Friday, August 30, 2013

My Bouchercon 2013 panels: J. Robert Janes' murky world

J. Robert Janes' fourteen Kohler and St. Cyr mysteries pair a Gestapo officer and a French Sûreté inspector solving "everyday" crimes in German-occupied France during World War II, and if that description gives you pause (as it gave me for years), Janes recognizes that such a reaction is likely.

Each book in the series, from Mayhem (1992) to the new Tapestry, bears an exculpatory note from the author explaining that he abhors "what happened during these times" and that "during the Occupation of France everyday crimes of murder and arson continued to be committed, and I merely ask, by whom and how were they solved?"

An introduction to the series on Janes' Web site suggests (accurately, at least for Tapestry) that no one in the books comes off as especially pure, ethical, admirable, or even clean:
"It's German-occupied France during the Second World War. Two honest detectives, one from each side of that war, fight common crime in an age of officially sanctioned crime on a horrendous scale. Gangsters have been let out of jail and put to work by the Gestapo and SS; collaborators welcome the Occupier and line their pockets; ordinary citizens struggle to survive; inflation hits 165% while wages are frozen at 1939 levels; but most of all, German servicemen come on leave to Paris, ‘our friends' to some, ‘the Green Beans' to others, the ‘Schlocks, the Boche'.

"Paris, unlike all other cities and towns in war-torn Europe, is an open city, a showcase Hitler uses to let his boys know how good things can be under Nazi rule. French Gestapo are everywhere and definitely don't like these two detectives since St-Cyr put many of them away before the war, but Kohler is all too ready to tell them this and is fast becoming a citizen of the world under Louis' influence and also has no use for the Occupier, even to ridiculing Nazi invincibility. Hated and reviled by the Occupier and often by the Occupied, the two constantly tread a minefield."
I'm not up on my administrative history of the German occupation of France, so I don't know how much attention the various organs of the occupation and of the French civil authority and population paid to ordinary crimes. But a relatively recent history of the occupation, Robert Gildea's Marianne in Chains, suggests a real occupied France similar to Janes' fictional one:
 "The moral universe of occupied France was notoriously murky. What was right and what was wrong, what patriotic and what unpatriotic, may have been clear in 1944, but not before."
Oh, yes. Crime fiction. Tapestry's moral, ethical, and physical environments are the darkest I have ever read in crime fiction. Kohler and St. Cyr are called on to work in a city so darkened by blackouts that characters must feel their way through the streets at night. Plunder, greed, puritanism, lust, patriotism, violence, and luxury in the face of deprivation slip in and out of focus, the reader never sure if any one is staged to cover for another. I'm not yet sure if Tapestry is good history, but it sure is good noir.
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 J. Robert Janes will be part of my "World War II and Sons" panel at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany, N.Y., on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 4:00 p.m. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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4 Comments:

Blogger J. Kingston Pierce said...

I love the St Cyr-Kohler novels. And I envy you your opportunity to spend some face time with author Bob Janes. I've only ever been able to interview him via e-mail. If only I could attend this year's Bouchercon ... but, sadly, it is not to be. Have fun in Albany!

Cheers,
Jeff

August 30, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I'm so excited that you're reading Janes.

I haven't read Tapestry. I just nabbed whatever titles of his came through the used bookstore on the advice of an elderly woman I noticed was turning in books similar to my taste (I remember her having Bill James). I asked her for recommendations and Janes was one of them.

August 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jeff: I saw Janes on a panel at Bouchercon one year, and he was a shockingly jovial and avuncular presence for someone who writes about such a grim subject.

I'll consult your interview as preparation for my panel. And you can always buy a CD of the panel, if the guy from VW Tapes comes back this year.

August 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, I figured it would be best to read a book or two from early and more recently in the Kohler and St. Cyr series. Janes' current publisher is Mysterious Press.com, and I happened to be visiting the Mysterious Bookshop right after the Bouchercon panel assignments went out. So the timing was perfect.

Your bookstore friend may have narrow alphabetical tastes when it come to crime fiction (James to Janes), but, by God, she reads some good stuff.

August 30, 2013  

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