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.


Lost in Translation

Anglo-Saxon publishers and readers have shown an increasing interest in foreign-language mystery fiction over the last decades. Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Idriodarson, Andrea Camillieri and my fellow-compatriot Fred Vargas have now achieved notability outside their respectives spheres, some of them winning prestigious awards in the process. I can't but rejoice of this, no matter my personal feelings about these authors. Still, they are only the top of the iceberg and a lot of great stuff remains to be uncovered, most particularly a lot of great French stuff. Gallic mystery fiction, despite having followed sometimes paths which I find to be regretable or at least objectionable, has a tradition of excellence that long predates the creator of Commissaire Adamsberg, and certainly deserves to be better known.
A new feature of this blog, "Lost in Translation" will focus on those of my fellow-compatriots who, despite being popular and/or celebrated in their country, have never made it in the Anglosphere. Some had a handful of their books translated but failed to build an audience. Others were initially acclaimed then slipped into obscurity. Still others were too original. Most, sadly, were just never given a chance. Have you ever heard of Frédéric Dard, Michel Cousin, Noël Vindry, Madeleine Coudray, Jean-François Coatmeur, Jacques Decrest, Pierre Siniac, S.A. Steeman or Martin Méroy? No? That's what "Lost Translation" sets to correct. I have no hope that it will move publishers, but it should at the very least arouse some curiosity and, who knows...
The series will be irregular but I'll try to make it as frequent as possible. Don't hesitate to use the comments section to inquire about an author or suggest a name; I'll be happy to oblige as far as my readings and information allow me to.
Don't miss the premiere this Sunday. Our first guest will be René Reouven.


A Belated Obituary

One of this blog's policies is to remain polite even in the face of events and behavior that defy politeness, so I'll refrain with extreme difficulty from using stronger words than "shameful" to describe the media's abysmal coverage of the death of Celia Fremlin.  It took two months for the mystery world to know of the sad event thanks to the invaluable Martin Edwards who proved thus to be a more reliable news source than The Times and The Guardian. We tend to think our genre enjoys a better treatment nowadays than it once did, but stories of this kind remind one the path is still a long one.
Not that the whole thing is entirely surprising: Celia Fremlin was never a best-selling writer, she was not very prolific and most of her output was out of print.  Her kind of books - psychological suspense - was no longer "hip" and was always somewhat marginal in her own country. It's telling that the only award she ever got was from a foreign organization, the MWA.
Even more saddening in a way is that the few people remembering Fremlin do so because of just one book, the Edgar-winning The Hours Before Dawn and mostly because of its feminist overtones. I don't dispute the validity of such a reading but it is way too narrow in my view. Hours Before Dawn is first and foremost a splendid piece of craft, especially if one considers that it was Fremlin's debut. The characterisation and the depiction of suburbian life are superb and the writing is sharp and quietly ironic. The plot may sound familiar to the modern reader, but it's only because it has been much recycled on both print and screen since 1958. Even so, Fremlin plays the reader's nerves with expertise and the book is hard, almost impossible to put down - I, for one, couldn't. That it appealed so much to Edgar voters comes as no surprise: Fremlin's blend of the ordinary and the creepy probably reminded them of their homegrown school of domestic terror, most notably Charlotte Armstrong and Ursula Curtiss with whom Fremlin has a lot in common.
The not-that-young newcomer seemed poised for great things, and she delivered in the dozen books (including my own favorite, The Long Shadow ) and the many short stories that followed. Unfortunately she never became a household name despite admirers as prestigious as Ruth Rendell or P.D. James. Now that she's gone, let us hope that her work won't go the same way and that interest, even misguided, for her best-known work will bring the rest of her output back in print. It's way overdue.
Further reading:
Her obituary in The Times, alas more concerned with her stance on euthanasia than her crime writing.
Her obituary in The Guardian, somewhat more detailed and interesting.
A review of The Hours Before Dawn on Steve Lewis' MysteryFile blog.
A profile of Fremlin and another review of Hours on the Tangled Web site.


A Quizz Just For You

Its title is "How Well Do You Know Mystery Classics?" and you can it take it here.

Feedback much encouraged.


Some Thoughts on Barzun & Taylor's Catalog of Crime

Mystery scholar Douglas G. Greene once described the CoC (as it is now known in the community) as a "supremely quirky book" which is a masterpiece of understatement. A review of it done in the authors' oh-so-distinctive style would go something like this:

A pretentious hogwash of arbitrary judgements, haughty dogmatism and proud narrow-mindedness, cooked by two academic sourpusses. Best read as a companion piece to Julian Symons' equally obnoxious Bloody Murder.

Rather abrupt and somewhat unfair? But then these epithets apply exactly to the CoC for its most part, which wouldn't be too much of a problem were it given as a polemical essay rather than a scholarly work. Despite Barzun's typically modest assertion that his book "should not only help to steer clear of dull imitations [but] should also help to develop [...] needful critical standards", ultimately the CoC tells the reader only about the own very particular tastes of those who wrote it and while it may arouse curiosity, only the converts in the end will be won to its cause. All in all, it is basically the flipside of Bloody Murder, which is not surprising since Barzun & Taylor and Symons share the same premises; they only differ with regard to their conclusions.

Both B&T and Symons display for instance conservative conceptions of "literature" which preclude mystery fiction from being part of it, either because of the genre's innate inferiority (Symons) or of its fundamental alterity (Barzun & Taylor) They also agree on the importance of realism - though B&T's definition of it is not quite the same as Symons's - characterization and credibility taken in its narrowest sense; it won't surprise anyone thus that both the CoC and Bloody Murder frown on John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen and praise the serious and civilized who keep their fancy under control. Wild humor is not the genre de la maison either, of course.

Where our killjoys part, however, is on the question of books that push the envelope (Symons would probably say "transcend the genre") or at least don't quite follow Mgr. Knox's Decalogue. Symons predictably endorses them and give them highest marks while B&T stick to the orthodoxy, which is their absolute and inalienable right but doesn't quite put them in the proper frame of mind to appreciate mysteries that are "different". Their devotion to tradition, coupled with their belief that the genre can't and mustn't be about matters deemed to be the Novel's province leads them to rather extreme statements such as this condemnation of A.E.W. Mason's classic
The House of the Arrow:

Romance, melodrama, good characterization, and by no means negligible humor cannot compensate for Hanaud's failure to play fair with his Watson.


Similarly, John Dickson Carr's The Burning Court, while avoiding its author's usual "failings" still misses B&T's approbation because of its "hybrid" nature.

Another B&T's own feature is the rampant misogyny, though it may not be the more apt word to describe their attitude which reminds this reader of French mystery criticism in the Fifties: female authors are OK, some are even great, but only as long as they don't write in a "feminine", "ladylike" way - both words being invariably used in a derogatory fashion.

Now I wouldn't give an impression that the CoC is a total wreck, not worthy of one's time. The authors' erudition is quite impressive and their judgements, when not overly opinionated, are quite sound and interesting. Also, they are much more exhaustive than Symons and include some authors that inexplicably failed to get a mention in Bloody Murder such as Robert Bloch, Fredric Brown, Joel Townsley Rogers or Charlotte Armstrong. Granted, none of them gets high marks but B&T at least are aware of their existence and significance.

Still, we are left with one question: why is the mystery genre so fertile in authoritarian folks whose conception of criticism consists in trashing anything they don't agree with and tell others what they should write, and how? As infuriating as they were, neither B&T nor Symons started the trend and, sadly, neither did they end it.

Further reading:

A more charitable review of the CoC by Martin Edwards.

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