Invisible Ink: No 163 - Japrisot


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The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun – was there ever a better title to sum up the world of the noir thriller? The narrative delivers all the key genre elements in a plot of audacious simplicity. A beautiful young woman impulsively drives off in her boss's white Thunderbird, heading for the South of France, but locals react as if she had made the same journey the night before. Then she finds a dead body in the boot ….

Sébastien Japrisot was born in 1931 in Marseilles, arguably the home of French noir, and created an anagrammatic pseudonym from his real name, Jean-Baptiste Rossi. He became an author at the tender age of 17 with Les Mal Partis, translated J D Salinger's stories (as well as a lot of Hopalong Cassidy books) into French, and wrote numerous screenplays. But international success beckoned with the first of his crime novels, The 10:30 From Marseilles, in 1950.

Translations of his works are notoriously hard to find, vanishing and reappearing with irritating randomness. Six elegant Panther paperbacks of Japrisot's work turned up in 1999, when I first came across them. Some can now be bought online for a few pence, except Rider on the Rain, one edition of which is more than £500.

So, of all the out-of-print noir authors, why should we particularly seek out this one? Well, there's something about Japrisot that just gets everything right. His plots are complex but have clever, simple hooks. He's a master of building tension, and resolves everything organically and elegantly. He writes rounded, intelligent, sexy female characters you care about, and his language is precise and clear, with minimal description and hardly a wasted word. Best of all, he writes the kind of thrillers you want to recommend to others. In One Deadly Summer, a girl sets out to avenge the rape and murder of her mother by using her own stunning looks. In A Very Long Engagement, a young woman investigates the wartime death of her lover. He and four comrades wounded themselves to avoid combat, but were accused of treason and left to die in no-man's-land. His fiancée interviews informants with long memories, and deciphers clues to his identity. Japrisot's tales are sometimes unfolded like a tesseract through multiple protagonists who reveal a single truth. The novels have been successfully filmed (one by the director of Amélie), but they remain infuriatingly out of print.