The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier (review)

Last year I read so many good books that I struggled to find places for them all on my end-of-year list. One notable book that didn’t quite make the final cut was Pascal Garnier’s Moon in a Dead Eye. I’m a big fan of this French writer’s blend of surreal humour and sense of affinity for life’s outsiders and losers so I’ve been saving The Front Seat Passenger for a rainy day. Like the other Garnier novellas I’ve read, Passenger is a short, sharp slice of noir – ideal for a spare hour or two.

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Passenger’s central character is a forty-year-old man, Fabien, who lives in Paris with his wife, Sylvie. At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to Fabien during a visit to his father’s home. Fabien’s mother, Charlotte, has just died, and the news has hit his father hard even though thirty-five years have slipped by since she walked out on them. Fabien’s father is the silent type – closed to the world, keeping everything inside. Fabien’s early life with his father had felt like ‘living underwater.’

As I read this novella, I couldn’t help thinking that these experiences must have played a formative role in shaping Fabien’s character. As you’ll see in a little while, he’s rather odd. This next quote captures a sense of his childhood:

Fabien was the child of two phantoms, with the absence of one and the silence of the other providing his only experience of family. They had each carved out their own isolated little existence, that was all. (pgs. 14-15, Gallic Books)

On his return to Paris, Fabien learns that Sylvie has been involved in a serious car accident – there is a message on his answerphone urging him to call the hospital in Dijon. But rather than contacting the hospital straightaway, Fabien’s immediate instinct is to ‘light a cigarette and go and smoke it naked by the open window’. He’s convinced that Sylvie is dead, but he doesn’t react as one might expect. There is an absence of emotion (or if it’s there, it’s all out of whack). Here’s his first thought:

Shit…I’m a widower now, a different person. What should I wear? (pg. 21)

It gets worse. Sylvie is dead, and Fabien comes out with a very strange response indeed when asked to identify his wife’s body. Forlani is the police inspector:

Forlani spoke to two men in short white coats. They glanced briefly at Fabien and pulled the handle of a sort of drawer. Sylvie slid out of the wall.

‘Is this your wife?’

‘Yes and no. It’s the first time I’ve seen her dead. I mean, the first time I’ve seen a dead body. It’s not at all like a living person.’ (pg 26)

The inspector informs Fabien that Sylvie did not die alone. She was with a married man who also died in the accident, a man whom the police believe was her lover. This information comes as news to Fabien – he knew his marriage had withered in recent years but he had no inkling of Sylvie’s involvement in any affair. Before leaving the morgue, Fabien deliberately creates a distraction, and while the inspector is out of sight, he makes a note of the dead man’s name and address. The man’s name was Martial Arnoult and he lived in Paris with his wife, Martine.

Fabien seems keen to close the door on his former life with Sylvie, so when his recently-divorced friend, Gilles, invites him to move in it’s a no-brainer. The two men sit around all day smoking weed and playing Lego with Gilles’ son. Three or four weeks slip by and Fabien seems well and truly over the loss of Sylvie. His thoughts have turned to Martine Arnoult, the woman who was married to Sylvie’s lover. The following passage appears at the end of chapter, and it hints at a sense of foreboding, something sinister to come:

When he forced himself to think about Sylvie, like an invalid testing the progress of their convalescence, he felt as if he were looking back at someone else’s memories. Perhaps that was what was meant by ‘turning the page’. The blank whiteness of the new page gave him vertigo. So he began to darken the page by writing: ’Martine Arnoult, 45 Rue Charlot, Paris 3rd.’ (pgs. 44-45)

Fabien decides to keep watch over Martine. He sets out to stalk her, to insert himself into her life in some way, but she remains under the ever-watchful eye of her constant companion and ‘bodyguard’, Madeleine. It isn’t entirely clear why Fabien is following Martine. Revenge appears the most likely motive at first, but then again, perhaps it’s a desire to discover the ‘real’ Martine. She seems so devoid of life and colour ‘like an over- exposed photo’. There must be more to her, some hidden depth to her character:

He hadn’t been able to find out much about Martine, except that she smoked Winston Ultra Lights, was always willing to go where Madeleine wanted her to, had no taste in either clothes or food; in short, that she floated in life like a foetus in formaldehyde. But it was precisely that troubling vacuity that drove Fabien to fixate on her even more. No one could be that insipid; she must have a secret, a hidden source of interest. And why was Madeleine fussing round her like a mother hen with a chick? (pg. 49)

In an effort to get close to Martine and isolate her from the overbearing Madeleine, Fabien follows the pair on holiday to Majorca where he finally gets the opportunity he’s been waiting for. To say any more about the plot would only spoil the surprises to come (and there are quite a few). One of the things I like about this novella (and Garnier in general) is the unpredictability – he’s a writer that keeps his readers guessing. Just when you think you’ve got the denouement all figured out, along comes another twist or turn to add to the meltdown that has gone before.

