Today, in September 2023, as I comb through my hard disk archives containing all of my writings since my first personal computer in 1982, I am discovering that I wrote far more and varied articles in my life than I ever imagined. I am even finding through my original texts published articles in the International Herald Tribune that I had entirely forgotten. But I am also finding a number of never published articles, and then the other sub-section of articles, those that I have forgotten whether they were ever published or not. And since many of them would never have made it to electronic publication format – due to the magazines not having an online presence – I have no way to confirm that outside of combing through my correspondence on the hard disk, too. But most of that is now in the form of email archives, many of which I can not quite crack open again due to the emailers no longer existing, or not being in my possession.
In any case, one of the fascinating articles that I have just discovered was this one from early in the year 2000 about news coming from three crime writers within days: two pieces of sad news – the death of Sarah Caudwell and of Jean-Claude Izzo – and one piece of good news: Thierry Jonquet winning an important court case that had been brought against him. Retrospectively, I can add a bit of tragedy to this article: While Caudwell died at 60 years old and Izzo died at 54; unfortunately, Jonquet would go on to die less than a decade after this article, and also at the relatively young age of 55, in 2009. But here it is, the article about these three writers, which may or may not have ever been published anywhere. I think it wasn’t. (By the way, the lunch I refer to at the Terminus Nord was done in the company also of the American mystery novelist, Walter Satterthwait, who was a friend of Caudwell, and of mine, and who was the one who had suggested she and I meet. Satterthwait died at age 71 in February 2020.)PARIS – In the space of a few days in late January, early February, the European crime fiction world had two pieces of bad news, followed by one of good news. Although each of these items had a personal effect on me, they extend beyond the small world of what the French call the “polar,” or police story.
The death of Sarah Caudwell, a British crime fiction writer, on January 28th at the age of 60 from esophagus cancer, was the biggest personal shock. Although I did not meet her until the fall of 1997 at a mystery conference in Muncie, Indiana, I had heard much about her through a mutual crime writer friend. And when we finally met over a long lunch in Paris, we got along very well.
Sarah struck me as a kind of Gertrude Stein figure of the modern crime fiction world, a writer’s writer and an encourager of other people’s talent. Although she smoked a pipe, one never felt the least bit self-conscious in public with her, undoubtedly because she herself was not at all self-conscious about it. Perhaps that was because she’d been doing it since at least as far back as her days as a law student at Oxford when she fought for the rights of women to join the Oxford Union debating society. She succeeded in that, and was one of the first women admitted. As a member of the Chancery Bar and later an adviser in the legal department of Lloyds Bank, it was probably not out of place to smoke a pipe either.
I’d heard that her mother was Jean Ross, who was considered the model for Christopher Isherwood’s character Sally Bowles, so perhaps that was also what made me think of that period, and Gertrude Stein. But one of the main differences between her and the famous American in Paris, was that Sarah could also write fiction that was not only highly stylized, but also entertaining. Her style has been compared to that of Oscar Wilde, and while the books were all mysteries, one element went unsolved: the gender of her Gauloises-smoking sleuth, Professor Hilary Tamar. Her three novels, published from 1981 to 1989, were cult favorites in the United States, though she remained somewhat ignored at home in England.
When I asked her what she liked about mystery conferences such as the one where we first met, she said: “Exactly the two things that writers enjoy about these things are, people coming up and saying, ‘I love your books’ – which doesn’t happen in England – and talking to writers about things like, ‘What do you do when you’ve put the corpse in a place where nobody’s going to find it?'”
The last time I was able to share her witty conversation and her warm, complicitous throaty laughter was over that lunch last October at the Terminus Nord brasserie in Paris, a favorite dining spot of hers. She looked well, if slightly frail, and had apparently conquered the cancer.
In fact, in her final days she chose to keep quiet to all but her closest friends the negative prognosis, because she said she did not want the news of her imminent death to destroy her chances of getting her fourth novel published. That book, “The Sibyl in Her Grave,” was completed in the spring, and is to be published in June in the United States by Delacorte Press, although no British publisher has yet been found.
Her death elicited lengthy obituaries in all of the British quality dailies and The New York Times. Which makes one wonder if her death, rather than hurting her prospects, will prove to be her big literary break. She must be amused.Sarah’s death by smoking-related cancer happened two days after another premature death of a European crime writer from smoking-related cancer. I never met Jean-Claude Izzo, who died on January 26th, but his books, set in Marseille, have been on my shelf since they came out. As with Sarah, there were not many of them. His novel-writing career only started at the age of 50 after years as a journalist, poet, librarian, and scenarist.
But it was in 1995 when La Serie Noire (a crime imprint of Gallimard) published his first novel, “Total Kheops” – which sold more than 140,000 copies – that he made his name painting a poetic picture of the Marseille of his main character, a left-wing cop named Fabio Montale. The book was followed by two more in the series, “Chourmo” and “Solea,” and then last year’s best seller, “Le Soleil des mourants,” about homelessness.
