his career.

Reouven's works of the first period are elegantly-crafted exercises which blend murder, dark humor and satire, most often of the upper and middle classes or civil servants; the writing is brisk, literate and filled with puns and allusions to literature and pop culture. Theatre is a strong influence on the books: Reouven's plots often revolve around quid pro quos and the clever, deliberately unrealistic dialogue reminds at times of Guitry or Wilde. Highlights of the period include the locked-room mystery Les Humeurs Assassines (The Murderous Humors, 1968) L'Assassin Maladroit (The Awkward Murderer, 1970) which earned him the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière
, Cinq Personnages En Quête de Meurtre (Five Characters in Search of a Murder, 1972) and Le Bouton du Mandarin (The Mandarin's Button, 1976)

The half-historical, half-contemporary Les Confessions d'un Enfant du Crime (The Confessions of a Child of Crime, 1977) and the "Biblical mystery" Tobie or not Tobie (Tobiah or not Tobiah, 1980) are turning points as they herald the direction Reouven's work would take for most of the next two decades. A largely self-taught man of Renaissance erudition, Reouven uses his vast culture to re-write history or literary works, sometimes blending both. Like Tim Powers of whom he is somehow the mystery fiction counterpart, he sticks scrupulously to facts and sources but links and interprets them in a way all his own, with such mastery that you end up wondering where fact ends and fiction begins. Nowhere is this genius as evident as in the cycle of holmesian pastiches this registered member of the French Sherlock Holmes Society wrote in the eighties and this is why I will discuss it in detail in the rest of this article.

The first book in the cycle, Elementaire, mon cher Holmes (Elementary My Dear Holmes, 1982) does not directly feature Sherlock despite its title. Reouven postulates the survival of the first draft of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a book that is such a concentrate of pure evil that it turns everyone who reads it into a murderer. The masterfully constructed plot follows the book's "adventures" in reverse from his last owner to the first, better-known under the nickname "Jack the Ripper" and whose surprise identity is but one of the book's many pleasures. This is arguably one of Reouven's masterpieces, and deservingly won the Prix Mystère de la Critique.

Holmes appears in person in L'Assassin du Boulevard (The Boulevard Assassin, 1985) which takes place during the Great Hiatus and takes Sherlock to the Gay Paris where he becomes a civil servant and meets the originals of Georges Courteline's play Messieurs les ronds-de-cuir while tracking down Huret, the Boulevard Assassin - as one of his victims called him in a last breath, in a Paris plagued by anarchist attacks. The identity of the criminal is well-hidden and well-clued, though the main clue lies on a pun which may not be easily translatable.

Holmes' next appearance is in the episodic novel Le Bestiaire de Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes' Bestiary, 1987) which deals with untold stories such as the Giant Rat of Sumatra or Isadora Persano and its worm unknown to science. Joseph Conrad, Beryl Baskerville and H.H. Holmes co-star as well as an evil scientist whose name begins with M - no, it's not Moriarty. While the solutions brought to the individual cases are uneven, the way Reouven fuses them in a single narrative and points the finger at an unlikely enemy is properly astounding.


Le Détective Volé (The Stolen Detective, 1988) is certainly the most unusual and daring item in the series. Tired to see comparisons being made between his creature and Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sends Holmes and Watson in the past via H.G. Wells' time machine to find the real-life person who provided Poe with the inspiration for his character. Holmes and Watson first "travel" to early nineteenth-century France to meet Vidocq then to New York and Baltimore to work out the murder of Mary Rogers and the mystery of Poe's death. As to the "real" Dupin... send me a mail if you want to know the answer.

The cycle ends with Les Passe-Temps de Sherlock Holmes (The Pastimes of Sherlock Holmes, 1989) which sees Holmes solving three "literary" mysteries including the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, pointing a rather surprising author, and the death of Gérard de Nerval. I didn't like it as much as the previous four, but it's certainly an engrossing experience.


A full coverage of René Reouven's output would require a much longer article - the man is also responsible for a delightful Dictionnaire des Assassins and his science-fiction work, which often includes mystery elements, would deserve a entire post. I regret not to have place enough to tell you about another masterpiece of his, La Raison du Meilleur Est Toujours La Plus Forte (The Best One's Will is Always the Strongest, 1986) which doesn't fit in any of his usual veins.

What I hope is to have made you curious about Réouven, and make you feel why he is in my view one of the best mystery writers around even though I don't think any translation will occur soon as his brand of civilized, erudite mysteries is not "marketable" enough, not to speak about the difficulties in translating the many puns in his writing. Also, as Michel Lebrun pointed out, Reouven is an extremely cultivated writer aiming at a similar audience; much of the zest of L'Assassin du Boulevard passes you out if you don't know Courteline and/or don't know about the anarchist attacks that stroke France and the rest of Europe in the late nineteenth century. Still, it's worth sampling the work of the man who, in the words of Jacques Baudou, "makes the parallels meet".

Further reading:

Reouven's holmesian pastiches have been collected as Histoires Secrètes of Sherlock Holmes, while his revisionist histories have been gathered in the two volumes of Crimes Apocryphes.

1 commentaire:

Steve Lewis a dit…

I see that (two things) you've not continued this series of authors those of us in the US (for example) have not only never read, but we've (speaking for myself) never heard of.

That no one has left a comment is another surprise, and here I call on myself for blame, as I meant to when I first read this post, and I never did.

My apologies. You've made the work of René Reouven so interesting that not only am I curious, but I'd give almost anything to have a chance to read some of it. I suppose I could learn to read French again! (Puns, I don't know whether I could ever get that good or not.)

But do continue this series, if you can. I for one would like to learn more.

Best regards

Steve