The place not to be

The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier. French title: La place du mort.

I have to admit that I discovered French writer Pascal Garnier on English-speaking blogs. Then a libraire at Quai du Polar highly recommended him as well. So I bought La place du mort, translated into The Front Seat Passenger. In French, la place du mort has a double meaning. Literally, it’s “the deadman’s place/seat”. For a car, it means the front passenger seat because according to the statistics, the risk to die in case of an accident is higher when you’re on this seat. Referring to the front passenger seat as la place du mort is very common language in France. The second meaning is to take a dead man’s place. Keep this in mind. Oh, and did I mention Garnier writes polars, aka crime fiction?

The book opens on a murder. A person voluntarily drives into a car, causes an accident where the driver and the front seat passenger die. First encounter with Garnier’s striking prose:

In the forest a fox had just ripped open a rabbit. It pricked up its ears when it heard the squealing of tyres on a tarmac and the clang of metal in the ravine. But that only lasted a few seconds. Then silence descended again. With one bite, the fox disembowelled the rabbit and plunged its muzzle into the steaming innards. All around it, thousands of animals, large and small, were eating or climbing on top of each other for the sole purpose of perpetuating their species.Translated by Jane Aitken. Dans la forêt un renard vient d’égorger un lapin. Ses oreilles se dressent en entendant le crissement des pneus sur l’asphalte et le bruit de la tôle dans le ravin. Ça ne dure que quelques secondes. Le silence reprend possession des lieux. D’un coup de dents, il éventre le lapin et plonge son museau pointu dans les entrailles fumantes. Partout autour de lui, des milliers d’animaux, des plus grands aux plus petits, s’entre-bouffent ou se grimpent dessus sans autre but que de perpétuer le jeu.

GarnierI’m afraid the English translation misses out a bit the black humour at the end of the quote. s’entre-bouffent or eat each other has a humorous tone and it’s not written to for the sole purpose of perpetuating their species but for the sole purpose of perpetuating the game. But perhaps it doesn’t sound as well in English as it does in French. When I read this paragraph just after the murder, I see Garnier reminding mankind that they are animals and that the animal world is not bucolic but full of violence. So violence is part of our nature and that’s what he’ll show us.

Just after this gruelling scene, we meet with Fabien Delorme, forfty-something, visiting his father. The two men have nothing to say to each other and Fabien is there out of duty and without his wife Sylvie. When he comes home to his apartment in Paris, the police pay him a visit and tell him his wife is dead. She was killed in a car accident near Dijon with her lover, Martial Arnoult. Fabien goes to the hospital and briefly sees Martine, Martial’s wife. He notes down her name and address.

Back home, his friend Gilles decides Fabien that can’t leave alone and as a recently divorced father, he’s happy to invite Fabien to live with him. As Fabien points out Il n’était pas incapable de vivre seul, il ne concevait la solitude qu’accompagné. (He wasn’t unable to live alone but his idea of solitude was being with someone.) They find a new routine but Fabien decides to stalk Martine. He wants to seduce her, to take Martial’s place. He’s sort of seeking revenge: “he stole my wife, I’ll steal his widow”. He doesn’t know yet he’s going to embark on a crazy journey.

Fabien is not a likeable character and he’s surrounded by insane or childish characters. The story is pure noir but everything holds in Garnier’s unique style. Like here, in this conversation between the police and Fabien, after Sylvie’s death:

- Did you know what her last wills were? - Her last wills?

- Yes, whether she wanted to be buried or cremated?

- I don’t know…I suppose she didn’t want to die, just like anybody else.

(my translation)

- Savez-vous quelles étaient ses dernières volontés?- Ses dernières volontés ?

- Oui, si elle souhaitait être inhumée ou incinérée ?

- Je n’en sais rien…Je suppose qu’elle ne voulait pas mourir, comme tout le monde.

The whole novel is full of eccentric thoughts and acid piques, placing Fabien in a realm of his own.

I’ve seen Pascal Garnier compared to Simenon. I haven’t read Simenon, except for two or three Maigret books. Based on this, I don’t know where this comparison comes from. There’s a wicked sense of humour in Garnier that lacked in the Simenons I’ve read. I haven’t read the best ones, I know. I assume that the good ones are rife with black humour. For me, Pascal Garnier the crazy son of a Patrick Manchette with sprinkles of a Duane Swierczynski. And that’s a huge compliment. I read La place du mort on a plane and I kept chuckling and chuckling despite the dark path the story was taking. I had obviously so much fun reading it that my neighbour had to politely ask Excuse me, but what are you reading? It seems excellent and she left the plane with the reference of the book.

