Dominique Jeannerod, Queen’s University, Belfast
Jean-Marie Le Ray, Translator, Rome-Paris
With our thanks to Gianni Rizzoni and Daniel Magennis
Italy was not the first country to translate and adapt the investigations of Detective San-Antonio, the French bestseller whose 183 novels have sold more than an estimated 100 million copies in his country of origin. Initial translations into English, in 1954, did not meet with any success and faded almost without trace. San-Antonio had greater success in Francoist Spain, where translations were published, and sometimes reissued, from the early 1960’s. The first translation of the Italian “Sanantonio” was not until 1970, the first title being La Gioconda in blu (Pass me the Mona Lisa). What sets Italy apart from other countries is the large number of translations published there and their high quality. 120 of the 183 original novels were translated there, as well as two comics. Including reissues and reprints, the total number of San-Antonio books published in Italy from 1970 to 2015 amounts to 190. Throughout these 45 years—by no means uninterrupted— San-Antonio was picked up by five different Italian publishing houses. The most significant of these was Mondadori who, between July 1970 and the end of 1977, published 90 original translations at a rate of one every month.
The present article tries to put into perspective San-Antonio’s apparent success in Italy. It seeks to reassess the Italian San-Antonian corpus, following the recently published book San-Antonio International (Artiaga & Jeannerod (dir.), PULIM, 2020) which challenged the narrative of San-Antonio’s success abroad, a narrative that so often blurs the realities of its reception. Far from being an unqualified success around the world, the story of San-Antonio in translation takes the form of a series of mishaps and commercial disasters. In fact, the number of Italian editions imply a success that appears to be at odds with an otherwise depressing worldwide tendency; an exception to the observations made in all the other countries investigated in this study.
Certainly, several valid explanations to this Italian idiosyncrasy are highlighted in the book, not least the exceptional skills shown by the Italian translators, with their ear for French slang and their flair for finding equivalences in the Italian language. Success in Italy was further bolstered by the long tradition of circulation of French popular fiction in Mediterranean countries; the cultural proximity between France and Italy, reinforced in the 1970s by Franco-Italian cinematic co-productions, most notably comedies and crime films, two genres to which the universe of San-Antonio owes a great deal. The covers of the Italian editions of San-Antonio recall the striking figure of Jean-Paul Belmondo. San-Antonio also responded to the wide demand for entertaining and “light” literature. Also, perhaps the most significant factor of all is that with Mondadori the San-Antonio novels found in Italy a powerful publisher that dominated the popular fiction market. This had been the key to their popularity in France with Fleuve Noir. In many ways more prestigious, better established and more internationally connected than Fleuve Noir, Mondadori offered an even better platform. So ideal, in fact, that San-Antonio in Italy may have become a victim of its own success. After all, what series’ characters can keep pace with a new novel released every month for 90 straight months?
This was the rhythm adopted by publisher Fayard (“Le Livre Populaire”), for the original Fantômas series by Souvestre & Allain. But it had lasted “only” for 32 novels, from February 1911 to September 1913. The 1970’s Italian public was offered more than three times this number of San-Antonio novels for almost an entire decade.
Was some modicum of readers’ fatigue not to be expected? By 1978, Mondadori had called it quits and handed San-Antonio over to two successive publishing houses, Editoriale ERRE and Edizioni Rosa & Nero. Neither would ever recapture the early commercial success of Sanantonio. Both houses were directed by Gianni Rizzoni, who had played a decisive role in Mondadori’s translations of San-Antonio. Of the eight translators who were responsible for translating San-Antonio to Italian between 1970 and 1986, Rizzoni ranks second behind only Bruno Just Lazzari for the quantity of texts translated. However, Rizzoni’s activities in the promotion of San-Antonio in Italy far exceed translation, and it is no exaggeration to see in him the series’ main Italian “fixer”. In a 1986 article in Il Corriere della Sera, Alfredo Barberis presented Rizzoni to its readers, on the occasion of his second creation of a publishing house (Edizioni Rosa & Nero) with a view to once more attempt to revive Sanantonio’s fortunes.
