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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Syndrome E

Franck Thilliez

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To purchase Syndrome E

Title: Syndrome E
Author: Franck Thilliez
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 370 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Syndrome E - US
Syndrome E - UK
Syndrome E - Canada
Le syndrome E - Canada
Syndrome E - India
Le syndrome E - France
Öffne die Augen - Deutschland
L'osservatore - Italia
El síndrome E - España
  • French title: Le syndrome E
  • Translated by Mark Polizzotti

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Our Assessment:

C+ : some decent ideas, but adds too may exaggerated layers (and too heavy on the sensationalistic gore)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette . 26/8/2012 Eileen Weiner
Publishers Weekly A 4/6/2012 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The author has done his homework, and Syndrome E is filled with interesting facts related to neuroscience, psychiatry, and social and film history. By weaving so much real science and historical information into the plot, Mr. Thilliez creates a supporting scaffold upon which he can convincingly hang the more fanciful theories and plot elements of the story." - Eileen Weiner, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

  • "Spare evocative prose propels French author Thilliez’s stellar U.S. debut. (...) This is a crackerjack story that most readers will devour in one sitting." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Syndrome E begins with two separate storylines that are presented in more or less alternating short chapters, with the investigations soon converging. One storyline has detective Lucie Henebelle suddenly hear from someone she had dated for a few months, a film buff who finds himself struck by hysterical blindness after watching an old film he just bought. It's a horrific film, made back in the 1950s, and some people clearly don't want it examined too closely, as they soon make bloodily clear. The other storyline has Chief Inspector Franck Sharko, a profiler, investigating a find of nearly unidentifiable bodies -- "five stiffs with their skulls sawed off" (and their eyes removed, too). It comes as no surprise, of course, that the two cases turn out to be connected.
       The two investigators are both damaged souls. Lucie has clearly been through a lot. She has two young daughters, but trouble establishing and maintaining any sort of relationship; the fact that one of her daughters is in hospital for most of this investigation weighs on her too. Franck is more obviously and visibly damaged, having lost his wife and daughter five years earlier -- but still hearing voices, turning him into a full-fledged: "paranoid schizophrenic cop". (Needless to say, characters who hear voices are very annoying, and Thilliez does not handle this part of Franck's personality particularly well -- an unnecessary complication that might have sounded like a good idea but in practice is just irritating.)
       If not exactly two peas in a pod, the two of them are certainly very kindred spirits: "It was like reading his own story", Franck thinks (rather ridiculously melodramatically) when he examines Lucie's file to see who he is dealing with, while Lucie is reminded of the Luc Besson film, The Professional:

In some ways, Sharko gave off the same sadness as Léon, the contract killer, but also an incomprehensible sympathy that made you want to learn more about him.
       (Note that both Lucie and Franck feature in previous novels by Thilliez -- novels that present their character development (i.e. recount the horrible things they've seen and been through that have turned them into the people they are now) -- and that this is apparently the first novel in a new series in which they join forces. Because American and British publishers have zero respect for their readers (zero, nada, none), none of the previous novels have, of course, been translated yet, so readers are plopped into the larger story fairly late in the game and have missed everything that has lead up to this point. Some of the details are filled in -- such as what exactly happened to Franck's wife and daughter -- but only in summary, with readers unable to actually live through the events as they would have if they had been able to read the novels in which these events are presented in full. It's very annoying, does a great disservice to the author (and the characters), and certainly diminishes the impact and possible appreciation of this particular novel.)
       In the course of the investigations the police learn about three Egyptian girls who were found in 1994, in a similar state as the five recently uncovered corpses: skulls professionally sawed off, "brains removed, eyes gone". Franck heads off to Egypt to look into that old case, but between corrupt official obstruction and some party who very clearly doesn't want him to learn anything he finds it difficult to learn much. One thing he does learn is that at the time there was an outbreak of a sort of collective hysteria.
       Investigating the unusual film also leads Lucie and Franck across France and Belgium (repeatedly to Belgium) and eventually even to Canada. They learn the identity of the director, who was a creative-obsessive type way ahead of his time. So, for example, they are told:
He worked on the film itself. He'd scratch it, or poke holes in it, or streak it, or mark it up, or even burn it. For him, film wasn't so much a surface to record images on but a virgin territory that he could inscribe to convey art.
       And more than art, as they find a sort of film-within-the-film, a secondary one that can't be consciously perceived, but subconsciously, oh yes. What the director managed here goes way beyond simple subliminal messaging, too -- and then, of course, one of the questions becomes: why did he do this ?
       Along the way Lucie and Franck also hear a term repeatedly used:
     "So this one expression kept coming up: Syndrome E. You have no idea what that could mean ?"
       Indeed, Lucie claims:
I also searched around for Syndrome E, including in medical and scientific sites -- nothing, no matches found. If the Internet doesn't know about it, it must be pretty secret.
       Here Thilliez makes an odd choice: Syndrome E is, in fact, 'real' (i.e. not just something he made up for this novel) -- and, while not a particularly well-known concept, is certainly hardly secret. Any policeman with the most basic research skills -- indeed, any teenager with an Internet connection -- would immediately, at the very least, have found the origins of the term: Itzhak Fried's 1997 paper in The Lancet. (Even at the time it generated enough interest to rate, for example, a mention in The Independent.) There is no great need to keep the secret of what Syndrome E is from the investigators for the sake of the story, and so it's very odd that Thilliez presents them as so incompetent that they wouldn't have found this information immediately. It's not exactly a hole in the story, but typical of Thilliez's laziness in patching together his thriller story -- he prefers keeping his characters in motion, shuttling them back and forth (they travel endlessly ...), to achieve the illusion of action, rather than focusing on more satisfying but sedentary actual investigation (though he does let them get down to that occasionally too).
       Ridiculous confrontations on the character's foray's to Egypt and Canada don't help much either, and by the time they're investigating the French Foreign Legion and a librarian looks Lucie in the eyes and says: "The CIA, miss. We're talking about the CIA", Thilliez has gone several steps too far in creating a kooky conspiracy thriller that leans ever more towards the kooky and less to the thrilling. Yes, aspects of all this are fun -- and the whole film-concept is an admittedly fascinating one -- but Thilliez makes quite a mess of things. (Outrageously, too, he ends with a cliffhanger to ensure that there's no truly happy end for Lucie and Franck -- an admittedly very effective pit-in-the-stomach moment in just the last few sentences of the novel which might make readers curious about: what next ? but at this point also feels like Thilliez is just laying it on way too thick.)
       Mark Polizzotti, translator of, among others, Jean Echenoz and Flaubert (Bouvard and Pécuchet !) is slumming it here as translator -- and has surprising difficulty in dealing with Thilliez's rocky prose and the idiomatic patter ("my body looks like a calculator because of the mosquitoes" ? huh ?). It's a serviceable enough translation, given that the text is probably read quickly rather than carefully, but it really isn't very good.
       Syndrome E is an (ultimately barely) passable B-thriller. It doesn't help that English-speaking readers can't see Lucie and Franck as the more fully-developed characters those who have been able to read their previous adventures probably do, but even so Thilliez makes an excessive mess of his somewhat promising material.
       There are some good ideas in the novel, and for a while it is a fairly effectively-presented story (the alternating storylines can be irritating, but that works quite well), but then there are too many elements (and too much travel) poorly layered on. Disappointing.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 August 2012

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Syndrome E: Reviews: Franck Thilliez: Other books by Franck Thilliez under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Popular French author Franck Thilliez was born in 1973.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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