While I’m not tempted to read L’A26, I’m much interested in Flux which won the Prix de l’humour noir. Definitely a writer to discover. Definitely a writer I’ll explore.

PS: this would make an excellent film. (with Daroussin as Fabien, for example)

  1. June 23, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    Thanks. Fascinating introduction to this writer. Regards thom

    • June 23, 2014 at 10:53 pm

      You’re welcome, Thom. It’s a short book, it’s really worth reading.

  2. June 24, 2014 at 10:36 am

    Nice review, Emma! When I started reading your review, I thought it must be about a new book by Pascal Mercier, one of my favourite writers. Then when I discovered that you were referring to him as a French writer, I told myself – “Wait! Pascal Mercier doesn’t write in French. He writes in German. Let me read this sentence again.” Then I discovered that your post was about Pascal Garnier :) It was interesting to know about the French name for the passenger front seat in a car. I don’t know why they translated the title into ‘The Front Seat Passenger’. ‘The Deadman’s Seat’ sounds so much better and closer to the French. Have you heard the phrase ‘riding shotgun’? It means sitting in the car on the ‘deadman’s seat’ :) I will add this book to my wishlist. Thanks for the wonderful review!

    • June 24, 2014 at 10:14 pm

      I’ve never heard of Pascal Mercier. He does have a nice French name for a German. :-)
      I’d heard about “riding shotgun”, thought it meant riding in the front passenger seat, looked it up in the dictionary for this post and thought I had gotten the meaning all wrong and assumed I was mistaken. Well, apparently, I wasn’t.

      It’s really a great book to read, Vishy.

      • June 25, 2014 at 10:20 am

        He is Swiss. :)

        • June 25, 2014 at 12:43 pm

          On Wikipedia it says he was born in Paris.

          • June 25, 2014 at 1:33 pm

            No, he was born in Bern as Peter Bieri. Pascal Mercier is his pen name.

            • June 25, 2014 at 2:17 pm

              this is about Pascal Garnier, definitely French. :-)

              • June 25, 2014 at 2:43 pm

                Guess we had a mix up. My comment was related to “I’ve never heard of Pascal Mercier. He does have a nice French name for a German.”

              • June 25, 2014 at 5:26 pm

                Ah right. That’s the problem when one answers to comments through the comment section of a phone app. So Pascal Mercier is Swiss, writes in German and has chosen a French pen name. I got it.

      • June 28, 2014 at 11:27 am

        Now after you mention it, I realize that Pascal Mercier does look like a French name :) I loved his book ‘Night Train to Lisbon’. It came out as a movie too, though I haven’t watched that yet. I loved hearing your thoughts and Guy’s thoughts on ‘riding shotgun’ :)

        • June 29, 2014 at 1:40 pm

          About riding shotgun: it’s crazy to see what people would fight for or where politeness rules can hide.

  3. davidsimmons6
    June 24, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    I read this book in French with pleasure along the lines of what you enjoyed. It’s not at all like Simenon’s Maigrets, but very much like his romans durs—except I don’t recall laughing while reading any of those. In fact, I doubt I even smiled. The Front Seat Passenger moves right along with a clever growing tension. More of a thriller or a horror story than a mystery, it reminded me of Stephen King’s Misery, which came out ten years earlier.

    • June 24, 2014 at 10:19 pm

      I haven’t read Stephen King so I can’t compare. Otherwise I agree with you. I highly recommend The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski. I’ve got another crazy French crime fiction novel at home. It’s named Le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons by Sébastien Gendron. It sounds entertaining and fun but probably not as good as Garnier. We’ll see.

      Have you tried any other Garnier?

      PS: since you can read in French, I recommend 1280 âmes by Jean-Bernard Pouy. It’s related to Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. It’s great.

  4. June 24, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    I don’t see the Simenon comparison either (I’ve read two Garnier novels) but I see the Manchette connection for brevity & style mainly. I have this one on my kindle and I’m hoping to be able to pick a favourite Garnier when I’ve read 4 (so far it’s How’s the Pain?). BTW over here taking that seat is also called ‘riding shotgun’ which is derivative from the days of stage-coach travel. You see in those old westerns two people riding in front–one the driver and the other with the shotgun ready for action.