The publication of “Champagne per tutti” (…) celebrates the return of Frédéric Dard, Sanantonio under his pen name, the most phenomenal mystery writer of recent years. In a totally invented language – a mixture of Rabelais, Céline and Merlin the cook – which his Italian translator-tutor, Gianni Rizzoni, makes particularly funny thanks to his entertaining glottological research, Sanantonio tells of a Roman adventure of Béru & Co. with a cocktail as improbable as it is irresistible of scientists, light-hearted girls and mafiosi. Just a detail: for the first time the author also addresses his well-known digressions (which are not really in the style of Montaigne or Alain) to a hypothetical female reader. Such is the power of feminism.
By calling him a translator-tutor (i.e. also a guide, protector, support), Barberis finally chose to blow Gianni Rizzoni’s cover, and to reveal to readers of the Corriere della Sera that he in fact is the man behind Sanantonio’s success in Italy; the mediator between the commissioner and his readership, the intermediary without whom Italians likely would have never heard of this French detective, and the man who has invested the most in his adventures over the years. Above all, Rizzoni is cemented as the “father” of Sanantonio’s language in Italian, and the true “memory” of the Italian Sanantonio.
Gianni Rizzoni was a professor of French literature, who had written on Baudelaire, Delacroix, and the Dreyfus Affair. He translated Signé Furax, a trilogy by humourists Pierre Dac and Francis Blanche, and a crime trilogy by master of slang Auguste Le Breton (the author of Riffifi) published with Mondadori, in the Giallo series. For the screen, Rizzoni adapted the Italian version of Bertrand Blier’s Valseuses. His name, however, is not mentioned in any of the first three Sanantonio books published from July to September 1970: La Gioconda in blu (Passez moi la Joconde, Pass me the Mona Lisa), La quarta zucca è bianca (Mangez pas consigne, Don’t eat the instructions) and Sanà fra i duri (Messieurs les Hommes, Goodfellas). The translation/adaptation (Traduzione e adapamento dal francese) is credited to Jean Barbet and Giuseppina Pisani Futacchi, a French teacher and a young Italian teacher.
In her 1990 dissertation on “Il caso San-Antonio”, Luciana Cisbani, discovered that when Mondadori bought the rights to publish the San-Antonio series, Alberto Tedeschi, director of the Crime Series submitted these translations to Gianni Rizzoni, who ended up completely rewriting them. Rizzoni described this process in an interview with Cisbani :
… they had struggled to translate literally, they had looked for literary solutions for each sentence, but the result was very heavy. (…) So I rewrote the whole translation and anchored the use of certain slang terms. Notably because neither Pisani Futacchi nor Barbet had any idea what Italian slang was, while I had gained some knowledge of terminology in the matter, from my experience as a translator of Auguste Le Breton.
Indeed, having under his belt translations of Rififi sulla Senna (Du rififi à Paname), Il Clan dei siciliani (Le Clan des Siciliens) and Brigata antigang (Brigades anti-gangs), Rizzoni had developed an extensive Italian-French vocabulary based on Le Breton’s slang. The fourth San-Antonio translation published by Mondadori, Siamo logici perdiana (Faut être logique) was entrusted to Bruno Just Lazzari, a “Triestinian ex-cavalry officer” who went on to become the most prolific Italian translator of Sanantonio, with 85 translated novels, as well as 2 comics, over nearly 10 years. Gianni Rizzoni’s name as a translator of Sanantonio appeared for the first time in January 1971, on the seventh translated novel, Il filo per tagliare il burro (Le Fil à couper le beurre, The Thread That Cuts the Butter).
Rizzoni recently gave us more details on how the work was divided for subsequent Italian translations.
I must admit that – as the documentation indicates – first as an editorial manager, then as a collection manager, I used a lot the translations of my friend Lazzari, who had an extraordinary gift, that of fluidity. The narration, with him, was flowing freely. But this actually had very little to do – nothing at all – with any “translation strategy”. Let’s just say that I was the expert on French culture; at the same time, I was interested both in French slang (which Lazzari did not know) and in Italian slang. Having already translated the novels of Le Breton, I felt I could create neologisms and bizarre constructions to accommodate San-Antonio’s style: the Italian language of Sanantonio was my own. Bruno would translate the novels at full speed, in just a few days – that was one of the main attributes for which we liked so much working with him – and then I would step into the editing by inserting or emphasizing the Sanantonian language and stylistic features. I’ve always written the blurbs on the back covers in a Sanantonio style.
This echoes his 1989 interview with Luciana Cisbani :
…with one or two exceptions, I have always revised all of Sanantonio’s Italian translations. (…) When the translator translated in another way a typical Bérurier sentence or one of the many bird names of Pinaud, I tried to standardise the term or the sentence with reference to the more traditional form in use. This, chiefly because the logic of these kinds of repetitive novels is to always provide the reader with new elements while maintaining a series of recurring gags and terms, which create an atmosphere of familiarity.
Rizzoni’s concern for continuity in the language used is one that guided his translation of Sanantonio. While San-Antonio in French rarely revisited the “neologisms” he created, the Italian translation was able to build a basic vocabulary that spanned the entire series that was identifiable to its readership, thus creating over time the idiosyncratic Italian language of Sanantonio.
Despite all this, it is quite clear from 1978 that Sanantonio’s popularity in Italy was in decline. The falling numbers of original translations offers an indication.
- 1978: 7 original translations, including 1 “Hors Série” (Le vacanze di Berù / The holidays of Bérurier)
- 1979: 7 original translations, including 2 “Hors Série” (Berù I ° il leone d´Africa + Sessualità / Béru-Béru + Sexuality)
- 1980: 2 original translations, including 1 “Hors-Série” (Il galateo secondo Berù / The standing according to Bérurier)
- 1981: 4 original translations, including 1 “Hors-Série” (La saga dei Cojon / Les Con)
- 1982: 1 original translation
- 1986: 3 original translations
- 2001 – 2004: 6 original translations in 4 years
From 2000 to 2004, the publishers Casa Editrice Le Lettere published 6 original translations (by the couple Domitilla Marchi and Enzo Fileno Carabba) and a reprint of a translation by Lazzari and Rizzoni. Between 2013 and 2015, Edizioni E / O published 17 reprints of translations by Bruno Just Lazzari (assisted by Gianni Rizzoni), bringing the total number of Sanantonio releases in Italy to 190 (120 original editions, 68 reprints and 2 comics, published by Mondadori in 1973 (Olé! Sanantonio) and 1974 (Sanantonio in Scozia), respectively, both translated by Bruno Just Lazzari).
1980, the year after Mondadori decided to give up the series, marked the turning point for Sanantonio: a single novel in the series came out, in May, Bagni & Massacri, in addition to one novel outside the series, Il galateo secondo Berù. Around that time, a survey was conducted to celebrate the first 10 years of publication of San-Antonio in Italy (1970-1980). Apparently only 98 readers responded, and keeping this low response in mind, here are a few statistics which can be extrapolated from their responses.
A majority of respondents (88%) were either teenagers or under 40 years old; 72% were men; most were living in northern Italy (65%); 3% lived abroad: the Italian Sanantonio was also distributed in Switzerland, Germany, Australia and Canada, and in Arab countries (where volumes were often seized because of the “obscene nature of the covers”), Latin America, Belgium and the United States.
Predictably for such a cohort, readers rated their loyalty to San-Antonio’s adventures at 95%. Readers main motivations for reading San-Antonio were first the humorous content (84%), then the language (80%), and lastly because of the Giallo (crime) content (43%)…
Despite the support of a commercially robust publishing house and an outstanding team of translators, San-Antonio collapsed in Italy after 10 years. What explanations can we find and what lessons can we learn from them?
First of all, San-Antonio was possibly victim of a kind of bottleneck effect. By publishing practically one book per month for several years against three or four books per year for the French San-Antonio, soon the French production could not keep up the pace with Italian translations’ rhythm, resulting in an “exhaustion” of new material to translate.
The Italian reprints of the first volumes translated were a solution to keep pace with monthly publications as much as possible. At first it worked, but then reprint sales started to decline, dropping from monthly print runs of around 30,000 copies at the peak of the series, to 8 or 10,000 (still not a bad figure, although not enough). At that time, the main problem for Editoriale ERRE was inventory management of around 150,000 volumes (since the sale of novels in newsstands required a large inventory), in other words, significant management of costs.
