Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “Mayhem,”
by J. Robert Janes

(Editor’s note: This is the 27th installment of our popular weekly blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from San Franciscan Cara Black, author of the Aimée Leduc Investigation series, set in modern-day Paris. The eighth and most recent entry in that series is Murder in the Rue de Paradis, published earlier this year by Soho Crime.)

The book I recommend you read is Mayhem (1992), by Canadian novelist J. Robert Janes--but on one condition: that you then read all of Janes’ historical crime series set in Occupied France. You’ll be giving yourself a treat. Forget the romanticism of Casablanca, Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray, and even the work of Alan Furst. Janes’ lyrical writing captures the haunting era of World War II with it’s moral ambiguities and wistful Parisian flair as no other novels do. I’ll talk about several of those books here, but start with Mayhem, a dense, atmospheric crime novel dripping with history and the reality that during war there is no black and white. Only gray.

Mayhem, originally published under the title Mirage in the UK, is the beginning chapter of Janes’ series about an unusual partnership in an unusual time. It finds Hermann Kohler, a Gestapo investigator, teamed with Jean-Louis St-Cyr, a French Sûreté officer, investigating a murder during the occupation of France in WWII.

On his Web site, Janes quickly establishes the backdrop of Mayhem:
Paris, unlike all other cities and towns in war-torn Europe, is an open city, a showcase [Adolf] Hitler uses to let his boys know how good things can be under Nazi rule. French Gestapo are everywhere and definitely don’t like these two detectives, since St-Cyr put many of them away before the war, but Kohler is all too ready to tell them this and is fast becoming a citizen of the world under Louis’ influence. [Kohler] also has no use for the Occupier, even [going so far as to ridicule] Nazi invincibility. Hated and reviled by the Occupier and often by the Occupied, the two constantly tread a minefield.

Paris is home territory, but as the only two honest cops around, they are sent throughout the country, so we see aspects of the Occupation from different perspectives; yet everywhere there is the nightly ink of the blackout and the nail-down of the curfew. Muggings, rapes, purse-snatchings, murders, break-ins, prostitution, juvenile delinquency and acts of outright vandalism all see huge increases. It’s blackout crime-time ...
Mayhem opens in Nazi-occupied Paris in December 1942. Our heroes, St-Cyr and Kohler, are called to a rural area near the Fontainebleau forest, where the body of an attractive young man was discovered. The Nazis suspect the crime is Resistance-related. They want it solved speedily, and threaten to send our Hermann to the Russian Front if he cannot deliver. But the case isn’t a simple one, at all. Janes’ detective pair discover that clandestine sex, family secrets, and greed are the motives for murder, rather than the assumed patriotism. Janes’ descriptions of the culture of scarcity in everyday Paris and his historically accurate scenes of Parisians coping with their nation’s wartime defeat are so vivid, you can clearly feel the cold, the hunger, and the weighty darkness.
Firefly lights and tiny blue flames broke the ever-present darkness of the streets. Occasionally a Gestapo car roared by or that of some German officer, but even then the black-out regulations called for tape across the headlamps and only thin slices of light.
But let’s move on from Mayhem to Mannequin (1994), the fourth entry in this series. Again, the action takes place in the City of Light. This time, though, the daughter of one of St-Cyr’s neighbors, 18-year-old Joanne Labelle, has gone missing and her little brother has asked the French detective and Kohler to find her. It’s a reminder that even in the midst of international conflict, common crime continues. “In spite of the war and the conqueror-conquered relationship,” Janes writes of his investigating pair, “they had got on since the fall of 1940. Two detectives of long standing. None of the Gestapo-SS brutality and sadism for them. Just robbery, arson, murder, extortion, other things also, and much trouble with the SS and the Gestapo. These days so many got in the way.” Among those who get in the way in Mannequin is Nazi leader (and Hitler’s designated successor) Hermann Goering. Goering’s in Paris on an art-looting mission that crosses paths with Kohler and St-Cyr’s probe into the homicides of several young women who had answered an advertisement looking for fashion models. Ghosts of wars past and present come to haunt this tale: one of the suspects is a “drooler,” an aristocrat badly mutilated during World War I, one of the gueules cassées (survivors who suffered one or more injuries in battle); and Kohler’s two sons are involved in the ongoing siege of Stalingrad.

It’s impossible to praise too highly the subtle ways in which author Janes shows the twisted times of World War II in Europe through the stories of his two policemen, both of whom are suffering in their private lives. St-Cyr, his family having been destroyed in a bomb blast, now lives with a singer who has Resistance ties. But this most patriotic of Frenchmen faces death from a strengthened Resistance, due to his perceived collaboration with the German occupiers. Meanwhile, Kohler supports and protects two French women, and thereby puts them in danger. Always at odds with his Gestapo superiors, Kohler also needs the women’s help in his investigations. When he faces down Goering at an art auction in Mannequin, it seems as much an act of suicidal madness as one of moral strength.

Mannequin ends just as the story to be told in the equally impressive Sandman (1994) commences. Four schoolgirls have already been murdered, when St-Cyr and Kohler are called to Occupied Paris to investigate a fifth. But this time the crime scene reveals subtle and disturbing differences that make the detective duo wonder if this crime was really the work of a serial killer known as the Sandman. The girl who died in a birdcage in the Bois de Boulogne was stabbed with a knitting needle, but by a different-size needle than earlier victims, and she was stabbed in a different place. Although this fifth dead girl was wearing the disordered clothing of munitions heiress Nanette Vernet, the corpse is actually Nanette’s friend Andre Noireau, orphaned when her parents went abroad on a visit to Coventry and never returned. As for Nanette herself, she might as well be orphaned, since she’s caught not only in the European war but in the more intimate battle between her bullying father and her scheming mother. Perhaps that’s why she has disappeared, along with her companion, university student Liline Chambert. Or perhaps Nanette’s disappearance is connected to the traces of SS involvement--from the presence of the Kommandant of Paris in the birdcage within minutes of the murder, to the commerce at a nearby Germans-only brothel, to the vile paintings that St-Cyr and Kohler keep tripping over, no matter how hard they try to overlook them. As elliptical and understated as any of Louis and Hermann’s cases so far, Sandman contains a crescendo of ugly secrets.

One last novel in this series to mention: Stonekiller (1995), in which St-Cyr and Kohler have to decide whether to investigate the murder of a woman who once discovered a prehistoric art trove. Since Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, plan to exploit the find for their own purposes, an investigation might embarrass the wrong people. What Janes brings out so well in Stonekiller are the intriguing and little-known sinister power plays between the SS, the Gestapo, France’s Vichy regime, and the French police, all of whom want to guard their respective turfs or garner more. Janes amazes me with his spot-on period detail, his grasp of the “banality of evil,” as political theorist Hannah Arendt termed it, and the way he shows ordinary people trying to survive in extraordinary times.

These three books, and the other eight that make up Janes’ series--Carousel, Dollmaker, Beekeeper, and the rest--are among the finest novels ever written about a world at war. A time that continues to fascinate us. I encourage you to try them all, beginning of course with Mayhem.


beth said...

Cara - I was just led to this blog by Leighton's post on the Mystery Cafe discussion.

The Janes books are some of the best I have ever read. I mentioned them on the Insomniac thread but a lot of people said they couldn't imagine enjoying a book in which one of the chief characters is a member of the Gestapo while still being a moral and admirable character.

I am sure you can do more than I can to encourage people to read this wonderful series.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree. Quite addictive, fascinating and deal with the interface between micro and macro-crimes that concern all colonised countries to the here and now.