Rethinking the detective novel: Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Reticence

A mysterious narrator, tricks of the mind and admirably pragmatic prose.

Reticence, the fourth novel by Belgian author and filmmaker Jean-Philippe Toussaint, opens with a death. Visiting the fictional Mediterranean island of Sasuelo, the nameless narrator sees a cat’s body floating in the harbour, a fish head on a broken line hanging from its mouth. The mystery of whether its demise was accidental or deliberate haunts him as he reaches his village hotel, hesitant over whether to meet the writer Biaggi as originally intended, constantly drawn to Biaggi’s house but unable to make contact.

Published as La Réticence in 1991 and translated here by John Lambert for Dalkey Archive Press, this is a detective story – albeit an unconventional one. Like nouveau roman theorist Alain-Robbe Grillet, whose first published novel, The Erasers, follows a man investigating a murder that, it turns out, has not happened and which he then unwittingly commits, Toussaint has explored this mode of writing just once. With the reasons for its protagonist’s association with Biaggi never revealed and the issue of who is spying on who, and why, only moving further from resolution, Reticence often rethinks or rejects the genre’s conventions but fits seamlessly into Toussaint’s oeuvre, its lyrical prose, minimal plot and detached first-person narration typical of his work.

As in Toussaint’s preceding novel Camera (1989), which began his departure from Jacques Tati-esque observational comedies Bathroom (1985) and Monsieur (1987), the events are set off by the narrator’s choice to steal: a camera there, four letters from Biaggi’s mailbox here, including the one sent to announce his forthcoming arrival, sitting unopened. Although he leaves two bits of junk post, this inexplicable act makes it far harder for him to call Biaggi, and he returns to his hotel. His encounters with a grey Mercedes and the hotel’s owner make him increasingly concerned that he’s being followed, as he concludes that the cat has been murdered for motives related, but still unknown.

As he realises that anyone at the hotel could be tracking him, the narrator gradually has to overcome his reticence and go to Biaggi. As in The Erasers, events in the world become conflated with tricks of the mind: he imagines Biaggi to die in a similar fashion to the cat, garrotted, and we are invited to speculate with the narrator about who would do this – him? The hotel owner? Why? Then, just as he becomes certain that Biaggi has perished, doubt is raised: is he the driver of the ominous Mercedes that keeps appearing outside his house? The narrator finally has to break into Biaggi’s house in search of answers, but the elements that might provide them – the answering machine, the man raking the garden outside – refuse to yield any certainty about the people at the hotel or the fate of Biaggi.

We learn little about the narrator – all Toussaint offers is that he is 33 and has a small son – so it’s hard for the reader to second-guess what brings him closer to Biaggi. With little dialogue and no direct speech, the movement of people in hotel rooms, the opening of their doors and the accumulation of small incidences, such as the narrator losing one of the stolen letters to the sea and then finding, on returning the other three to Biaggi’s home that those he left have been removed, become ever more significant in determining Biaggi’s whereabouts.

Unusually for detective fiction, Toussaint tends to change mood more than pace. Divided into three parts, the text broken into short blocks rather than chapters, the second ends optimistically: the cat and the lost letter are gone from the harbour, the others have been returned (seemingly without Biaggi noticing) and the narrator realises that his story has gone full circle, raising hope of a reconciliation. The third section opens in the hotel with one of the father-son moments that gives Reticence an engaging tenderness, the narrator watching his child displace water in the bath with a toothbrush glass ‘to see the effect it produced’, wryly contemplating the ‘new pharmaceutical experiments’ that his son conducts each bath time. Then, gradually, we are eased back into the espionage story, the level of intrigue rising until it reaches a non-conclusion, with only the question of the cat’s death being answered.

As the narrator prefers to wander rather than unravel the plot, it is Toussaint’s prose, alternately pragmatic and poetic, that maintains the interest. Recalling Toussaint’s strongest influence, Robbe-Grillet, the locations are described in extensive detail, such as this on the harbour: ‘The sea was still very dark, with hardly a ripple right out to the horizon, and, as the sun rose behind the mountain, slowly lighting up the far side, which was now topped by a distant halo of light, the boats swaying softly in the port started to take on hints of russet and orange, while the contours of the surrounding docks, fishing nets, rocks, trees and flowers slowly shook off the bluish imprint of the night.’