Faced with declining sales, the collection’s accounts began to fall into the red. Any publishing house must pass on a share of overhead costs on each product but, above all, it cannot afford to waste its time and resources on a product that is difficult to relaunch, except by investing heavily in promotion (i.e. a cost recovery estimated at around 3-400 million lire for the time, more or less 150-210,000 euros of today). The only alternative would have been for all remaining prints to be remaindered. To spare San-Antonio this indignity, Gianni Rizzoni decided to throw everything he had in the fight.
When Mondadori’s senior management decided to stop the publication, Rizzoni managed, albeit with difficulty, to convince the company and its director, Leonardo Mondadori, to allow him to create the publishing house Editorial ERRE, whose sole purpose was to ensure the survival of Sanantonio, where he was director of collections.
While responsibilities for the printing of volumes, warehousing and distribution remained with Mondadori (which could thus better control the flow and still derive some profit from it), Rizzoni assumed all of the entrepreneurial risk.
Rizzoni then left Mondadori to move to Fabbri, while being authorized to retain his editorial autonomy and being responsible for managing the translation rights contracts (mainly entrusted to Lazzari), proofreading, printing, as well as storage, distribution, promotion, etc. At this point, Rizzoni had become the one-man band on whom Sanantonio’s survival depended.
Faced with the ever-pressing issue of unwanted stocks, Rizzoni came up with the idea of combining the unsold items with the summer promotions of Rizzoli magazines, in particular “L’Europeo” and “Playboy“.
But in the end, none of this was enough and Rizzoni’s impressive personal commitment became increasingly impossible to justify and in 1983 he too decided to throw the towel.
Il Mondo, in its September 5, 1983 edition published an article titled “Sanantonio è KO”. It alludes to another development which could have prolonged the life of Sanantonio after all: over its last few months, the series had been kept on a drip in the hope that RAI (the Italian public radio-television) would broadcast a radio-play based on Sanantonio (for which contracts had apparently already been signed), as part of an international production. This venture, which had the possibility of allowing the series to survive, ultimately fell through.
But Gianni Rizzoni still held the translation rights. He decided in 1985 to try once more, with yet another publishing house (Edizioni Rosa & Nero) and a new formula: neater, large format books, printed on better paper. The Sanantonio books were no longer to be distributed in newsstands but in bookstores, with photographic clichés on the cover. This was all accompanied by large-scale advertising campaigns in the main newspapers of the time.
This new venture found support with some journalists, such as Alfredo Barberis, who wrote:
Dard-Sanantonio is far from being as “naive” as he wants us to believe: he is a cultivated writer, who has his roots in the learned tradition of the buffoons of French and European literature.
And again, Gianni Rizzoni did not shy away from the venture, getting directly involved not only in terms of editorial, intellectual, translation work, but also financially, investing a lot of his personal resources and time in the publishing of the novels of Sanantonio. It cost more than it earned, leading Gianni Rizzoni to conclude:
I ended up completely losing interest in Sanantonio…. A kind of exhaustion after so much effort and fatigue …
This disinterest and fatigue, coupled also with his other editorial responsibilities (editorial director at Fabbri, managing director of Sole 24 Ore editions, editorial director at Giorgio Mondadori) resulted in Gianni Rizzoni never really claiming paternity for his invention of the Italian language of Sanantonio. But even if San-Antonio is hardly read today in Italy, it would be interesting to rediscover and study this language. And beyond it, to reflect on the invention of a popular transalpine language for the communication between French and Italian cultural industries in the second half of the twentieth century, and thus on an original contribution to an imagined European Community.
