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.