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.
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.