To discover more about the Italian Sanantonio, see http://www.commissariosanantonio.it/
San-Antonio in Russia : http://san-a.ru
For a selection of translated works see :http://francois.kersulec.free.fr/
For a timeline of San-Antonio translations worldwide see : https://ahssqub.padlet.org/djeannerod/arahc6wt83z6gvhc
See also: San-Antonio International – Circulation et imaginaire d’une série policière française, by Loïc Artiaga, Dominique Jeannerod (dir.), PULIM, 2020: http://www.pulim.unilim.fr/index.php/notre-catalogue/fiche-detaillee?task=view&id=958
 The other six translators were Jean Barbet, Giuseppina Pisani Futacchi, Ersilia Borri, Guy Kaufmann, Gigi Rosa and Salvatore Di Rosa
 Corriere della Sera, Wednesday, May 28, 1986. Alfredo Barberis has conducted interviews with Pier Paolo Pasolini for the daily Il Giorno and with Primo Levi for Il Corriere della sera, and directed several newspapers, as well as the literary magazine Millelibri published by Giorgio Mondadori, until 1993. He is also a crime fiction specialist.
 Auguste Le Breton, Brigata Anti-Gang, Giallo Mondadori, n. 1085, 16 novembre 1969, 250 Lire
by Ciara Gorman, Queen’s University Belfast
Ciara Gorman gave a paper on Female Villainy at The Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) and kindly shared the video with us; please watch it here:
IMLR Video Recording Transcript
Hi! My name is Ciara Gorman and I’m a first-year PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, in the department of French. My research is focused on the representations of female villainy in twenty-first-century French crime fiction.
I’ve been fascinated by crime fiction my whole life; I grew up reading Agatha Christie, watching detective serials on TV, playing Cluedo… This might be relatable, because crime fiction – in all its multi-media forms, from film to TV to podcasts – is attractive to many people. In France, crime fiction is an institution; in 2014, one in every five novels sold there was a polar, and sales of crime novels account for around 17% of all novels sold per annum in France. The ‘crime novel’, like the genre itself, is wonderfully diverse, and all of its subgenres are popular in France – from the classic roman policier or detective novel, to historical mysteries, to noir thrillers. General literature has also been infiltrated by crime tropes, as they make appearances in books not technically or typically classified as ‘crime fiction’. Several of these crime subgenres are represented in the corpus of my thesis. I’m working with four books, the covers of which you can see on this slide, all published in the last ten years or so. Fred Vargas is one of the most prolific and popular crime fiction authors in France, same with Karine Giebel; Pierre Lemaitre, who wrote Alex in 2011, is a Prix-Goncourt laureate and so is Leïla Slimani, who won that same prestigious prize in 2016 for this novel, Chanson douce. All of these novels tell different stories, all of them have different generic forms, but they’re all united by one character: a female perpetrator. That character, too, exists on a scale in these novels: in one, she’s a serial killer, in another a murderer of children; she’s a young woman, an old woman, a nanny, a professional assassin. I’m interested in three specific aspects of the representation of these female criminals: why and where they commit crime, and what imagery is associated with them.
My thesis currently has a four-part structure, as you can see here. Chapter One evaluates the role of villains, and of villainy itself, in crime fiction. Villains are really an integral component of any narrative: they throw the heroine’s ‘goodness’ into relief by their ‘badness’, and their evil deeds are often the motor that propels the story forwards. Their actions cause us to reel back in horror, and yet we are compelled to keep looking. This is right at the heart of what makes crime fiction itself so popular; Louis Vax describes it as a simultaneous process of attraction and repulsion. If you’ve ever watched a crime drama where a murder is shown, you’ll know what I mean: you want to look away, because it’s uncomfortable, but you can’t, because it’s part of the story, and you want to know the story ends. This sort of morbid fascination with villains in crime fiction can be increased when the perpetrator is a woman because it’s not what we might be used to seeing – we need only look at the popularity of shows like Killing Eve, or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as evidence. We know that fictional characters often reflect or interrogate societal realities, and teach us lessons about how to be in the world – that’s why we talk about characters as ‘role models’ or ‘examples of what not to do’. So what do female villains, specifically, have to say about issues like gender, justice, policing, capitalism, desire, hatred, love? What messages do we, the reading public, glean from their behaviour as we unconsciously evaluate it for tips, tricks, limitations, warnings – as we do with all characters in fiction? These are the questions at the heart of my thesis – questions about representation, feminism, fiction and reality.