Izzo’s Marseille was today’s Marseille, a city of immigrants, unemployment, local small time crime and the Mafia, a world unto itself.
Izzo too look like he might be ready for the big international break, after The Economist published a page and a half article about him in its 30 October issue.
“Just as Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy made Los Angeles their very own, so Mr Izzo has made Marseilles so much more than just another geographical setting,” The Economist said, adding, “Caught between pride and crime, racism and fraternity, tragedy and light, messy urbanisation and generous beauty, the city is for him a Utopia, an ultimate port of call for exiles.”
Le Monde, the French national daily, published a full page of articles in its 28 January issue – the day Sarah died – recalling Izzo’s writing and his career, particularly his support of left-wing political causes.The French say “never two without three.” So while I might have expected a third bit of bad news in European crime fiction, in the end the third item was good news. It came in the form of a telephone call last week from another French crime writer, also one of the best, Thierry Jonquet.
“Did you hear I won my case?” he said.
“What? No! Fabulous!” I said. “Am I ever happy about that.”
“Not as happy as I am,” he said. And although he had not previously shown how concerned he was by the case, which became almost a cause celebre in France, it suddenly became clear just how affected he had been.
I cannot call Jonquet a friend, but I have met and interviewed him, and spoken to him several times on the telephone. I admire his realistic, highly researched and original writing more than most of the genre in France today. “Moloch,” the 1998 award-winning novel and subject of the court case, was among his best. It is a police procedural in which the main story is the attempt by the Paris police to identify the murderers of a group of children found tied up and burned to death in an abandoned house.
But like most procedurals it has another story running simultaneously to the main one. In “Moloch” – a Semitic god to whom children were sacrificed – the other crime story is about a case of the psychological illness called Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy. The syndrome is named after an 18th century Prussian soldier, and is typified by the victim’s self-infliction of an illness in order to procure medical attention. The “proxy” version is a subcategory of the disease, where the victim creates illnesses in their child both for the attention given by doctors and to maintain the sense of the child’s dependence on them.
Before becoming a full-time writer Jonquet took a university degree in philosophy, then studied “ergotherapy,” and worked as a therapist in several hospitals. This experience gave him the subject matter for his first two novels “Memoire en cage” (1982) and “Le Bal des debris” (1984), in each of which he criticizes the medical profession. Another of his best novels, “Mygale (1984), was about a criminal cosmetic surgeon.
But his books are frequently inspired by real life stories that he finds in the press or on television. And while his methods were never questioned before, soon after the publication of “Moloch,” a lawyer representing the Preud’homme family, on whom the Munchausen subplot was inspired, decided to sue the author. Jonquet claimed his was a fictional portrayal of a typical case of the syndrome, simply inspired by what he read in the press of the celebrated case from the early 1990s in France. The lawyer claimed it broke the secrecy of a case that had not gone to trial, and tarnished the family’s image.
In fact, the case never went to trial because the mother, Liliane Preud’homme, who purportedly created illnesses in her daughter, died in questionable circumstances – possibly suicide – only weeks before the trial in 1995. In the novel the mother character, Marianne Quesnel, is portrayed as guilty, as she is caught injecting doses of insulin into her otherwise healthy daughter. Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy is considered to be child abuse, and its perpetrators are charged for such, in addition to receiving psychiatric attention. The real-life lawyer claimed that the novel unfairly tried and charged his client.
“If there has been any violation of the confidentiality of the case, it has been done by the press,” Jonquet said to me last year. “That’s the real question. What is the press allowed to say about a case that is still under examination? I demand the right to be able to take elements of stories that I read in the press and to make of them what I want in a novel, out of fictional characters. As a writer I have the right to talk about reality, and to transform it, or to use elements of reality in fiction. So it’s really a problem of jurisprudence on the freedom of the writer.”
In the end, according to a report in Le Monde on 10 February – the judgement was made on 7 February – the court agreed with Jonquet. True stories of crime “have always constituted a privileged source of inspiration for authors of crime novels,” went the judgement, and the protagonists of these affairs may not complain, “unless it may be shown that the writer had set out with a desire to do them harm.”
It was decided that Jonquet did not set out to accuse or attack Mrs Preud’homme, but simply used the elements of her case that are typically present in many other such cases and outlined in scientific treatises on the subject. Furthermore, the court decided that no reader would have linked the name of that family to the characters in the novel had the family not come forth and “found it useful to remind the public” of its story.
“It’s too bad for the family,” Jonquet said over the phone, and his tone suggested he cared.
What is not too bad is that if readers lost two great European crime writers within two days, silenced by death, they will nevertheless continue to have the freedom to read stories by a third writer who might otherwise have been silenced by law. And fiction writers of every kind who find inspiration in real-life events, may now breathe a sigh of relief – at least in France – that a method that goes back to Homer, is still okay.