A review by Daniel Magennis, PhD Student at Queen’s University Belfast.
Chers lecteurs … Prenez garde : vous avez bu le seul poison qu’il est impossible de recracher. Les images et les idées que j’ai semées dans vos têtes feront leur chemin, à votre insu. Elles vous investissent sournoisement. Vous ne leur échapperez pas. Vous êtes infectés. [p. 235]
Dear readers … Take care; you have drunk the only poison that is impossible to spit out. The images and ideas I have sown in your minds will burrow deep, treacherously and without you knowing. You will not escape them. You are infected.
Although less well known to international readers than his old friend and occasional co-author Jean-Patrick Manchette (the brooding Godfather of French Néo Noir), the writer, screenwriter and film director Jean-Pierre Bastid has created many remarkable works , in his long, prolific and multimedia career. His 1999 novel Irish Stew, published by Méréal, is a fascinating French take on the Irish Troubles thriller. Bastid’s serial-killer noir novel, set in 1970s Northern Ireland, does more than simply take the reader through the horrific deeds of the protagonist Tomas Shepherd, a cunning and sadistic killer who masquerades as a seemingly unremarkable accountant at a factory. In retelling Shepherd’s (known to the police as Gugusse – the Joker) terrorising of the small, fictitious town of Providence, the skilfully crafted narrative schools the reader in the art of the obscene as it propels them through a seemingly inevitable succession of scenes of torture and murder. But Bastid does this in such a way that they become aware that their participation, simply through the act of reading, makes them complicit as the basest of voyeurs.
This complicity is perhaps unavoidable given that the novel’s structure results in its conclusion being revealed at the beginning – curiosity cannot be invoked as a motive to excuse the reader-accomplice. The above quotation reveals the protagonist’s revelling at his easy debasement of the reader. The bulk of the novel is a manuscript penned by Shepherd. But this is preceded by a note from the editor, as well as a forward from Superintendent O’Hara, the novel’s all too peripheral RUC inspector, who reveals salient facts of the case.
The political and civil strife of the Troubles in Northern Ireland serves as a smoke screen which allows Shepherd to operate with impunity. Although he claims he is from a Catholic background, Shepherd does not discriminate along religious lines when it comes to choosing victims.
Shepherd derives distinct pleasure from the infectious nature of violence, the fact that man, woman and even child are only a small degradation away from becoming the sort of monster they might ordinarily detest and fear. This is one of the lasting messages of the novel. In a country such as Northern Ireland in the 70s, the veneer of civilisation is a thin one indeed.
Ô Irlande ! il faut que tu sache que mon œuvre est un rond dans l’eau qui va, toujours s’élargissant, jusqu’à se perdre enfin dans le néant. A toi de comprendre ce qu’il y a au centre de ce tourbillon quelle vérité, et quelle chimère. [p. 219]
Oh Ireland! Know that what I do is a ripple, ever-widening until it loses itself in nothingness. It is up to you to decide what at the centre of this whirlpool is true, and what is false.
Shepherd wraps his appalling crimes in a cloak of artistry and ceremony. The book’s sections open with an ominous quotation from the traditional Catholic, Latin Tridentine Mass, each heralding the coming of a new victim. Shepherd’s creativity and cruelty, which increase with each murder, cannot hide the fact that his crimes are brute acts of power – he himself does not even buy into the mystique and esoterism of his acts. He is a classic example of a sociopathic and untrustworthy, if not compelling, narrator.
Published as part of the series ‘Black Process’, with evocative yellow and black covers, Irish Stew is currently available only in its original French. It is nevertheless a fascinating, if gruesome, addition to a corpus of French crime fiction dealing with the conflict in Northern Ireland. The health warning of sorts given by the book’s blurb (“L’avertissement est éminent, ce livre n’est pas à mettre entre toutes les mains” [“The warning is plain, this book is not to be put into every hand”], looks for a change to be well deserved – this is not a book for the faint-hearted.