Title: Seven Days
Author: Patrick Senécal
Translated by: Howard Scott and Phyllis Aronoff
Publisher: Simon and Schuster (trade paper), 286 pages, $22
“I am not one of those college professors who coyly boasts of enjoying detective stories,” Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, “they are too badly written for my taste.”
Well, Nabokov is very much out of fashion and the college professors he mocked are in. There is much promotion, particularly in this country, of the idea that literary media and prizes and official reading lists are snobbish and exclusive and that genre fiction does not deserve its relegation. More and more fiction writers of the highbrow tradition are turning to murders and fantasies, either to increase their readership or as a nod to the postmodern collapsing of high/low distinctions. And occasionally even prize juries are rewarding entertaining stories over worthy ones. Furthermore, thrillers and slashers outsell meditations on identity. Why not analyze them as rigorously?
Why not, for example, announce with much fanfare the new gory psychological thriller from Quebec author Patrick Senécal, a writer whose novels have sold more than a million copies and have been repeatedly adapted as movies? Let us do so.
Seven Days (translated by Howard Scott and Phyllis Aronoff) is a tight little drama that begins with a man devastated by the rape and murder of his seven-year-old daughter. There is no mystery about the culprit: A man by the name of Anthony Lemaire has been arrested by the Quebec police and is awaiting trial. His DNA has been found on the girl’s body. The father, Bruno Hamel, a surgeon, devises a clever means of kidnapping the rapist from the police. His plan is to hold him hostage and torture him as revenge.
Detective sergeant Hervé Mercure must track down the vigilante torturer, who has chained up Lemaire in a secluded wooded cottage and is making taunting phone calls to the police through a cleverly encrypted method. Mercure has only seven days before Hamel will execute his prisoner after unspeakable agonies, and must rely on a combination of police work and psychology to try to trace the sadist’s actions.
Mercure, as with many a fictitious detective before him, has a trauma in his own past – his own wife was also murdered. And Mercure goes to visit his wife’s murderer every few months in prison, perhaps to understand him better, perhaps just to torture him with remorse in his own way. Ah, how the detective and his nemesis are similar!
Meanwhile, as the media reports on the chase increase, public opinion about the justice being done by the grieving father begins to grow ugly: Demonstrations in support of this barbaric punishment spring up, and even some of detective Mercure’s own officers mutter that they would be happy to not intervene. The society itself seems ready to erupt into irrational and cruel revenge.
Hamel, the formerly reasonable surgeon, descends into a hell both concrete and mental as he tortures his prisoner in revolting and highly graphic ways. The scenes of abuse are quite lovingly detailed, to the extent that I can hardly even describe them here. Literary horror writer Andrew Pyper has blurbed this edition of the book with the somewhat ambiguous line, “Senécal holds nothing back, which is what makes reading him feel so dangerous.” This indulgence in torture-gore – texturally it’s straight out of movies such as Saw or Hostel – must be what Pyper is referring to.
Hamel refers to his prisoner as the monster, but it is of course he who becomes the monster. (The author, who revels in such gruesomeness, may also add himself to the list of monsters.) The reality of the monster inside all of us – the way rational people can and do tip over into barbarism, the way the entire society can so easily erode into mob vengeance – is the question that detective Mercure rather laboriously ponders.
All this would come across as less adolescent if the writing were anything more than workmanlike. “In that fraction of a second, Bruno’s heart turned to stone.” To stone? “He felt nothing, except the weight on his shoulders.” Interesting metaphor.
“I was set up by the cops!” yells the child-rapist at the outset of his torture. “I didn’t want to plead guilty, but they found me! And the DNA tests were rigged! They’re a bunch of dirty bastards. Damn dirty dogs!” It’s funny how exclamation marks often have unintended opposite effects. Rather than intensifying, they weaken. (The amusingly feeble imprecation “damn dirty dogs” may simply be the result of unimaginative translation. Surely the sociopathic murderer could be more verbally menacing than that?) Senécal doesn’t restrain his exclamation marks to dialogue either. They recur in almost every feverish thought. “Nothing! He felt nothing! He looked at the bleeding thigh, listened to the monster’s moans, but he felt no joy, no satisfaction. Nothing at all!”
I am trying hard to take crime writing more seriously, I promise, but how can one feel either fear or intrigue when it is written at a Grade 11 level?
In the most recent issue of the literary magazine Canadian Notes and Queries, the novelist James Grainger has an essay on the recent explosion in Canadian genre fiction. He argues that “unlike historical fiction, crime and horror are, at their best, ideal literary forms for expressing fear, apocalyptic anxiety and disgust, the defining emotional palette of our contemporary zeitgeist.” This is convincing, and promising. Unfortunately, this particular example does not go very far in showing us what “at their best” will look like.