I was pleased to hear about Salammbo Press, a new publisher dedicated to publishing “the works of great contemporary novelists celebrated in their own country, but as yet unknown to British readers”. Salammbo are publishing three books by French writer Régis Jauffret who has 18 books to his name and won the Prix Femina in 2005 which is decided each year by an all-female jury (although it is awarded to both men and women).
Severe is a classic “noir” crime novel, dealing with some very dark themes, notably the murder of a wealthy banker by his mistress. Unlike Guy of His Futile Preoccupations, I am not familiar with the noir genre but a quick look at Bill Ponzini’s article What is noir crime fiction?, tells me that “the noir crime story deals with disorder, disaffection, and dissatisfaction. The typical noir character has a jaundiced view of government, power, and the law. He (or sometimes she) is often a loner, a social misfit. He is likely a predator, and as morally bankrupt as any human being can be”. This certainly sums up this book pretty well (as can be seen from the cover illustration).
Severe is based on the murder of Édouard Stern, a personal friend of Nicolas Sarkozy with a taste for sado-masochism, who was found shot dead in his apartment wearing a head-to-toe latex cat-suit. The murderer, Cécile Brossard, was sentenced to eight years in prison but was freed on parole after five years in 2010.
When I read the book I didn’t know that it was based on a real-life case as it’s not mentioned on the cover. The book is written in the first person by the Brossard character, and is a very stylish read. It grabs your attention from the first paragraph, which describes the murder in a few sparse sentences.
I met him one spring evening. I became his mistress. I bought the latex suite he was wearing on the day he died. I acted as his sexual secretary. He introduced me to firearms. He gave me a revolver. I extorted a million dollars out of him. He took it back. I slaughtered him with a bullet between his eyes. He fell from the chair where I’d tied him up. He was still breathing. I finished him off. I went to take a shower. I picked up the shells. I put them in my bag with the revolver. I slammed the door of the apartment behind me.
The mistress has a complex life. She is a part-time call girl with an eye for the main chance – and a wealthy banker is about as much of a main chance as she could expect to find. She has a husband at home who seems to be quite happy for his wife to do whatever she wants so long as it brings in the money. The banker has some very strange habits and although these are not described in too much detail we quickly get a picture of a relationship based on violence and sexual perversion (knives and guns feature throughout their love-making). Being an obsessive, the banker has given the call-girl one million dollars but he seems to have had second thoughts on the matter and has somehow grabbed it back from her bank account. Our narrator is not a little upset by this action:
If only had had denied me that million dollars, I would never have got a taste for money. I had barely felt the taste in my mouth when he confiscated it. He was too rich to realise that you can get attached to a million dollars just as you can get attached to a cat.
Before long, the crime is committed and the call-girl goes on the run. We read an account of her agonisingly long flight to Sydney, Australia during which she is trapped sitting next to a fat man who tries to come on to her throughout the journey (he doesn’t know of course how lucky he is that she spurns his invitations!).
When eventually she is caught and tried, the woman realises the effect on the banker’s family of the exposure of his hidden life, for after all, this was not a normal affair, but a dark and dangerous business, somewhere along the lines of those affecting celebrity footballers or managers of F1 motor-racing –
The truth is devastating. It is blind. Without mercy. It humiliated his family. It tarnished the image of the father in the hearts of his children. It knocked down the partition separating their room from the cubbyhole where he ran after his orgasms. His children did not deserve the fate that mine inflicted on me. They could have done without this trial.
This truth threw to the media the sordid ending of a debauchee, as though someone’s character could be inferred from the circumstances of his death. His sexual life unfolded in the newspapers like the script of a porn movie. My refusal to lie only benefitted voyeurs, timorous people who used his example to take the plunge, embittered people who were jealous of his talent as an alchemist who could turn the muddy debts of bankrupts into gold.
The book is very cleverly written with a sparse, raw style that matches the content. I managed to find a 2009 article in the Daily Mail which describes Cécile Brossard as having “stirred up the fantasies of a 50-year-old man, who became dependent on a sexually deviant little blonde from the suburbs”. It has been adapted for the screen as Une Histoire d’Amour and is due for release in the UK and Irleand this year. Here is a trailer: