I attended Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016, which was my last year in France. I knew I was going to miss both the festival and the French authors, so I asked one of the booksellers at the festival for a book recommendation. I wanted a book set in Lyon but one that was not too twee, not too much of a ‘cosy crime with lots of recipes’ (although I love that city’s gastronomic culture). They recommended this thriller by an author I’d never heard of, born and bred in Lyon, who had died all too prematurely in 2015.
I later found out that Yal Ayerdhal (born Marc Soulier, but commonly known by the surname of his pseudonym alone) was predominantly a science fiction writer, winner of multiple literary prizes, as well as an eloquent activist for protection of authors’ rights. Transparences was published in 2004 and was the author’s first incursion into thriller territory, although there are some sci-fi elements to it which purists may find disturbing. The action starts off in Lyon (with its Interpol headquarters), but the murders are on a global scale and soon we are traipsing off to the south of France, the US, to Greece, Canada and so on.
Stephen Ballanger is a criminal profiler working for Interpol in Lyon, originally from Quebec (and therefore perfectly bilingual, which is an important plot point). He becomes obsessed with the case of Ann X, a young girl who was abused by her parents (and their best friends) and murdered all four of them at the age of twelve. She was put in a psychiatric institution but eventually killed someone there and tried to escape across the border. Although over the course of 12-13 years she seems to have engaged in a veritable murder spree (mostly people who tried to sexually abuse her or curtail her freedom in any way), nobody has been able to catch her… or indeed, even remember what she looked like. Details of her name or personal history have been redacted from her case file. Stephen’s collaborators believe she may have been recruited as a professional assassin by various spy agencies, but she also seems to be acting on her own.
So, just like in the Deon Meyer book I reviewed yesterday, we have a case of international spying and assassination, but this time we have a young, attractive female serial killer and a dysfunctional international team attempting to catch her (and none of the members of the team seem to trust each other, unlike Benny’s team). The sci-fi element of this book is that Ann X seems to be ‘perfectly transparent’, i.e. merge into the background, which means no one really knows what she looks like. Of course, she is a mistress of disguises, changing her hair and eye colour, her clothes and posture at will. But it seems that even CCTV and cameras are unable to capture her – and that seems far less plausible.
The book displays signs of what generally irks me about spy thrillers – the repetition. One killing after another, one chase after another, one near miss and then another. It’s only the location or the weapon that changes. I’m also not a great fan of complicated conspiracy theories, which seem to assume that governments and intelligence agencies are really competent. Yet there are some redeeming features, for example, the psychological manipulation between Stephen and Ann X towards the end of the book. Overall though, the book feels like it took on a theme that was a little too ambitious and didn’t quite do it justice.
Emma and I are blogging every day that this year’s Quais du Polar (our favourite crime festival) was due to take place, 3-5 April. Join us if you like! Emma’s billet for today also is Lyon specific – have a read here.