It is my pleasure today to present an extended interview with J. Robert Janes, author of the acclaimed St-Cyr and Kohler series set in occupied France during World War II. The Wall Street Journal called the series “engrossing,” and Publishers Weekly felt that it “convincingly documents the wartime background of Nazi-occupied.” Jean-Louis St-Cyr is a widower, a inspector of the French Sûreté, and is partnered in crime detection with Bavarian Detektiv Inspektor Hermann Kohler. The pair set out together first in the 1992 Mayhem, and have been at it ever since, though there was a decade-long hiatus from 2002 to 2012. Janes had not quit writing during that time; far from it. He penned three further novels in the series as well as several young adult works, but it was not until 2012 that he struck a new publishing deal with Otto Penzler of Mysterious Press and his Open Road Media partners: they published Janes’ entire backlist in e-book, and contracted for future titles in the series as paperback and e-book originals.
Thus, St-Cyr and Kohler took the stage once again in the 2012 title, Bellringer, and the critics were happy to have them back again. “St-Cyr and Kohler [have] returned in an enthralling, character-propelled new police procedural,” declared Kirkus Reviews, while Publishers Weekly noted: “The combined ingenuity of St. Cyr and Kohler, the harsh realities of the occupation, and an array of intriguing characters will keep readers turning the pages.” Janes reprises the duo in the 2013 Tapestry and in the fifteenth in the series, Carnival, due out next month.
So, without further ado, welcome to Scene of the Crime, Bob. Please tell us about your long-running series. Could you give us a sense of your protagonists and of Paris and all of France in the early 1940s?
Jean-Louis St-Cyr, of the Sûreté Nationale, and his partner, Hermann Kohler, of the Gestapo’s Kripo, its Kriminalpolizei, are now all but through their sixteenth investigation. What this means, in very simple terms, is that for a great deal of the past twenty-four years I have been living with and through those two. Some of the books took longer than others–one learns one’s history, et cetera, as one goes along. Some stories also demand more than others. But the question is, of course, not just why is it that I am continually drawn to German-Occupied France during the Second World War, but why, after perhaps a year and a half or two on one book, do I suddenly come to a point where I’m excited about the next one? I use one-word titles throughout the series and often these come to me while I’m still writing another, and it is then, I’m certain, that the subconscious has patiently been working on this “next one”.
France is, of course, a remarkably beautiful and intelligent country. There are huge differences from region to region, each exhibiting its own patois, character and substance. It’s food, too, and not just the wine. All of these regions have their history, character and substance, and of course, I write historical novels that just happen to be mysteries (or vice versa), yet still, what is it that drives me to do this–me who is still, after all, and was, a mining engineer, a geologist, university lecturer, research scientist, high school teacher–all that sort of baggage that folks carry as they get on in life?
First let me state that what happened during the Occupation of France could have happened anywhere and definitely did, there being degrees of the extreme. Additionally, the books are not anti-French in the slightest. French readers and professors have all stressed this. Louis Malle, the great French film director, did tell me he appreciated and understood what I was up to and wished me well, but warned me that in France, and with the French, I would have a very hard time. Generally the French don’t want to deal with the Occupation, except in very couched terms, and Malle was only too aware of this. But I was to get on with it anyways.
So, first a difficult time and country to choose if one wanted the locals to appreciate and help with what I was up to; secondly, a good Gestapo, as a partner–ah mon Dieu, how could I have chosen to do such a thing too? Well, I didn’t. I more or less fell into it when at the end of The Hunting Ground, a thriller about Lily de St-Germain, née Hollis–it has a very bad Sûreté–I set my pencil down and asked myself, Hey, what about a good Sûreté in all of this? Well, he would have to have a German overseer like everything else, but I’d make Hermann only a Detektiv Inspektor; Jean-Louis would be a Chief Inspector.
You’ve been at this series a long time. Do you ever have any difficulties coming up with new plot lines?
I wrote Mayhem, the first, in seven months back in 1990–that’s the one Louis Malle very kindly read when published in1992. Carousel took about ten months, and by then Constable and Company had “bought” the series. And then, you ask? Well, once you start a series you had better keep on doing it and I did, sometimes two in one year, and I still am. And yes, they don’t get easier only harder and harder, and of course I know German-Occupied France probably as well as anyone can, though–and this is what drives me, too–I am still finding things that excite me.