In Chapter Two, I want to look at the motives assigned to our female perpetrators; put simply, why do they commit their crimes? The answer is double: vengeance and breakdown. In Alex and Quand sort la recluse, our female villains murder six and ten people respectively, as an act of vengeance for unspeakable abuse, vengeance that was long in the planning and exquisite in the execution (if you’ll pardon the pun). In Chanson douce, Louise, our perpetrator, murders the children she cares for as a result of a breakdown in her mental health, which has been slowly collapsing over the course of the novel. Louise’s motives for murder have as much to say about capitalism, motherhood and the exploitation of care workers as they do about crime. None of our female villains have ‘simple’ reasons for murder; this is part of what makes their characters so complex.
In Chapter Three, I shift my focus to the places associated with female villains in the novels: where do they commit crime? What spaces do they move through, and what can we learn from this? There are three important places to consider in my corpus: the carceral space, the domestic space, and the city. In the hardboiled crime novel, the city – in its anonymity, its violence, its corruption – is as central a character to the story as the private eye. In Alex, the anonymity of the city harms her when she is kidnapped right off the street and it’s almost impossible for the police to track her down, amongst all the people who go missing in cities every day. Later, that same anonymity hides her, when she’s trying to escape detection by those very police. This is particularly striking when we consider that Alex is a woman, and the city is so often coded as dangerous to women – but here, Alex is the danger. She’s as anonymous and unpredictable as the city, and that’s a significant element in how we understand her as a villain.
Finally, there’s Chapter Four, which will examine the particular imagery associated with each of our female perpetrators. A great example here is Irène, the villain in Quand sort la recluse. She is closely linked to the image of the recluse spider, not only because her weapon of choice is spider venom, but because she remains mostly out of sight in the novel, lurking in the background in her web of deceit. What can we learn from this association between spiders and women – a long-standing one, with its roots in Greek mythology – resurging in contemporary crime fiction? How does the animalisation of Irène contribute to her character as a woman seeking justice outside of the law? This leads me to the larger questions which inform my research work. We might use this particular notion of the vengeful woman as an example – because Alex and Irène are taking long-planned revenge against a group of people who participated in their rape, assault and prostitution as young children. Does that knowledge change how we think about their crimes, about their likely punishment? I think it does, and this is significant considering that how we deal with allegations of historical sexual abuse is a topic very much in the limelight. Engagement with this issue in contemporary crime fiction is channelled through the figure of the female villain who is also a survivor of abuse. This is what Di Ciolla and Pasolini (2018) describe as the ‘two-way traffic’ between crime fiction and real life; as the fiction draws its inspiration from real life crime, criminals and general society, so we learn to think differently about that real life through engagement with the fiction. And so these contemporary female villains seem to push us beyond the film noir stereotype of the beautiful, deadly, shallow femme fatale; they push us into the territory of philosophising on what justice looks like, what a society that continually disbelieves and denigrates women who speak up about sexual violence has to reckon with when those same women decide to seek their own kind of recompense, outside of the system that pays only lip-service to the ideals of equality and the zealous pursuit of justice that it claims to uphold. It’s my firm belief that these characters move the dial in discourses of justice and accountability in crime fiction, and that we need to pay attention to where the needle is now pointing
Julie Guesdon, ‘Dans l’édition, le polar tient bon’, France Inter, 20th October 2017 <https://www.franceinter.fr/culture/dans-l-edition-le-polar-tient-bon> [accessed 11th June 2020].
Équipe BePolar, ‘Les chiffres et le palmarès des ventes du genre polar dévoilés par l’Observatoire de la librairie’, BePolar, <https://www.bepolar.fr/Les-chiffres-et-le-palmares-des-ventes-du-genre-Polar-devoiles-par-l-Observatoire-de-la-librairie>, [accessed 11th June 2020].
 Louis Vax, ‘Le sentiment du mystère dans le conte fantastique et le roman policier’, Les Études philosophiques, Nouvelle Série, 6(1), 1951, p 65. Please note that in the video recording, I mistakenly attribute this citation to Marc Lits, another scholar of crime fiction studies.
