Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Review: Bed of Nails by Antonin Varenne (original title: Fakirs; translated by Sian Reynolds)

As an utter novice to the world of French crime fiction, I had very few preconceptions as I began Bed of Nails, the debut novel of French author Antonin Varenne (originally titled Fakirs).  It was a very pleasant surprise, then, to find a crime thriller that defied genre expectations, although this does come with a dark cost.

The novel begins with two apparently unrelated plotlines.  Guerin, a Parisian detective, is investigating what he believes to be suspicious circumstances relating to a string of suicides, all the while struggling with (not unfounded) accusations from colleagues that these links exist only in his troubled mind.  Meanwhile John Nichols, an American hippy with an academic past, is called to Paris to identify the body of Alan Mustgrave, who died during his own S&M routine.  Inevitably the two men collide, as Guerin turns his attention to Mustgrave’s suspicious demise.

The novel, translated by Sian Reynolds, is brisk and well written, making up in detail what it lacks in humour.  There are plenty of fascinating characters here, not least the two leads, but also an ex-con Parisian park keeper and an apparently dim-witted junior officer.  Varenne doesn’t worry too hard about making these figures likeable, but he does make them morbidly believeable.

The real strength of the novel, though, lies in its genre-questioning techniques, which I fear will contain spoilers if you haven’t yet read the novel – stop reading here if so, at least until you’ve caught up.

It quickly becomes clear that Guerin is increasingly mentally unstable – we are shown both the exterior signs of this, as his assistant Lambert helplessly watches him scratch himself until he bleeds, and the interior process – Guerin is convinced, as a psychiatrist puts it, that “everything is connected”, a concept which manifests itself most obviously in his unceasing pursuit of the link between the suicides, which seems to be at the heart of the whole novel.

However, in an increasingly unshocking twist, no such link is found.  There are shady circumstances, particularly with regards to Alan’s own death, but the existence of a mastermind murderer is never demonstrated.  This is a hammer-blow to the novel’s status as a conventional detective novel – we are used to Sherlock Holmes following disparate clues to reach a shocking conclusion – Guerin follows disparate clues on a long road to nowhere.

Of course, this means there can be no tidy resolution to the novel.  The endings of traditional detective novels are, in a sense, utopian – law and order triumphs over crime and chaos, justice is served, and the world is safe again.  Here, by contrast, not only are the reader and protagonist both chasing shadows, but the generic desire to find patterns is equated with madness.  We are down the rabbit-hole, and it is cold, dark and lonely.

The other really interesting idea the novel draws out is the fictional Saint Sebastian Syndrome, which is alluded to more than once in the novel as the subject of John Nicholls' Ph.D thesis.  As I understand it (and I apologise profusely if I have misunderstood, no doubt a second reading will help!) what Nicholls is referring to is the institutionalised nature of torture – faceless executives persuade soldiers or policeman to use torture, which ultimately destroys the torturer as well as the victim.  It is thus the watching executive, always out of shot, who is truly culpable.

This enigmatic concept is never directly investigated in the novel.  It is implicated in Alan Mustgrave’s S&M lifestyle – his role as a torturer in the first Gulf War now leads him to redirect pain to himself – and also in the suicide of police officer Kowalski, who can be seen in several photos having sex with corpses – it is the unknown photographer who escapes unharmed.

What is not pushed, though, is the link between this faceless agent and the author, or even the reader.  The genre of crime or thriller fiction demands blood and gore, and creates figures to both cause and suffer this brutality.  Yet the ones with the true power are ultimately those who come together to create the reading experience.

I’m not totally clear how to develop that idea.  Perhaps the most obvious extension is to explore who it is that is villainised in such novels.  In Bed of Nails it is former interrogators, in classic Victorian crime fiction it is physical freaks – each subgenre has its own scapegoats.  I don’t want to suggest there’s anything perverse in reading crime fiction, but it is interesting that we tend to concentrate the blame for such violence on stereotypical protagonists, when in reality it is us as readers who desire the gore.

Perhaps, to finish, that is the reason why Varenne gives us a socially inept, mentally ill man, with significant institutional power.  In this instance, though, Guerin is not a killer, but instead is the poor soul left trying to make sense of the mess.

Do we have Sherlock-ian insight, or are we barking up the wrong tree?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter for more updates!


  1. That's a good review, one from a real reader I mean.


  2. And I find your question interesting. your point of view is good.
    If any answer to the reading experience and the Guerin or Nichols theories, I was not trying to say that readers of crime stories are perverts (not only!...) but that regarding suicide, the question of social responsibility is never asked. In fact yes, some companies have been sued and declared responsible in the self inflicted death of over pressured employees for example. But when deaths by suicide in France are the double of deaths by car accidents, the government takes road security as a public matter, doing nothing about suicides (private matter!).
    As a writer, my "responsibility" was precisely to not "save the world", then to twist the "rules" of crime stories and not declare anyone in particular guilty. The question of "who done it?" becomes then the real answer for the reader. We have to look at ourselves to try maybe to find an answer. Us who are watching.
    I don't know if I make it any clearer, excuse the limited subtlety of my english.



    1. That's a really interesting point! I guess by investigating a conspiracy of suicides, even one which doesn't exist, it makes the reader think a lot more about whether they might be linked, or if anything ought to be done...

      Did you base the PhD thesis in the book on any existing research, or was it just an idea you came up with?

      Glad you enjoyed the review, as I definitely enjoyed the book!


  3. Nichols and his PhD are just imagination, but the San Sebastian Syndrome could turn into something real if a sociologist was interested!... The suicide as a social "process" is an idea that started with Durkheim anyway. As for the torture, I think it could be approached the same way. My last book, that MacLehose will translate and publish next, takes partly place during the Algerian war, where torture was a systematic strategy of the french army. At least, there is something of a "group behavior" or environment that leads to this "individual" sadistic/violent behavior.
    Well, I'm not a specialist, these are cluse and ideas collected from other resarchs.

    Thanks again for the review and bonne continuation.



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