John Banville aka Benjamin Black on the French noir that has inspired his crime writing…

Some years ago I attended a dinner in London to celebrate the inauguration of Penguin’s admirable scheme to republish the complete Maigret series—seventy-odd volumes at the rate of one a month—along with a sprinkling of what Simenon called his romans durs, or ‘hard novels’. We were at the coffee stage when Simenon’s son, John, began to speak of a French writer, Pascal Garnier, whom I had not heard of, but who was, John Simenon declared, his father’s literary heir, if there could be such a thing.

Given my reverence for Simenon’s work, I was somewhat sceptical—until I read Garnier.

The London-based publisher Gallic Press had just begun to issue translations of Garnier—he died in 2010—and the first one I got hold of was Moon in a Dead Eye, a pitch-black and mordantly funny account of the goings-on among the inhabitants of a retirement village in the South of France. As so often in a Garnier novel, things start off at an ominously relaxed pace, but end in a wild bacchanal of mayhem and murder. I was entranced—horrified, yes, but entranced.

No one writes quite like Garnier. There are echoes, of course: of Simeon certainly, but also of Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, and of Richard Stark at his starkest. It is by now a tired old cliché to say of certain crime writers that their work ‘transcends genre’; Garnier, however, managed to created a genre all of his own.

His most effective stylistic ploy is a kind of gruesome offhandedness: in The A26, for instance, Bernard is dull, bored and dying, and whiles away his final months by killing girls and burying them in the foundations of a motorway being built near his house. After one of the killings Bernard notices that the moon is full, as it was after a previous murder. Pure chance, he tells himself jadedly: ‘But that wouldn’t stop them talking of a serial killer, the full-moon murderer.’

Of the eight Garniers that Gallic has published so far, the finest surely is How’s the Pain? Here, Garnier employs all his sly artistry to craft a tale that springs a surprise on the reader on every other page. In the masterly opening scenes—worthy indeed of Simenon at his plus dur—Simon, a mortally ill hit man, has arranged his own suicide-execution. From there we loop back to the beginning of the story, when Simon, travelling south to carry out his last piece of wet work, hires as his driver the fecklessly charming young mechanic. Along the road the pair encounter a set of quintessential Garnier oddities, including a single mother whose baby is one of the most vividly evoked characters in the book.

Intricate, compelling, and horribly, horribly funny, How’s the Pain is a noir masterpiece.

Benjamin Black’s Even the Dead is published by Viking

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