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by Franck Thilliez and Mark Polizzotti, trans
Viking, August 2012
384 pages
ISBN: 067002578X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

SYNDROME E by Franck Thilliez is a French thriller. The action is based in France, and the characters are French, but the translation is seamless and does not call attention to itself. This complex and riveting book takes the reader through a whole host of possible genres. At the start, a film buff watches an old movie he has just bought at a private sale. He is struck blind. We seem to be in the realm of the metaphysical, the Japanese horror flicks. But then we are swept back to a police procedural. Bodies have been discovered buried at a building site, their brains and eyes surgically removed. Besides this mutilation, their hands and teeth are missing, making identification impossible. Thus we are thrust into the field of a medical thriller.

We are introduced to Inspector Franck Sharko, who has some fantastical psychological issues of his own. He appears to suffer from a form of schizophrenia, and has invisible "friends" who talk to him and make demands. One is a little girl named Eugenie who must be appeased with cocktail sauce and jars of chestnuts. Because of a mental breakdown, possibly related to the death of his wife and daughter, he has been assigned to what is supposed to be a desk job in the violent crimes division, psychological profiling. But he is thrown back into the field to investigate the massacred bodies.

Another investigator, Lucie Hennebelle, becomes involved in the case as she had a brief affair with the man who went blind. She is torn between her desire to find the truth about what is happening and her responsibilities as the single mother of twin girls, one who is ill and in the hospital. A mysterious phone call from Canada alerts her to the fact that her case is related to the mutilated bodies, and thus she meets Sharko.

This story has a plethora of twists and turns, taking us from France to Egypt to Montreal. The film that started it all is not what it seems to be. Besides the top layer of images, it also includes subliminal images. And when watched frame by frame, there is a whole other series of scenes. All of them are extremely violent and disturbing, involving mutilation and killings, children and animals. Considering that the film was made in 1955, it is way ahead of its time in cinematic technique, although its director is unknown. Sharko and Hennebelle try to decipher it and bring it to a number of experts. Soon, people involved with the film become murder victims and their deaths are gruesome.

The bodies in France are linked to bodies of little girls found many years ago in Egypt, whose brains and eyes had also been removed. The detectives realize that they are looking for a filmmaker and a surgeon, two perpetrators. All this becomes linked to horrifying experiments carried out by the CIA and involving orphans in Canada and the French Foreign Legion. Both detectives have their lives threatened and we suspect that there is a budding romance between them. The neuroscience of violence becomes a focus as they persevere in their efforts to find who or what is behind the murders and mutilations. The book contains well-drawn characters and a plot that keeps the reader whizzing along with events, the sense of panic and paranoia persisting even beyond the solution of the case. Though hard to categorize, SYNDROME E is a thriller well worth the journey.

Anne Corey is a writer, poet, teacher and botanical artist in New York's Hudson Valley.

Reviewed by Anne Corey, August 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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