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In Paperback: How’s the Pain?

By (June 29, 2014) No Comment

In Paperbackhow's the pain cover

How’s the Pain?

by Pascal Garnier

Gallic Books, 2014


French author Pascal Garnier (1949-2010) is best known for his existential mysteries, which focus more on exploring the boundaries of society than learning “Who done it?” This mystery noir sub-genre typically features darker writing, and includes a more philosophically developed history of the characters and their surroundings; the result is more dimension and structural color than is usually found in an adrenaline-driven crime story. Many of the finer mystery noir are concerned with the id behind the crime, not necessarily the details of the act. Though Garnier is often compared to the very fine author Georges Simenon (The Strangers in the House, 1940), Garnier has more in common with Camus and Dostoevsky. His bleak works offer neither a wasted word nor an unnecessary act.

In the new translation of How’s The Pain? by Emily Boyce, we meet Simon Marechall, a well-known “exterminator of vermin.” I’d like to say that he murders for the noblest of reasons, but Simon shook the Devil’s hand long ago, and is non-repentant about killing anyone for the right price. Occasionally a contract kill goes wrong, and the client attempts to renege on paying Simon for a job. Unfortunately for them, quiet, unassuming Simon has a ruthless temperament; business, after all, is business.

But no matter how talented or successful one becomes at their craft, there’s a point when age, sickness, or a combination of the two, forces a decision. Simon has one last job to finish before retiring. Because he’s ill, he can’t do it alone and needs a driver, one easily compromised by financial gain, without questions or personal motive; Simon accidentally finds him while sitting on a park bench in Val les Bains, near the casino and halfway to his destination.

Bernard is a hapless, somewhat incompetent young man in his twenties who happens to be in Val les Bains visiting his alcoholic mother, Anais. Simon notices Bernard’s bandaged hand, and upon discovering how Bernard lost his fingers, realizes he’s just found his driver. It doesn’t take long before Simon offers him a well-paying chauffeur position and Bernard, in return, invites Simon home to meet his mother:

“I’ll have to talk to my mother…The thing is, Monsieur Marechall, I don’t like to say it, but she thinks you’re a poof.”

Thus begins the unusual friendship between a young man longing for acceptance and a world-weary killer; they embark upon a road trip bound to change both of their lives.

Part of Garnier’s genius and charm is in the drily humorous way he pairs the cold- hearted Simon with an odd assortment of fragile and incomplete people. Innocent Bernard kicks off the killer’s final adventure by introducing him not only to his mother, an opportunist who views Simon as a worthy opponent, but also to a lonely widow who spends a comfortable night with Simon at a campsite. Eventually, however, Bernard witnesses his friend commit a brutal retaliatory murder and abandons him; Simon is left to reflect on his life while staring at the ocean, and has an epiphany concerning his retirement, should Bernard return:

An injured seagull was batting one wing and emitting piercing squawks. All the other seagulls had abandoned it to its fate. Tired of flapping around, it sat on a rock and waited for a miracle that would never come. In which part of Africa was it that people greeted each other every morning with the question “How’s the pain?” Simon could no longer remember.

Bernard loyally returns and completes the terms of his employment. Yet when Simon offers to rehire the young man, Bernard begins to separate himself, not necessarily in judgment, but to change his lifestyle. More than anything, he wants his own family and a sense of self respect, both of which he finds as a result of adventuring with Simon. He just doesn’t want Simon’s future, or his mother’s, which are deeply lonely. Startlingly, he discovers that what Simon has in mind isn’t another job, but the favor of kicking a chair out from under the psychopath’s feet as he hangs:

“OK, Bernard, so eight o’clock tomorrow morning? Right, Bernard?”

“Yes! Eight o’clock tomorrow morning. You really are messed up though, Monsieur Marechall.”

“Let’s shake hands.”

Before getting out of the car, they both noticed the child seat still strapped to the back seat. Simon shook his head, smiling.

“Handy, those things.”

They parted on the pavement, one stepping into the hotel lobby, the other heading towards the new town. Neither looked back.


As Pascal Garnier might say, were he alive, “C’est la vie.”