Human frailties are many, and when you have a situation where dishonesty is officially sanctioned, the setting is ripe for a myriad of possibilities. Not just avarice, lust, passion or hatred, but memories that step further back in time until the present situation allows release in vengeance. Informing on your neighbour, the shopkeeper, the priest, whatever, was not only engendered but rewarded. Whispers were important. Inflation was rampant, food shortages the norm, clothing too, and the marché noir, the black market, rife and with roots and rootlets everywhere, the BOFs, les beurre, oeufs et fromage boys who were dominated not only by the pègre, the underworld, but by the brass, the big shots, the Bonzen und Oberbonzen from the Reich and additionally the captains of French industry, commerce and lots else. Les hautes aussi et la bourgeiosie aisée et la petite bourgeoisie.
All were in on it, from the little guy–the schoolboy or schoolgirl–right to the teacher or the mother, the father being in the Reich as a prisoner of war. But remember that living in and through the 1930s was very much still a part of everything. Most homes didn’t have the things we have today. There was virtually no refrigeration for most households. Washing machines were things whose photos and descriptions were gazed at longingly or curiously in the magazines and newspapers used in the communal outhouse where twenty or thirty flats would share the same outdoor “crapper” or the toilet down the hall.
Bathtubs for most meant going to the local bathhouse where most were extremely conscious of the cost: a face cloth was this much, a towel that–if you hadn’t brought your own, the spruce needles, too, and the sand, soap being rather scarce and the ersatz terribly hard on the skin and eyes. And you did not ever take longer than you had paid for ahead of time or the concierge ou la propriétaire would unlock the door and chase you out. Five francs was a lot of money in those days, ten a fortune to some, the franc at roughly 100 to the U.S. dollar on the official exchange if you could get the dollars; 140 or 160 on the black bourse; 200 to the pound sterling on the official as well. But you had to be careful because there were all those informants out there, those “watchers”, gestapistes français as well, and if they thought you had a lot of cash to exchange, you could very well lose it and end up in the Seine, the Loire, the Rhône or any of the many others.
Now add in the blackout and the streets, as in Paris, Lyon or Bordeaux, particularly when the whole country was Occupied–streets that were so dark one had to feel one’s way or use a pinch-the-cat pocket torch which you pumped to life with the thumb. So you have, if you like, a nation of night-dwellers but don’t ever get caught. A week cleaning toilets in the local commissariat, and by 1943, two years forced labour in the Reich.
Now add in the curfew which, though it varied, generally settled at from midnight to 5.00 a.m. but don’t forget that Hitler put France on Central European time and would later add in an hour in winter of daylight saving, in summer two. So in Paris and other cities and towns public transport–the métro’s last trains in Paris, for instance, began their final run at 10.00 p.m. and you either missed it and stayed the night in the cabaret or whatever, or you walked and took your chances.
And please don’t ever forget that there were virtually no private automobiles, that where there had been 350,000 of them in Paris in 1939, there were now 4,500, and most of those were driven by the Occupier.
Point being, the possibilities are endless, and there’s the history, too, of each region. In Stonekiller, Madame Ernestine Fillioux was not just gathering mushrooms in the Dordogne, she was killed and partially butchered with a hand axe and that leads us to Lascaux and the cave artwork there, but also to Heinrich Himmler who had a passion for trying to prove the Third Reich had a historic right to be in France and to have conquered it.
And in Dollmaker there’s not just a U-boat captain-suspect and his family’s doll-making history, there’s the Quiberon Penninsula and its tumuli and standing stones that go back thousands of years and predate Gallic times. Yet the RAF are bombing the hell out of Lorient as they try to do the impossible and destroy its submarine pens.
You see, I take my two detectives into and out of Paris, so that we experience these very different regions during the Occupation. Yet each has such a rich and varied nature and history I can pluck things here and there and put them all to good use. And I don’t just like and enjoy good paintings, food, fabrics and all the rest, I live them because my two guys do. Perfumes, of course, silks and satins too, and parachute silk that ends up as female underwear thus damning the victim for having been up to more than one kind of mischief, namely the résistance.
Throughout, my two detectives are honest cops who will point the finger of truth wherever it belongs and that can mean at the Occupier. They’re very different men but have many things in common, including a firm belief that war, as they had experienced it in the Great War, is not only wrong but crazy. An insanity that welds them as does their penchant for being honest in such an age of officially-sanctioned crime.
Though they can’t advise me and maybe wish they could, I have always seen their series as the trajectory of an artillery shell–a parabolic curve from start to finish with its zenith from December 1942 to February 1943 and that great turning point, the Wehrmacht’s defeat at Stalingrad. Mayhem to Bellringer, Carnival and Tapestry are all at that zenith. In the 16th, they are now in October 1943 and heading towards that up-against-the-post ending, since St-Cyr works with one of the Occupier and must be a collabo’ to many résistants, and Kohler is and was of that Occupier. Hence I now am busy fleshing out both the beginning and the end of that trajectory which will culminate in the so-called “battle for Paris” in August 1944.
Are there any writers who inspire you? Any favorite authors?
Sometimes I’m asked who are my favourite writers and while I know it may seem wrong to some, let me state emphatically that when I started writing adult fiction way back in 1980 with The Toy Shop, I stopped reading that of others. Certainly I know artists and such study the work of others, but here’s the point: I think, live and work at story all the time. It never leaves me. And I know myself. I’d be developing plot and character only to read something quite different and maybe pick up something that would then intrude what I was on about, and I wouldn’t realize this until I’d written pages and pages. For the same reason, I seldom attend the Shaw Theatre, for if the acting is good, so is my concentration, and of course I love the things I’ve seen, but that’s not the point. With film, however, there is that little bit of distance I need, and I do like nothing better than to watch a really good film. Maybe I do pick up things there. I don’t really know, but when I write I am, in a sense, in a film and doing all those many, many things one has to do to make it all live.
But I did have favourites, of course, and their books are still on my shelves along with everything else and like old friends. And yes, occasionally I touch them and read an intro paragraph or two, just to see how I’m doing or whatever. And I did break this rule once to read Stieg Larrson’s trio. This was quite by accident. Neighbour Margo loved mysteries, and to help her stay in her house I would take out her garbage. She had left Stieg’s first on a table and it had started to rain, so I grabbed it to take it in to her and I read that first page. Right away I knew he was a journalist. It just hits you so hard, and it’s sad he had to step off this planet and leave such a success behind. I read that first one in two days and that must, I think, say something.
If you could live anywhere else, where would it be?
I’ve my garden, my workroom, and my walks up the Lower Niagara River. Where else could I find those? Sure I’d like the nearness to things and the research libraries they have in London, the museums and galleries too, the closeness to France and Germany, all that sort of thing. But I’m here in Niagara and have been a full-time writer for the past forty-four years.
What’s next for St-Cyr and Kohler?
Well, what’s next for St-Cyr and Kohler? Carnival, the 15th, is due to be published this May and it takes St-Cyr and Kohler to Alsace where St-Cyr, being French, has no jurisdiction and is, indeed, a foreigner. Even speaking French is verboten. Two apparent suicides bring them to a work camp, a factory, and finally to a Konzentrationslager, but mostly to a Karneval that was left behind when the Blitzkrieg struck. Booths, shies, the Ferris wheel, et cetera, are all in their states of ruin, and it is here that one of the suicides occurred, the other being in that rayon factory.
The 16th sees them back in Paris but in October 1943, the time period having been moved ahead. Unfortunately so many things have intruded of late, I am still all but on that final page and wondering if I will ever finish it–a remarkable story, that’s for sure. Has to be, doesn’t it? But if you write as I do and have, you will come to that truest of writer’s points. You will come to hate the book you’ve been writing until, that is, you set that pencil down as I do, or stop typing. Then there’s the joy, one hopes, of course, of reading it all through and working on it. That’s when I can finally relax and ask myself, Who was it that wrote this? Myself or someone only my subconscious knows?
Bob, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information, see the home page of J. Robert Janes.
Also see J. Kingston Pierce’s excellent interview at the Rap Sheet.
St. Cyr and Kohler series:
1. Mayhem (1992)
2. Carousel (1992)
3. Kaleidoscope (1993)
4. Salamander (1994
5. Mannequin (1994)
6. Sandman (1994)
7. Stonekiller (1995)
8. Dollmaker (1995)
9. Gypsy (1997)
10. Madrigal (1999)
11. Beekeeper (2001)
12. Flykiller (2002)
13. Bellringer (2012)
14. Tapestry (2013)
15. Carnival (2014)