Having developed a strong taste for intrigue and serial mayhem with a Nordic flavor, we now have a chance to sample some French fare prepared from the same food groups. True to the Gallic reputation for gastronomy, the dish is complex, with perhaps just a bit too much fat, but overall pleasurable and satisfying.
"Syndrome E" marks the U.S. debut of Franck Thilliez, author of several best-selling thrillers in his native France and Europe. The book, the first of a series, introduces Chief Inspector Franck Sharko of the Paris Bureau of Violent Crimes, a 50-something criminal profiler, and the younger Lucie Hennebelle, a lieutenant in the Criminal Investigations unit of the Lille Police Department. They meet when their two investigations intersect, and each immediately recognizes a fellow member of the walking wounded, emotionally damaged by their personal histories and having seen too many horrors in their work.
Sharko is so damaged he's broken. We first meet him in the midst of a medical treatment -- transcranial magnetic stimulation -- meant to reduce hallucinations arising from his trauma-induced schizophrenia. But neither the treatments nor his antipsychotic medications banish the vision and taunts of Eugenie, a demanding little girl and Sharko's near-constant companion, occasionally welcome, more often dreaded.
Hennebelle manages to get on with her life, despite the weight of her depression, doing her best as the single mother of twin girls, seeking to end her loneliness through online dating. It is one of these failed relationships that pulls her into a baffling case, when she receives a panicked phone call from her ex-lover: He has been struck blind while watching a mysterious and disturbing film from the 1950s, unearthed from the archives of a recently deceased Belgian collector.
The diagnosis is hysterical blindness, triggered by subliminal images of unimaginable depravity. Hennebelle undertakes a dangerous quest to discover the origins of the frightening and powerful film, and the body count soon begins to mount. Her search takes her as far as Montreal, and brings to light some of the darker pages of Canadian history.
Meanwhile, Sharko is heading the investigation of five mutilated corpses found buried in Rouen. A connection is made to a similar case in Egypt, and Sharko heads to Cairo. Suffice it to say he doesn't get to visit the pyramids, and the bodies pile up. In Cairo, the inspector (and the reader) gains fascinating insights into the phenomenon of collective hysteria, and the bouillabaisse becomes even fishier when the murders in France and Egypt are linked to the film.
The author has done his homework, and "Syndrome E" is filled with interesting facts related to neuroscience, psychiatry, and social and film history. By weaving so much real science and historical information into the plot, Mr. Thilliez creates a supporting scaffold upon which he can convincingly hang the more fanciful theories and plot elements of the story.
As Sharko notes, the ultimate conclusions about the meaning and purpose of the film and what Syndrome E is all about are "at once far-fetched and frighteningly on target." Just what we want from this genre, and "Syndrome E" delivers. It is compulsively readable, despite its somewhat Byzantine plotting, thanks to Mr. Thlliez's fast-paced and highly visual writing. It's not surprising that the book has already been optioned by a U.S. film company.
As the novel moves back and forth among continents and decades, it exposes a far-reaching network of espionage and conspiracy that implicates governments, the military, medical scientists, the Catholic Church, the CIA and the Foreign Legion (this is, after all, a French story.) Along the way the book explores the origins of violence and the spread of aggressive behaviors, the limitations of free will and the vulnerability of the human mind.
"Syndrome E" moves beyond the classic crime procedural -- although there are plenty of CSI agents and forensic analyses -- to create an eerie psychological mystery with a truly stunning resolution. It ends with a cliffhanger that sets up the sequel, an unnecessary ploy really, since I for one am ready to spend more time with Sharko and Hennebelle.
Eileen Weiner lives in Shadyside and works at Global Links, an international humanitarian aid organization (firstname.lastname@example.org).