“Don’t believe what they tell you. There’s nothing above us, and nothing beneath. Just us, here and now, like survivors of a shipwreck.”
― Pascal Garnier
How’s The Pain?
The French noir novellas of Pascal Garnier, written between 1999 and 2010 and available in English translation, are a high-water mark for the genre - rural tales of simmering tension and bursts of violence with the psychological complexity of Patricia Highsmith, and a brevity and directness that recalls Georges Simenon. However, Garnier is no imitator, and his works have an undercurrent of existential bleakness that is all their own. Isolation and displacement are recurrent themes in Garnier’s oeuvre - his works often set in small coastal towns and the french countryside around the Ardeche mountains (where the author lived until his death in 2010, aged 61). Hitmen, thieves and miscreants find themselves on the run, or attempting to take a holiday, before becoming ensared in a noir plot that leads inexorably to their demise, or someone else’s demise. However, these are not bucolic or gentle mysteries - they are stories of people on the edge of their own sanity, of violent and unpredictable behaviour, full of black humour and shocking incident - made all the more shocking by the calm and unhurried narration. Imagine if Albert Camus scripted an episode of Midsomer Murders and you’re about halfway there.
“People are always ashamed of the misery that has befallen them, as though it were an act of divine retribution for a long-forgotten sin of theirs”
― Pascal Garnier
Visitors to the bookshop on the hunt for decent crime fiction will probably have heard me wax lyrical about Garnier’s works in recent months, which have been on a permanent display under the till. They’re great “two pint books” - perfect for an afternoon trip to the pub on your day off; immediately engaging, compulsive page-turners with suckerpunch endings. The cult of Garnier has been growing as Gallic Books have released their translations every few months between 2012 and 2019 - it’s hard to read one of his novels without returning for more. While they feature no recurring characters or plotlines, and therefore can be read in any order, there are a few titles that contain so much of what makes his books great that they make for natural entry points - The A26, The Panda Theory, Low Heights and Moon In A Dead Eye make for a solid introduction, while completists will discover the furthest extents of Garnier’s dark humour, offbeat humanity and masterful pacing in The Islanders, C’est La Vie, Boxes, Low Heights and A Long Way Off.
“The situation was approaching a question of life or death, which can be a hard one to answer.”
― Pascal Garnier
It’s title quoting an African greeting, How’s The Pain? is for me, the quintessential Pascal Garnier novel, and his finest work. It’s the story of an ageing hitman and his young driver on “one last job" that gets increasingly messy as they encounter and spend time with an array of secondary characters, and the pressures of work compete with their repressed longings and deep desires. To say more about the plot would do the book a disservice but save to say it is the prime example of the Roman Gris (“grey novel”), a noir that has been “lightened" by the addition of breezy humour, contrasting with the psychological complexity and darkness of the plot.
Read it if you enjoyed: Patricia Highsmith, Georges Simenon, Dan Rhodes, Albert Camus, Tonino Benacquista
Further Reading: No One Gets Out Alive - John Banville (The New York Review)