(Editor’s note: This 42nd entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series reintroduces us to Canadian author J. Robert Janes, who I was so privileged to interview last year. In the essay below, he writes about The Hunting Ground [Mysterious Press/Open Road], his new standalone thriller set during the German occupation of France during World War II.)
A year ago last January I had to undergo a very serious
operation on my right eye and was told to keep my head down for at least 10
days. I managed 14, but what does someone who’s used to working every day of
the week but Sundays do for all that time?
Out came the clipboard and the manuscript--there was, in
retrospect, never any question of what I would work on during my convalescence.
You see, The Hunting Ground has been with me ever since 1990, and has been through at least six or seven revisions during those years. It’s the book I first worked on after my thriller The Alice Factor was finally set to be published in 1991. Which was before I started writing Mayhem (1992), the opening number in my Jean-Louis St-Cyr/Hermann Kohler mystery series.
Head down, pencil in hand--for I always compose my stories in longhand and have for the past 43 years of full-time writing--I started in. And yes, I always use one of those rechargeable pencils: HB 0.5mm leads and no others. That first day, I worked for 12 hours straight and totally forgot myself.
Immediately, it all came back, all those doors that had opened in my imagination, opening again and again into Occupied France during the Second World War. Those 14 recovery days eventually stretched into six months of work on The Hunting Ground. And certainly, when I retyped the manuscript later on, I could have used both eyes, had they been working in sync and in focus. However, the operation was a terrific success and I am extremely lucky to have come through it so well.
In The Hunting Ground, Lily de St Germain (née
Hollis) is a wife and mother who, in 1938 and living in what she has come to
call a “château” on the edge of Fontainebleau Forest to the southeast of Paris, feels increasingly that she must take her children and leave before the threat of war reaches her doorstep. A chance meeting in Paris during the first exodus in September 1939 brings a man named Thomas Carrington into her life. He keeps coming back, but initially it’s not because of his interest in Lily, it’s because of something her son has found hidden--hidden by his papa, Lily’s unfaithful husband, for friends who are no friends of hers. Only when Tommy takes Lily and the children to England, does she discover that he’s an insurance investigator who works for a very old, well-established firm in London that underwrites the underwriters. But, of course, Lily’s husband steals their children back and she has to return to that “château.”
Always I am drawn into the story I’m telling and that, in
itself, can be a very powerful thing. And of course, once done, one has to
stand back and look at it all from a distance. Sure, some things you might
not see even then, simply because you’ve been so close to the work for such a
long time. But Lily, as the first-person narrator of this yarn, had--and still
has--a lot of meaning for me because, in essence, she spoke of what was
happening to so many others. Lots and lots of people just like her hoped never
to be drawn into such a war or made victims of that war’s violence, and yet
they were. Lily comes to see and live with the very changes war visits upon
her, a mother with two children.
She also introduced me to the German occupation of France (1940-1944) and allowed me to open door after door into what is a truly remarkable period of history. And certainly, when I was working again on this novel last year, with a far greater understanding of the history than I had back in 1990, I could have included and dealt with other aspects I’ve come to understand since then. But I didn’t; I wanted the story to be as close as possible to the way I’d written it originally.
Becoming an active résistante, Lily goes on to work
with Tommy and others in the search for and recovery of stolen works of art.
However, she’s ultimately arrested and sent to the German concentration camps
at Birkenau and then Bergen-Belsen, where the past and those recollections of
Tommy and the others are all that really keep her going. Always, though, she
blames herself for what happened. Finally freed in 1945, her recovery is
uncertain. From a clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, she begins sending little
black pasteboard coffins to her husband and his friends, and also to one other
person, all of whom think her dead and themselves released from any
responsibility for what has happened. Telephone calls follow in which Lily
tells each of those people that, while they may have been cleared by the Résistance, she’s coming home and they are to meet her at the “château.” But time, which for her, in the concentration camps, has been spent entirely in a memory-packed past, increasingly confronts her with the present, until both are one and the
same. To achieve her ends, she’ll have to employ all of the survival skills she
learned from the Résistance, as her husband--together with his friends, a Sûreté detective inspector, Gaetan Dupuis, and a former SS Obersturmführer, Ernst Johann Schiller--pursue her in what was once the hunting ground of kings: namely, Fontainebleau Forest.
I still vividly recall that after my first attempt at
writing this historical and psychological thriller, I set my pencil aside and
asked myself, “Hey, what about a good Sûreté officer in all of this Occupation? Of course, he’d need a German overseer, since everything else did in those days. I’d call him Hermann Kohler but make him only a detective inspector, since Jean-Louis St-Cyr, his French counterpart, was a chief inspector.”
The notion of writing a series attracted me. I knew, though,
that if I were to tackle it properly, I had to keep on delivering new installments
to bookstores. As a result, I set aside The Hunting Ground and concentrated on the wartime investigative adventures of St-Cyr and Kohler. Yet still, I found myself coming back repeatedly to the tense tale of Lily de St-Germain. Finally, I had that eye operation and those six months of concentrated work on the novel, and it all led to the publication this week of The Hunting Ground--23 years after I started writing the novel.
It’s only the first of two new books with my name on them. Tapestry, the 14th installment in my St-Cyr and Kohler
series (following last year’s Bellringer), is due out
from Mysterious Press/Open Road on June 4. And The Alice Factor is set
to be released as an e-book, also from Mysterious Press/Open Road, on June 5.
So in a sense, for me as well as for Lily, the past has become the present.