    Also if you are going to go in a car with people, and someone shouts ‘shotgun’ they’re bagging the front seat so that they are not relegated to the back. Is there anything similar in France?

    • June 24, 2014 at 10:29 pm

      You’ve read the romans durs and you don’t see the Simenon comparison either, good to know. I want to read more of Manchette, I loved Le petit bleu de la côte ouest. (another title with several meanings) I think Manchette’s style was more polished but both have this edge, the playful use of words.

      I was aware of the expression ‘riding shotgun’ but thought I’d guessed the meaning wrong when I looked it up in the dictionary. I happens sometimes. I think I’ve understood the meaning of an English word, then when I want to use it for the first time I check it up and realise I’d guessed wrong. So this time the dictionary is wrong. Ha!

      We don’t have this race to run for the “shotgun” seat in France. It’s customary to let the oldest person in a group, the tallest or the lady take this seat. Say I’m going to a meeting with two male colleagues, I’ll ride shotgun, unless one of them is tall and I insist to let him ride shotgun. If I’m the boss in the group, I’ll ride shotgun too. Tricky politeness rules.

      • June 25, 2014 at 3:59 am

        I have another (4th) Manchette coming up next month.

        Teenagers do the shotgun thing here quite a bit, btw.

        • June 25, 2014 at 6:17 am

          I get it. Here teenagers can’t drive.

  5. Brian Joseph
    June 24, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    Sounds like a book that I would like.

    I think that the theme involving humans and animals, but where nature can be a brutal thing is very insightful. I like the fact how it contrast with so many other “We must get back to nature themes”.

    • June 24, 2014 at 10:34 pm

      This is a great book to read in one sitting. You just get carried away by the story and you want to know how it will end.

      PS: I’ve never been a fan of Rousseau and his myth of the Noble Savage and his Back to Nature concept. Nature is brutal and all the victims of natural disasters will tell you that.

  6. June 25, 2014 at 10:22 am

    I’ll definitely give this one a go but didn’t think it sounded in any way similar to Simenon and I’ve read both – Maigret and romans durs.

    • June 25, 2014 at 12:44 pm

      I think you’ll like it, Caroline. I’ll be happy to read your thoughts about it.

  7. leroyhunter
    June 25, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Sounds great Emma – I’ve just picked up my first Garnier (How’s the Pain?) after reading Guy’s review – looks like an increasingly sound investment.

    • June 25, 2014 at 12:45 pm

      Well, if you read this one too, please come back to tell me what you thought about it.

  8. davidsimmons6
    June 25, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    I’ve read two other Garniers, LES INSULAIRES and PRÈS DU BORD, that are not available in English translations. (More translations of his French originals are “under consideration” according to Zulma, the publisher.) I saw similarities to Simenon’s romans durs in all three, but they are not quite as dreary, are often funny, and are more contemporary in terms of story and language. All build in intensity rapidly and are hard to put down before reaching the dénouement, but the plots are a little too fantastic for my taste. If your followers reach a consensus on the best Garnier, I’d read it.

    • June 25, 2014 at 5:42 pm

      I’ll look them up. From your description, they sound good.

  9. July 1, 2014 at 10:08 pm

    It sounds great, and I can easily see why it’s one to read in a single sitting.

    Why not A26? That’s the Garnier I have at home waiting to be read.

    Not a huge fan of Rousseau myself, it seems such a colossal lie his philosophy. Nature is cruel, though not of course intentionally so. Civilisation is in part our insulating ourselves from it for precisely that reason.

    Loved the quotes, particularly the “- I don’t know…I suppose she didn’t want to die, just like anybody else.” Quite so. Great cover too.

    • July 4, 2014 at 9:13 pm

      You’d like this one. (plus it’s short) The A26 seems too bleak for me. Plus, the A26 is the motorway near Lille and Dunkerque and it’s a region which is always pictured as poor and bleak. (cf Véronique Olmy’s By the Sea) I think it’s a bit clichéd and it puts me off.

      If you loved that quote, you’ll probably enjoy the tone of the book.

  10. September 28, 2014 at 10:01 am

    This looks like another winner with a great premise, and I’m going to try very hard to save it till next year. It’s very interesting to read your comments on the translation and the slight differences in tone between the French and English versions of the final section in your first quote. Emily Boyce translated Moon in a Dead Eye, so they’ve gone with a different translator here.

    • September 28, 2014 at 8:37 pm

      It’s a great book and Guy’s review really does it justice. I love his black humour.

  1. September 4, 2014 at 1:54 am

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