Sunday, July 22, 2012


Was it worth the hype?  Yes, but it took a little longer than I expected to get there. 

J. Robert Janes' Mayhem (Soho Press, 1992) is the first in a series featuring the unlikely combination of a Gestapo agent and a member of the French Sûreté, in occupied Paris, 1942.  Why must they work together?  Well, as Kohler (Gestapo) points out in his interview with the haughty countess (yes, a cliché, but well, it wouldn't feel right without them!), "Crime doesn't stop just because there's a war."  (120)  In other words, the Nazis are not stupid, mon ami.  They know that they must retain elements of the French security apparati, if they want to maintain any sort of calm in the land they know rule.  Most of the men (for they are really all men of course) who work for the Sûreté are all too happy to collaborate, being already anti-semites, power-mad, or just plain jerks.  St-Cyr, one of Our Heroes (Kohler being the other) is not one of these.  He tries to walk a very fine line between doing the job he's been trained for, and obviously loves - being a detective - and collaborating with the enemy who have deprived him of decent meals, good tobacco for his pipe, and his wife's affections.  At one point he is targeted by the Resistance, and his German colleagues must help extricate him from a death sentence - which they do with their usual casual brutality.

So you see, it goes back and forth, back and forth.  One minute you can comfortably hate the all Germans, but the next, one of them shows a surprising sensititivity to the terrible jurt they've caused to all of France.  For every stereotypical screaming scarred SS General in his gleaming boots with his perfect Aryan henchmen, there's a Gestapo chief who worked with St-Cyr in Austria before the war, and who obviously saved him from certain arrest as the Germans entered the City of Light.  The Germans, although the victors (so far), are also riven by their own divisions- the Wehrmacht was in charge of security in France, but was then replaced by the Gestapo, and what exactly the SS get up to, nobody really wants to know too much.  So the Wehrmacht hate the Gestaop and the Gestapo don't trust the SS and everyone fears Berlin.  This is their weakness, and its exploitation is a central element to the plot. 

To emphasize this sense of never quite knowing who you can trust or even really what is going on (I had to read the bit on the different meetings with Sûreté, Gestapo, and Wehrmacht chiefs three times before I confirmed who was who), Janes employs a tricky narrative device of switching perspective constantly during any scene.  At the start of the book, it is downright confusing if you are not paying close attention.  Here's a short example, just at the start, when the first body is found on a road in Fontainebleau Forest:

"The Bavarian nudged the corpse with the toe of his right show but didn't look up.  'So, what about it, Louis?'
The accent  was harsh, gutteral, the French quite passable because Hermann, being Hermann and stubborn, had seen to it that he spoke the language.  One found out so much more that way.  It facilitated things - all things.  Gestapo things.  Especially girls. [okay, this is obviously Kohler thinking]
St-Cyr chose not to answer immediately.  ["chose" to me indicates that this is St-Cyr]  A last leaf fell through the hush to crash into some boulders with its load of frost and scrape its way to patient rest.
Hermann took no interest in the leaf, in the beauty of its death, the curled edges, the ring of encrusting frost, not even the fact that the leaf was from a plane tree and that such trees were a rarity in this part of the Fontainebleau Forest. 
Always it was blitzkrieg, blitzkrieg.  December, 1942, the Occupation.  Now the whole of France, as of last month. [I like Kohler for this, he's a little tired of the gung-ho Nazis, pleasures of Paris notwithstanding]
'We shall have to see won't we' he said at last.  [you may think that is Kohler, because we've been listening to his inner dialogue briefly here, but it is St-Cyr!]
Accustomed to such delays [Kohler again], the Bavarian sucked on a tooth and snorted, 'It's one less Frenchman for us to worry about.'
Must he be so blatant? [St-Cyr again!] 'We've no evidence he was involved with the Resistance, Inspector.  Perhaps . . . " (9-10)

So, you get a little sense.  This kind of perspective shifting happens throughout the story, and delays one's settling in.  Yet while confusing, I think it achieves a nicely unsettling tone that captures the essence of the time.  We all know the Germans are in charge right now, and disobedience can exact a disastrous price. But the French, collaborators aside, are determined to undermine that dominance in ways large and small. 

And I have to point out that being French, they are not immune to a good meal or glass of wine. 

"'A family business,' said St-Cyr dreamily.  'The salt pork with lentils to your liking?'
'Too much,' sighed the Bavarian.  'That sausage and red cabbage . . . '
'And the paté, the bread, the green salad, and the leek-and-potato soup.  If one strained credulity, Hermann, it's almost as it was before the war.'
The coq-au-vin had been superb."  (100-104)

This meal also includes a Pouilly-Fumé of "truly remarkable vintage that [St-Cyr] had always found to his taste, a gunflint wine, though not of a gun or flints . . . " (100-104).  Hermann can barely stay awake for his dessert of "Chantilly cream with baked pears and chocolate sauce with almonds." (104)  Almost as it was before the war, bien sur. 

Janes' writing has a few annoying tics - references to Kohler as The Bavarian feel forced after about one (is he a dessert?), and the French characters' constant use of the pronoun me, as in "me, I think," grates.  This last may be done to make it all sound more French, (eh, moi, je pense que les Nazis . . . ).  Mais alors, as St-Cyr is often saying to split the hair . . . the fine atmospherics, intricate plotting that really didn't give anything away, and intriguing joint protagonists, well, me, I can put up with the tics for another book in this series, I think. 

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