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It’s a Mystery: “No one is infallible or invisible”

By (September 1, 2012) No Comment

Syndrome E

By Franck Thilliez
Viking, 2012

Ludovic Sénéchal is a diehard film buff from Lille, France who spends most of his salary earned as a functionary at the Department of Social Security on old movies. As Syndrome E opens, he has come upon a singular collection at an estate sale that includes a black canister with no label. Inside is what looks like a short feature, since the film takes up only part of the reel, which appears incredibly well-preserved. He suspects it’s a lost film, a unique specimen that the owner had never managed to identify:

These unlabeled films sometimes turned out to be veritable treasures or, if the gods were really smiling, lost works by famous filmmakers like Méliès, Welles, or Chaplin. The collector in him loved to fantasize about such things.

At home, in the private movie theater he has lovingly constructed in his basement, Ludovic sets up his projector to watch the precious film, and within seconds he is completely blind! But he’s not immobilized, and he’s got his cell phone. (How did we ever manage without them?) The number he calls “blindly” happens to be at the top of his contact list. She is Lucie Henebelle, his ex-girlfriend and a lieutenant in the Lille police department, Criminal Investigations unit. She is also a single mother of eight-year-old twin girls and his call goes to her in the hospital room where one of them, Juliette, has been admitted for viral gastroenteritis. Lucie gets him an ambulance that takes him to a medical facility in Lille next door to the hospital her daughter is in.

By the time Lucie catches up with Ludovic in person, he has undergone a battery of ophthalmological tests, and is awaiting an MRI on his brain. He is as eager to see her as to tell her about the film. Once she hears about it, she insists on a viewing. Her cop’s instinct tells her that behind this film is a sinister story worth pursuing. He sets her up in his screening room, though not without reservations. Watching it turns out to be even more traumatic than she anticipated, so violent and disturbing are the images therein. They include an eyeball being slit by a scalpel and a child garroting a raging bull.

Lucie, a finger on her mouth, could not turn her gaze from that satanic screen. The film was sucking her in. In the sky, the black clouds swelled, grew darker, as if preparing for a tragic ending. Lucie suddenly had the sense of a staged battle. Good versus Evil. An outsized, all powerful, unassailable Evil. David against Goliath.

Meanwhile, Chief Inspector Franck Sharko of the Paris Violent Crimes unit is being dispatched to a small town near Le Havre to sort out how five bodies, each missing the top of its skull, ended up buried there in a riverbank. It’s intriguing that Sharko shares the author’s first name and it would be fun to speculate on “why” as well delving into their other shared traits, but that’s a parlor game for another column.

Sharko has spent twenty years as a specialist in serial killers and complicated crimes. He is also a diagnosed schizophrenic, a condition he developed, it seems, after he lost his wife and daughter five years earlier under hideous circumstances. We see him first being treated by transcranial magnetic stimulation—brain wave manipulation to eradicate episodes of paranoid persecution. Wires to his head every couple of weeks—think Woody Allen in Sleeper. His psychiatrist is optimistic. Well, he used to have two imaginary friends following him around: a wild pot smoking black man named Willy and a little girl named Eugenie. Now, all he has is Eugenie. Her presence as his shadow and sounding board is interesting albeit often intrusive: “Thanks to the treatment, the Rasta had disappeared for good, but the other one, the girl, came and went as she pleased, resistant as a virus.”

Still, as Sharko’s boss says, after assigning him to investigate those five bodies: “You’re dealing with your problems and they haven’t kept you from doing your job. I’d even say you’re sometimes better at it.”

So, five male corpses—four Caucasian and one Asiatic—in their twenties, brains, hands, teeth and eyes removed. Before Sharko can sort out what it all means, word comes via Interpol from Egypt. A cop there has seen the story on the five skeletons and thinks Sharko, et al, will be interested in a case that dates back to 1994 that was never closed. Three Egyptian girls, all violently murdered in Cairo, skulls sawed off, brains removed, eyes gone. Bodies mutilated from head to foot. And no underground burial this time. Sharko is galvanized into going to Cairo. He’s also warned to keep a low profile once there:

And about to dive into the guts of a burning hot city that reeked of spices. The mythic city of al-Qahira. Cairo. …Shouldn’t be too hard to keep a low profile in the land of the hieroglyphs.

Not before Lucie can get to him. She has a contact that links the film and the five bodies. Plus, a “specialist in film autopsies”–a restorer–courtesy of Ludovic, has unearthed a series of even more distressing subliminal images embedded inside the original. Among them, a beautiful actress with a gaping hole in her stomach, and angelic looking children slaughtering rabbits. It’s all ammunition that gets Sharko to team up with her. They share sensibilities if not temperaments: “A cop’s equilibrium is so fragile. It’s like a nutshell that slowly cracks open, with every tap of a manhunt or crime scene.”

Lucie remains on the case in France, while he’s off to the land of the Pharaohs. Of course, keeping a low profile is simply not in Sharko’s nature. Particularly in a place where the atmosphere begets violence as the heat eats away at you. By the time he leaves Cairo, he has blood on his hands and an invaluable lead. Follow the trail of Syndrome E.

That proves nearly impossible as anyone who might even remotely shed light on the Syndrome has either disappeared or refuses to talk. Lucie and Sharko find themselves entangled in a dangerous investigation that probes the darker side of politics and science from early in the 20th century to the present. Once they finally discover the real significance of the film and the meaning of Syndrome E, they are more frightened than they have ever been.

Thilliez skillfully uses cinematic references to flesh out the Byzantine plot—from Buñuel to Hitchcock to The Manchurian Candidate to Bourne, the Joker and beyond. Syndrome E is a chilling novel that explores what if the earliest and most brilliant advances and discoveries of neuroscience were not used for good but for evil. It’s also a classic thriller that ends with a cliffhanger. I have to admire the way he pulls that off without making the reader cranky.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.