Written by Pascal Garnier, translated by Jane Aitken — The front seat next to the driver is traditionally called la place du mort (the seat of death) in French. In the days before airbags, it was considered the most dangerous seat in the car if there was an accident. Trust Pascal Garnier to use this deliberately ambiguous expression as the title for this dark tale of middle-aged ennui, wherein there’s the veneer of a respectable marriage and a dream of vengeance.
I greatly admire Garnier’s unique blend of black humour, shockingly random outbursts of violence and compassion for the world’s downtrodden or misfits. He has often been compared to Patricia Highsmith or Simenon. He certainly has the former’s eye for twisted psychology and the latter’s economical, taut style. However, I think the closest to him in spirit was filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who described so well how underneath the apparent calm and boredom of bourgeois appearance, there lurks seething violence and horror. Yet it’s interesting to note that Garnier was also a prolific writer of children’s books.
His novels are always short, deceptively simple, with a single core story to tell. The Front Seat Passenger is about a rather selfish, middle-aged married man called Fabien. After a ritual visit to his father, Fabien returns home to find his wife is gone. To his astonishment, he receives a phone call from the police in Dijon, announcing that she was killed in a car crash. She was not alone and the police think the passenger who was killed alongside her was her lover.
Fabien had long been aware that their marriage had become ‘an advancing desert’, but this news forces him into action. Harbouring strong but rather vague thoughts of revenge, he seeks out the lover’s widow Martine. The other man’s wife is an insipid little blonde, who might ordinarily have inspired Fabien with pity. But she is constantly under the vigilant eye of Madeleine, a friend with the sharp eye and suspicious mind of a bodyguard.
Fabien embarks upon a series of increasingly elaborate manoeuvres to avert the suspicion of one woman and to attract the attention of the other. He stalks them as far afield as Majorca. But who is really controlling the situation? The headstrong, challenging Madeleine, fragile Martine or the deliberately deceitful Fabien? As always in a Garnier novel, none of the characters are people you would like to invite over for dinner, and nothing turns out quite as you might expect. What begins as a tale of almost unbearable middle-class conventions becomes a macabre tale of botched revenge.
The author is masterful at conjuring an oppressive, subtly menacing atmosphere, livening up even the most run-of-the-mill descriptions with wry philosophical asides. He may not be everyone’s cup of existential tea, and he is certainly not the standard crime fiction writer, but once you are hooked, you will want to read all his crime novels.
Impossible to define or categorise, Garnier is tough, poetic and full of what some French critics have called ‘tender cruelty’. Pascal Garnier came to writing relatively late in life, after years of traveling around North Africa and the Far East, as well as a failed attempt at a rock-and-roll singing career. Between 1985 and his untimely death in 2010, he wrote 17 novels for grown-ups, as well as books for children/YA and several short story collections, so perhaps it would be churlish to wish for more. What I do hope is that he gets the recognition he deserves outside the French-speaking world.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars