[(essay date 2009) In the following essay, Desnain notes that Japrisot’s novels are not centrally concerned with determining the identity of the criminal. She contends that Japrisot instead focused on the psychology of the detective, who continually wonders: “Who am I?”]
The search for identity is at the heart of much of literature, but this is particularly true of the crime novel, in which the discovery of the identity of the criminal is usually the raison d’être of the narrative. In traditional crime genres, such as the ‘mystery novel,’ this amounts to the simple fact of deducing who did it and how, with an occasional interest in the ‘why’ but only insofar as this helps to pinpoint the guilty party by revealing the motives for the crime. More recent crime fiction, however, is also interested by the motivations of the criminal in more profound ways. It seeks to understand the social and psychological set up which may lead an ordinary individual to break the law.
And then of course there is Japrisot … In his novels, solving the mystery and discovering the criminal is often not the primary concern, and in at least one case (Piège pour Cendrillon) the issue of ‘who did it’ is never satisfactorily resolved. Identity is the focal point of the investigation but the question being asked is not ‘who did it?’ It is ‘who am I?.’ In many cases, the character asking this question is a woman who is posited, either by herself or by others, as guilty. So while female characters hold an important place in Japrisot’s work, this prominence is often double-edged: the author puts them at the heart of the narrative and his heroines can be strong, active agents who fight back when attacked, intelligent, and determined (in La Dame dans l’auto [La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil], Dany defeats Caravaille’s attempt to implicate her, in Piège pour Cendrillon, Mi/Do is not duped by Jeanne and others’ attempts to manipulate her). Yet they could equally be described as neurotic, manipulative and selfish (Mi/Do, Éliane in L’Été meurtrier). Furthermore, they are as dangerous as they are seductive, suggesting a highly suspect—at least in feminist terms—hint of femme fatale.
This chapter will examine the ambiguity of the writer’s presentation and I will refer, to a greater or lesser extent, to Japrisot’s five ‘crime’ novels, Compartiment tueurs, Piège pour Cendrillon, La Dame dans l’auto, L’Été meurtrier, and La Passion des femmes, although I use the term ‘crime novel’ by default since it is a highly debatable and reductive term when applied to his work.1
It has been noted by critics that Japrisot’s work hints, subtly but consistently, at social issues. Dubois states: ‘Dans les failles de l’enquête judiciaire, […] s’inscrit une autre enquête, de portée sociale.’2 Although class issues also feature, it seems unavoidable, given the prominence of female characters in Japrisot’s œuvre, that some of the social detail which enables the author to create credible...