The Front Seat Passenger is a solid noir. The set-up is very strong, and the ending has that element of craziness that characterises Garnier’s work. There’s the usual darkness, the mordant humour I’ve come to expect from this author. The prose is clean and tight. While I enjoyed Passenger, it does perhaps lack a little of the compassion I’ve noticed in some of his other books. Moon in a Dead Eye and How’s the Pain? remain my favourites of the Garnier novellas I’ve read so far.

Emma (at Book Around the Corner), Guy (at His Futile Preoccupations), Caroline (at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and MarinaSofia (at Crime Fiction Lover) have also reviewed this novella. In her review, Emma mentions that in France, the book is published under the title La Place du Mort: ‘the deadman’s place/seat’. In France, it is common to refer to the passenger seat as la place du mort. Sitting here as opposed to the driver’s seat comes with a higher risk of death if the car is involved in an accident. The phrase has another meaning: to take the place of a dead man. Both are worth keeping in mind.

The Front Seat Passenger (tr. by Jane Aitken) is published in the UK by Gallic Books. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

34 thoughts on “The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier (review)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I felt much as you did about this one, Jacqui. Still recognisably Garnier, but not his best – or at least, not my favourite of his. My favourites so far have been ‘How’s the Pain’ and ‘The Islanders’, I think.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting. I have The Islanders to come so it’s good to hear you liked that one. Did you review Passenger? I looked at your blog but couldn’t see a review. Do let me know if you have and I’ll add a link!

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        I reviewed The Front Seat Passenger for Crime Fiction Lover website. I think I gave it 5 stars, but it probably ranks slightly below the other two I mention (and level pegging with The Panda Theory). I haven’t read Moon in a Dead Eye – the only translation of his I’ve missed so far – but will try to find it in French over here.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Garnier’s endings tend to be a bit crazy, but I wondered if the final scene was a step too far. Moon in a Dead Eye is my favourite of the four I’ve read, but How the Pain? could be a good one for you to try next. I think it’s the most compassionate of the Garniers I’ve read so far.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s bizarre, isn’t it? I think Marina has encountered similar problems…although I seem to recall her mentioning fnac as a possible source. You might want to check with her. Alternatively, there’s always the English translations (I know you’d prefer to read the original versions). ;)

      Reply
      1. hastanton

        Lol! Yes she did mention that ….altho I thought Paris might be easier ! I looked in the bookshop in the town where D is living which has a huge basement crime section …with a resident crime specialist bookseller ( love Fr bookshops!). Couldn’t find any but was in a rush so couldn’t quiz Monsieur….will try again next visit and report back !

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          You’d think so, wouldn’t you! Just checked the thread under Moon in a Dead Eye and Emma (Book Around the Corner) suggested a bookstore in Lyon Vaise, Au Bonheur des Ogres. they have a website for online orders. Is that the one you just mentioned above?

          Reply
  2. Emma

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. He’s got a quirky style.
    I had a great time reading this and will read more by him.
    Thanks for the link to my billet.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Emma. I really like Garnier’s mix of dark humour, melancholy mood and elements of craziness. His style is pretty quirky and off-kilter, but in a good way! I enjoyed Passenger, although How’s The Pain? and Moon in a Dead Eye edge it for me. You’ve got at least two terrific Garniers to look forward to.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    I am hearing a lot about this book. As you mention many of my blogger friends are writing about it.

    I find the premise, that a man would stalk the widow of the man who was having an affair with his wife fascinating. It seems like a creative but strange idea.

    The lack of compassion that you mention in Garnier’s writing is interesting. I wonder if is intentional and meant to convey a message, or if it just the way that the author writes and thinks.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, several other bloggers have read Passenger (and/or and others by Garnier) and it’s interesting to read the range of reviews. I think I’m somewhere between Emma, Guy and Caroline on this one – in a similar place to Marina by the sound of things. The premise is terrific, really creepy and intriguing due to the connection between Fabien and the widow.