As in classic post-war French texts critically grouped under the ‘nouveau roman’ banner – The Voyeur by Robbe-Grillet, The Inquisitory by Robert Pinget or The Flanders Road by Claude Simon – observations of places and events become enmeshed with the narrator’s mental speculation, Toussaint’s winding paragraphs shifting almost imperceptibly from the imagined to the real, the mundane to the metaphysical. It is a style that he has continued to evolve, later winning the Prix Médicis for Fuir (Running Away) and the Prix Décembre for La Vérité sur Marie (The Truth about Marie) as he established himself as one of contemporary French literature’s most distinctive voices, turning the existential tradition into something into something lighter, warmer and ultimately more open.

 

Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

Troy: Fall of a City. Photo: BBC
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In Troy: Fall of a City, all the men look as if they’re in a Calvin Klein ad

Rachel Cooke reviews Troy and 24 Hours in Police Custody.

In Troy: Fall of a City (BBC One, 9.10pm, 17 February) pretty much all the men look as if they’re appearing in a new Calvin Klein ad. The exception is King Priam (David Threlfall) who, perhaps to suggest his wisdom, favours a kind of gap year uniform: long beads, mirror-work blouses and, if his hair hasn’t been washed for a few days, a head scarf.

Muscly and sweaty and always having hot sex – usually in beds with the Homeric version of high-thread-count sheets, over which some lackey cast rose petals during turn-down service – these Trojan guys really are a ton of fun: as good at conversation as at bringing Spartan queens to orgasm.

Take Paris (Louis Hunter), a character particularly suggestive of the strong whiff of Obsession. Dispatched by his father Priam to the court of King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong) and his gorgeous, pouting wife, Helen (Bella Dayne, who is going to launch a thousand ships dressed in a high-necked feathered ensemble that brings to mind John Galliano in his pomp), he was certainly ready with the important questions. “How did you two get together?” he enquired, in the same tone you or I might ask friends about Tinder or Guardian Soulmates.

The BBC has begged journalists writing about Troy: Fall of a City to avoid spoilers; apparently, we must think of those coming to these myths “for the first time”. But I’m going to take a chance and assume that New Statesman readers are already well aware that Paris’s diplomatic mission to Sparta is soon to end in disaster, his having pinched Helen right from under Menelaus’s nose. I mean, even I know a bit about the Trojan War, and I went to a comprehensive school where the six embattled souls who wanted to learn Latin had to do so on a landing in their own time (like Menelaus, they knew all about public humiliation). Though in any case, surely Cassandra’s (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) weird hissy fits pretty much give the game away. Paris has only to lift his chiton (that’s a kind of tunic – and yes, I did have to Google it) for his sister to begin shaking like a leaf.

Troy’s writer David Farr (The Night Manager) has said that in this series he is keen to explore the other side of Paris and Helen; he regards their story as one of passion and the breaking of conventions, seeing Helen as a bolter rather than as the victim of an
abduction. I guess this is fair enough: there are several versions of this narrative on which to draw. But if only he had not made it all seem so tediously 21st century.

Helen’s marital unhappiness, for instance, is signalled by her fondness for smoking the ancient Greek equivalent of Valium, as if she was a housewife rather than a queen; and when Paris begs her to leave Menelaus, he speaks not of love or even of desire, but of her freedom, her right to fulfilment. The dialogue is so richly silted with self-help banalities, we might as well be watching a Meghan and Harry biopic as a drama inspired by the greatest of all epic poems. There’s also something exceedingly creepy about its retro, soft-porny direction (by Owen Harris); every time Helen takes a shower, you half expect her to whip out a Flake.

In the opening episode of the shot-in-real-time documentary series 24 Hours in Police Custody (Channel 4, 9pm, 19 February) the perpetrator of the crime – a man was being blackmailed for having visited a prostitute – turned out not only to be a copper, but (get this!) one of the officers on the surveillance team watching the spot where £1,000 had been left as bait. Naturally, this made for astonishing viewing; as DC Gareth Suffling was arrested, I thought at first a mistake had been made. But the real fascination of it for me lay in the fact that as a televisual coup, it was born less of serendipity than of the good and wholly transparent relationship forged between the producers and Bedfordshire Police (the series has been running since 2014). What it proved, quite brilliantly, is that hard-won trust and patience – neither of which are very fashionable qualities in journalism these days – can in the end deliver better results than what we might call a hit and run. Bide your time, programme makers, and the big reveal will be yours. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia