The classic procedural meets cutting edge science in this huge international bestseller
Already a runaway bestseller in France, Syndrome E tells the story of beleaguered detective Lucie Hennebelle, whose old friend has developed a case of spontaneous blindness after watching an extremely rare—and violent—film from the 1950s. Embedded in the film are subliminal images so unspeakably heinous that Lucie realizes she must get to the bottom of it—especially when nearly everyone who comes into contact with the film starts turning up dead.
Enlisting the help of Inspector Franck Sharko—a brooding, broken analyst for the Paris police who is exploring the film’s connection to five murdered men left in the woods, Lucie begins to strip away the layers of what is perhaps the most disturbing and powerful film ever made. Soon Sharko and Lucie find themselves mired in a darkness that spreads across politics, religion, science, and art while stretching from France to Canada, Egypt to Rwanda, and beyond. And just who is responsible for this darkness will blow readers minds, as Syndrome E forces them to consider: what if the earliest and most brilliant advances and discoveries of neuroscience were not used for good—but for evil.
With this taut U.S. debut, Thilliez explores the origins of violence through cutting-edge and popular science in a breakneck thriller rich with shocking plot twists and profound questions about the nature of humanity.
“Careful on that. That’s where my father fell and fractured his skull. I mean, really, climbing up there at eighty-two . . .”
Ludovic paused an instant, then rushed forward. He thought of the old man, so passionate about his films that he’d died for them. He climbed as high as he could and continued shopping. Behind The KremlinLetter, on a hidden shelf, he discovered a black canister with no label. Balancing on the ladder, Ludovic picked it up. Inside was what looked like a short, since the film took up only part of the reel. Ten or twenty minutes’ projection time, tops. Probably a lost film, a unique specimen that the owner had never managed to identify. Ludovic grabbed it up, climbed down, and added it to the stack of nine cult films he’d already chosen. Anonymous reels like this always added spice to the screenings.
He turned around, playing it cool, but his pulse was pounding.
“I’m afraid most of your movies aren’t worth a whole lot. Pretty standard stuff. And besides, can you smell that odor?”
“Vinegar. The films have been affected by vinegar syndrome. They’ll be worthless before long.”
The young man leaned forward and sniffed.
“You sure about that?”
“Absolutely. I’m willing to take these ten off your hands. Shall we say thirty-five euros apiece?”
“All right . . .”
Ludovic wrote out a check for four hundred euros. As he was pulling away from the curb, he noticed a car with French plates looking for a parking spot.
No doubt another collector—already.
Ludovic emerged from his home projection booth and sat down, alone with a can of beer, in one of the twelve fifties-style leatherette seats that he’d scavenged when they closed the Rex: his own private movie theater. He’d created an authentic auditorium for himself in the basement of his house, which he called his “mini-cinema.” Fold-up seats, stage, pearlescent screen, Heurtier Tri-Film projector: he had it all. At the age of forty-two, the only thing he was missing was a partner, someone to squeeze close while watching Gone with the Wind in the original English. But for the moment, those lousy dating sites had yielded only one-night stands or washouts.
It was nearly three in the morning. Saturated with images of war and espionage, he decided to round out his marathon screening with the unidentified, and incredibly well-preserved, short feature. It must have been a copy. These unlabeled films sometimes turned out to be veritable treasures or, if the gods were really smiling, lost works by famous filmmakers like Méliès, Welles, or Chaplin. The collector in him loved to fantasize about such things. When Ludovic unspooled the leader to wind the film into the projector, he saw that the strip was marked 50 frames per second. That was unusual: normally it was twenty-four per second, more than sufficient to give the illusion of movement. Still, he adjusted the shutter speed to the recommended setting. No point watching it in slow motion.
Within seconds, the whiteness of the screen yielded to a dark, clouded image, with no title or credits. A white circle appeared in the upper right corner. Ludovic wondered at first if it was a flaw in the print, as oft en happened with those old reels. Thee film began.
Ludovic fell heavily as he ran upstairs.
He couldn’t see a thing, not even with the lights on.
He was completely blind.
Praise for Syndrome E:
“Compulsively readable . . . An eerie psychological mystery with a truly stunning resolution.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“A crackerjack story that most readers will devour in one sitting . . . Spare evocative prose propels French author Thilliez’s stellar U.S. debut.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Blending science and neurology into the intrigue of his excellent thriller, Thilliez takes us into the maze of the human brain, with all the evils it can unleash.” —Elle (Paris)
“With a fascinating blend of noir procedural, espionage flavor, and an eerie set up that makes the video from The Ring seem harmless, it is no surprise that Syndrome E has already been an international sensation. Beneath its dazzling, byzantine plot are menacing questions of what lurks at the intersection between the new and chilling capabilities of neuroscience and the ancient but more-chilling capabilities of human evil.” —Michael Koryta, New York Times–bestselling author of The Prophet and Tonight I Said Goodbye
“This terrific French thriller . . . boasts distinctive characters you want to spend time with, a lively plot, evocative settings, fun film references and, icing on the cake, an enjoyable offbeat romance. Having achieved bestseller status in Europe, Thilliez is poised to do the same in the U.S.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Detective Lucie Henebelle is an overwhelmed single mother who doesn’t need more trouble. Then she gets the call from a friend who has gone blind after watching an obscure film embedded with heinous images. It’s her colleague, a profiler for the Paris police department, who makes the connection between the movie and the five men murdered at a construction site. Twisty neuroscience! Who can resist?” —New YorkDaily News
“A tour de force . . . A captivating plot that keeps the reader in his seat until the final moments.” —Le Monde Magazine
A Conversation with Franck Thilliez, author of Syndrome E
Where did the idea for Syndrome E come from? Did the orphans of Duplessis really exist?
