The French don’t know how to write detective stories, or do not want to know. They load them with fopperies and Christmas decorations, festoon them with facetious fairy lights, steep them in whirlpools of words. The only great French detective story writer of our century has been a Belgian, Georges Simenon, who lived in France; and Daniel Pennac doesn’t give a hoot about the sort of tale that professional would spin.
His criminal pursuits take place in fantasy land, where conclusions call for no explanation, medical miracles return victims from the dead and the difference between blood and ketchup is as hard to pin down in life as on a TV screen. Which is alluring but has nothing to do with reality, even as stretched and manipulated in novels of detection, mystery or suspense.
“The only writers left who have anything to say,” Raymond Chandler observed a long time ago, “are those who write about practically nothing and monkey around with odd ways of doing it.” Pennac writes entertainingly about a lot of things and monkeys around with what might be called fantastic realism, meaning that what he writes is less realistic than surrealistic. That is probably why French critics, who turn up their noses at run-of-the-mill mysteries, swoon over his literary achievement and affirm him as their top crime fictioneer.
The less convincing his situations, the less plausible his plots, the more they praise his idiomatic language, demotic dialogue, evocative slang, burlesque verve. Unfortunately, and despite the best efforts of an imaginative and resourceful translator, Ian Monk, what can amuse in French works less well in English. The three fantasies that the Harvill Press offers to English-language readers suggest that, like broccoli and clerihews, Pennac’s prose is an acquired taste, especially when divorced from an original French that made its comedy more comic, its wordplay more playful, its evocations more evocative, its social commentary less banal.
Because Pennac, who adolesced when it was still trendy to make love or war, then graduated to literature in the 1980s, is the epitome of political correctness. He doesn’t like profs, cops (most cops), colonialists, entrepreneurs, racists, militarists, the rich, the violent (except minimalists, and only in a good cause); he adores the poor, anarchists, rebels, lovers, bedtime stories, immigrants, 16-degree North African wine, dogs, children, old people and philoprogenitive women. He has been a cabdriver and a schoolteacher (both lonely and tolerant professions), and he writes about the many-hued people of working-class Belleville in the north of Paris--about warm, transgressive, couscous-gobbling Arabs spilling over the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, where Maigret once lived; about the cheerfully chaotic family and extending family of Benjamin Malaussene, his chameleonic antihero, more permissive than Dr. Spock and more adaptable than a laptop.
Goodies proliferate, baddies are few and often endowed with redeeming traits, such as the recycled Nazi who is also a passionate bibliophile. Even druggies and drug-dealers only reflect indifferent parents, negative social vibes or failures of the educational system. They are, as one policeman tells a corrupt architect, idealists in their own way. “By selling drugs to old people, [your daughter] thought she was rebelling in a big way against her father’s image. . . .” And he concludes: “There are two sorts of delinquents: those with families and those without.” Thus demonstrating that cops not on the make can be understanding.
Malaussene’s own family--which keeps him happy, which he works hard to keep and which accompanies him through Pennac’s series--consists of a mother who bears babies as a hen does eggs and of numerous siblings: Jeremy, sprig of the asphalt jungle; skinny and clairvoyant Therese; Half-Pint, with his rose-tinted glasses; Launa, as undiscriminating as her mother; Verdun, her shrill, peremptory baby; Clara, his favorite, whom cameras endow with second sight. Also of Julius, a stinky and epileptic dog; Julie, she of the fulsome breasts; and assorted hangers-on and storytellers. Although they exist on air and meals served by generous Arab friends (Pennac never mentions family allowances), Benjamin has to work.
In “The Scapegoat” and “The Fairy Gunmother,” he is the resident scapegoat helping to handle complaints in a large department store, taking the blame for merchandising failures, beating his breast to evoke the pity of irate customers, expiating corporate sins to avert retributive action.
Written 15 years ago, before human scapegoats were replaced by machines (press No. 1 if you speak English, No. 8 if you prefer Tagalog), Pennac’s pretty fancy is pretty innocent. It spins on when bombs explode in the store’s toy department and the scapegoat turns into a suspect. Do the bombs represent an irate customer’s attempt to attract attention? No, that’s not it. The mainsprings of murderer and murderees will be explained by commercialism, materialism, profit motives and the belief that “everything is permitted because everything is possible.”
Pennac’s next foolery, “The Fairy Gunmother,” begins with a gun-toting old sprite hobbling away from the point-blank shooting of a helpful policeman. Several apparently unconnected cases (murders, attempted murders, slayings of old women in Belleville, selling drugs to old men, idem) turn out to have a lot in common, not least the corruption of society and of its agencies. Malaussene and the voluptuous Julie make the most of every opportunity to do what lovers do; drugs and greed take front and center stage; the vocabulary is consistently foul but jolly; the action, touted as maniacally inventive, is consistently implausible. Par for the course.
By the time of the next book, “Write to Kill,” exuberant violence, intrigue, suspense are rifer still, and so is the stench of Julius the dog (a recurrent reference). You would think someone would have found time to give it a wash. Meanwhile, as Julie accusingly tells him, Benjamin hasn’t had enough of impersonating silly buggers. He will not be himself even once, not yet. So, having abandoned commercial scapegoating, he accepts a better-paying job at the Vendetta Press, impersonating an invisible but bestselling novelist who absolutely refuses to reveal himself.
The arcane author peddles a new style Free-Market Realism; Vendetta Press pants over prospective sales in the billions; Benjamin yearns for his cut of royalties. Sister Clara, his beloved Clarinette, is about to have a baby, and Ben is determined to see the forthcoming tot born rich, “loaded, stinking, rolling in it,” free to twiddle its thumbs for the rest of its life.
Instead, he gets shot in the head at his first public appearance: a belated atonement, some readers might think. But wait! Ben’s still alive, though barely: lying brain-dead at the mercy of one of humanity’s benefactors, a surgeon who pilfers his body for organs. He will be saved and brought back to life by the intervention of his clan and of a good doctor (yes, Virginia, there are benevolent doctors, at any rate in fairy tales). His shooter, who meant to kill the man whom Ben impersonated, gets a great opportunity to be of use.
A recent Pennac work of nonfiction, “Reads Like a Novel,” lays out a reader’s bill of rights: the right not to read, the right to skip pages, the right not to finish a book. It’s good to bear these in mind.