Antoine Laurain – Smoking Kills (Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie), Gallic Books, 19/05/2018. Original title Fume et tue, Le Passage, 2008
A book review by Jonas Rohe, Queen’s University Belfast
“At the beginning of his career, the smoker is generally intent on killing no one but himself. But forces beyond my control drove me to become a killer of others.”
Fabrice Valentine has worked as a senior head-hunter in big Parisian company for over 20 years and is living the good life: he has a wonderful wife, is successful in his job and always has his beloved cigarettes handy, which are his trusted friends through hard times. The only thing that is threatening his happiness is a change in the French smoking regulations. Suddenly, Valentine finds himself in a more and more smoke hostile environment. At first, he can no longer smoke in his office and then his family and friends start to pressure him to try out a new way to quit smoking: hypnosis. Valentine has no real intention of giving up his poison of choice, but to appease his peers he finally agrees to meet with the hypnotist, who is supposed to end his beloved addiction for ever. To Valentine´s great surprise the urge to smoke has vanished completely and what’s more he doesn’t even miss it. On top of this, he is offered the seat of CEO in his headhunting company. Life could not be much better…
Until it all falls apart, first Valentine’s boss dies before he can tell anyone of Valentine’s promotion and is replaced by a jumped-up youngster, who is obsessed with health issues and has entirely different ideas about running the headhunting business. He then discovers that his wonderful wife is having an affair with an obscure artist and is threating to leave him. Distressed, Valentine turns again to his cigarettes, but after years of reliable pleasure they no longer bring him any satisfaction. Without his beloved addiction to comfort him, Valentine is living in a nightmare. When he is jumped by a junkie at a metro station he throws him before the incoming train and takes a deep drag from his cigarette… The pleasure returns, stronger and more enveloping then ever before. The sensation is so great, that it could drive a smoker to murder…
Laurain’s Smoking Kills is part biting satire about our health obsessed society, part noirish character study and part grotesque black comedy. All these pieces together should make for a compelling story, but unfortunately despite the original theme of the book it doesn’t quite fit together. The main problem of the novel is the pacing, Smoking Kills starts off strongly, with a humoured reminiscence of the autodiegetic narrator about his life before the murders. It takes Laurain about 30 pages to get all the prerequisite parts for a good detective story established and until this point his insightful character descriptions and laconic reflections on smoke obsession are thoroughly enjoyable, but, unfortunately, the narration continues for over 100 more pages in this manner.
Although the theme is appealing and well written, it just does not carry over 130 pages without a murder and it seems that, at times, Laurain gets lost in his characters and neglects the actual progression of the story. Because of this, Smoking Kills feels a bit flat and it is hard to buy into the air of suspense in the novel. This is also the case because there is no real antagonist, no clever detective or unlikely adversary that opposes the protagonist, on which absurdly enough the narrator reflects himself: “Deep down, I wanted her to feel suspicious and raise her eyebrows in surprise though it would have disrupted all my plans”. When a bit of suspense arises however, it is spoiled by the narrator himself because he insists on giving away what is going to happen next at every opportunity.
As a saving grace, Smoking Kills does convince with dark humour and sharp characterisation and the somewhat flimsy plot is still entertaining, if one possesses a bit of patience or an unhealthy fascination with cigarettes and smoking culture. Although not a masterpiece, Laurain’s novel is still an entertaining read, with a cool and original theme and plenty of dark humour that make for an interesting character study if not a great crime story.
Our reviewer with his poisons of choice.
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] Continue reading
Gilles Pétel – Under the Channel (translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken), Gallic Books, 2014. Original title Sous la Manche, 2012.
A book review by Eugen Kontschenko Continue reading
Pascal Garnier – The Eskimo Solution (translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken), Gallic Books, 2016. Original title La Solution Esquimau, 2006.
A Book Review by Eugen Kontschenko Continue reading
Frédéric Dard – The King of Fools (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie), Pushkin Vertigo, 15.05.2017. Original title La pelouse, 1962
A review by Eugen Kontschenko
“What was better? To be a murderer or a gullible fool?” (Page 145) Continue reading
International Crime Genre Research Group 7th biennial conference:
Networks and Connections in the Crime Genre
Friday 26 – Saturday 27 May, 2017
National University of Ireland, Galway Continue reading