      In general, Garnier does show compassion for at least some of his characters (which I like as it means I’m more likely to care about them) but I didn’t notice it here…Fabien is pretty unlikeable. I think Garnier does like to put some of his more unpleasant characters through the mill, so in that sense he is sending a message. The heartless and self-satisfied certainly don’t emerge with much dignity.

      Reply
  4. Guy Savage

    I think this is one of the bleaker ones by Garnier I’ve read (4 so far). Not as bleak as The Panda Theory though, but I liked Moon in a Dead Eye more–probably for the humour.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m with you on the bleakness. Moon in a Dead Eye certainly has more humour, the light alongside the shade. I liked Passenger, but not quite as much as I’d hoped. I haven’t read The Panda Theory, but a copy of The Islanders is lurking in my tbr pile. I’ll probably try to keep it for a few months just to put a bit of space between these Garniers.

      Reply
  5. Jonathan

    I read ‘Moon in a Dead Eye’ last year and really enjoyed the short snappy style. This one sounds good as well so I’ll have to read some more by him soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I enjoyed Passenger although not quite as much as I’d hoped. It’s got that same snappy style as Moon but lacks some of the humour and a touch of the compassion I’ve noticed in Garnier’s other novellas. That said, Moon in a Dead Eye is a hard act to follow! I really liked How’s the Pain? when I read it a couple of years ago – worth a look if you’re considering others by this author.

      Reply
  6. kimbofo

    I’ve got Moon in a Dead Eye, bought on a whim last year cos I liked the cover — how shallow is that? Lol. But he does sound like an author I’d like so I must see if I can find it (My TBR is spread across my flat in semi-organised fashion, but not sure where I put this). Anyway, thanks for your review of this one Jacqui: it’s a nice reminder that I should try Garnier sooner rather than later.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Kim. Haha! Your TBR sounds a little like mine: clusters of books huddling in various places around the house. (There’s a rough system involved even if no one else can fathom it!)

      Garnier’s certainly worth trying, and Moon is my favourite of the four novellas I’ve read so far. You’ve picked a winner there, hope you enjoy it.

      Reply
  7. Scott W.

    Okay, okay, you’ve all convinced me. I’ll pick up some Garnier next time I raid a French bookstore (“Le Bonheur des Ogres” – what a fabulous name for a bookstore, and what a terrifically fun novel that was!).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yay! I think you’re in for a treat with Garnier. Moon in a Dead Eye features a terrific gated community setting and a premise that’s ready and waiting for all manner of Garnier craziness to get underway. How’s the Pain? is also worth a look…in fact, it might make a good introduction to his books. All elements characteristic of Garnier’s work are there in Pain, but it’s also the most poignant and compassionate of the four I’ve read so far. While I enjoyed Passenger, I don’t think it’s his strongest so it might be worth trying a different one…

      Au Bonheur des Ogres is a fab name, isn’t it? I haven’t read the book (or any others by Pennac)…sounds as if I ought to remedy that!

      Reply
  8. Bellezza

    Hmmm, smoking naked upon hearing bad news…I haven’t tried that.

    As bizarre as this book sounds, in some places, the reactions make sense in others. Like, he hasn’t seen his wife dead before seems like a perfectly reasonable response.

    Why is part of me reminded of The Infatuations? Could it be because someone is following another’s lover around?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a freaky image, isn’t it? Thinking of Gabriel’s response to the Inspector on seeing his wife’s dead body…I could understand it if he was suffering from shock, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. (At least I didn’t get that impression from the passages leading up to that scene!) The quote probably suffers somewhat from being separated from its context; in the novel it reads like a strange response, the Inspector and the mortuary guy are taken aback by it. By the time Fabien arrives at the mortuary, we know he’s a bit odd and prone to unusual behaviour so his comment just seems to add to this impression.

      Oh, I see what you mean about the connection with The Infatuations! I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right – there is a similarity between the two. Mind you, Garnier’s style is so very different to Marias’s. Garnier’s prose is tight and snappy with none of those long, looping, meditative passages you tend to find in a Marias novel!

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Pingback: Review: The Front Seat Passenger (1997) by Pascal Garnier (Trans: by Jane Aitken) – A Crime is Afoot

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