I was researching the history of psychiatry for another book, and by chance, I came across the incredible story of the Canadian orphans of Duplessis, who, although completely sane, had been placed in psychiatric hospitals in the 1950s—for financial gain—to the hospitals.
As a result of being treated as mentally ill, many of the orphans became troubled and difficult teens and adults, who suffered from depression and other mental illness.
I built my detective story around this terrible incident that went on for years and years.
What is Syndrome E?
It is the transformation of groups of previously non-violent individuals (usually men) into murderers. Symptoms include acts of violence, obsession with a set of aggressive beliefs (often directed against a minority group), desensitization to violence, and an extremely hostile group think.
Your two main characters who lead the investigation, are very different. What were the challenges in creating them as a collaborative pair?
It was not easy. Franck Sharko is a high-ranking inspector, who works in one of the most famous police departments in Paris. He is about 50 years old, and not very open to others, since he lost his wife and daughter in a terrible accident. Lucie Hennebelle, is a single mother with twin daughters, who is a lower-ranking official, in a more obscure police department.
Both are smart and work hard, sometimes too hard. Franck is much more experienced than Lucie, and, at first, it is difficult for him to realize that someone like her could have valuable insight into a crime. They couldn’t be more different from one another, and bringing them together created real drama and tension.
One of the major themes in your book is the power of images—the ones we are aware of, and the ones that hit our brains without us even knowing it. With that in mind, do you think that we ever have true freedom of choice, or are we always influenced in some way?
Many studies have been done about subliminal imaging, where a flicker of an image—one of such short duration that your conscious mind doesn’t even register what it has seen—is perceived by your brain.
From the 1950s onward, the secret services of both the Soviet Union and the United States have conducted research to see if the mind could be controlled. For example, they forced subjects to watch violent images for hours or days to determine how they would react as a result of these stimuli. Some of the researchers were indeed persuaded that so-called “brainwashing” was possible.
Although we might be tempted to think that such experiments are no longer being conducted, just look at the concept of “neuromarketing,” where advertisers study the impact of advertising on the brains of consumers, and tailor their ads so that consumers are strongly persuaded to buy products or services. Isn’t this really an attempt to control people’s minds?
Your novel isn’t just a thriller . . . it’s a glimpse of a bit of little-known history. Do you think that a thriller can open the eyes of the reader?
In a way. I think the engine of all crime novels is failure—be it social, political, or even neurological. Of course using this failure as a starting point gives the author the permission to express himself on subjects that are important to him. Not all authors have the same sensibilities and interests, of course. That is what creates the extraordinary diversity in the thriller genre.
I love creating stories on scientific or medical topics. I am fascinated with what goes on in the human mind, and finding a way to communicate what I have learned to the reader. Often my readers have assumed that I am a physician, neurologist, or medical examiner, which shows that I am succeeding in my efforts to share what I have learned.
It seems to me that a good thriller has a good story with strong and memorable characters. I would also say that the novel should constantly ask the reader questions, even as it entertains. If a reader leaves the book with the feeling of having had a great time of anguish and questioning our society, then I, as the author, have done my job well.
The power of subliminal images in the movies has been a much debated subject for decades. Why did you decide to write this?
There are two main reasons: First of all, I am fascinated with learning how the brain works. How does this fantastic organ transform the signals it receives into coherent messages. How does memory work? How does mental illness appear? Today, we live in a world where images—particularly violent images—are everywhere. They are on TV, the Internet, and on video games. Even young children have access to them. So I thought that it was important to deal with this aspect of violence in the book. And it is more impressive and more dangerous if those images are hidden inside other images which are not particularly violent. Subliminal film was the perfect way to prove my point.
The second reason I liked the idea of subliminal messaging, is that I thought it was an original way to begin a book. Think of it—a strange, anonymous film makes a viewer go inexplicably blind! I thought that idea had great dramatic possibilities.
Are there any historical facts in this novel? If so, how did you discover them?
In addition to the governmental experimentation that went on in the 1950s, there are many other historical and scientific facts that are part of the novel, like the orphans of Duplessis.
The issues around which I built the novel are so strange and nearly incredible, that some readers cannot believe that they are true. They are very surprised when I tell them that about 80% of the novel is based on fact!
My historical research can take up to two to three months, plus three more months just to understand what I have uncovered. In a prior book, about mental illness, I researched psychiatry in both documents and books. That is when I discovered the awful things that happened to those children in Canada. I put the research in the back of my head, to save it for a future novel. Syndrome E is that novel.
Is science and the dark side of science generally a source of ideas for you?
Absolutely. I love science. I studied physics, chemistry, and math in school. I really think that science is making wonderful advances all the time that will truly benefit humanity. But we must be very careful, too, because science can be dangerous in the wrong hands. I am particularly concerned about cloning and the possibility of genetic mutations.
For me, science is a double-edged sword that can be explored in thrillers. In my novels, I try to understand, in a scientific way, how someone could kill another person. I wonder what happens in the brain when a person commits a murder. What is behind the most violent act that one person can do to another.
How did you start writing?
When I was younger, I was a huge fan of the films, Seven and The Silence of the Lambs, as well has the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and anything with vampires in it. I also read many Stephen King books. When I was 29, I came up with an idea that was a mix of imagination, film and book influences, and scary images. I became so obsessed, that I knew I had to write it. So I sat down at my computer and began to write my first novel. That was nine years ago.
Tell us a little about your writing process.
When I was working a nine-to-five job, I wrote whenever I had the time, usually nights, weekends, and holidays. Which was difficult. But about four years ago, I quit my job as an engineer, and began writing full-time. I keep the same hours I had then, getting up at 8:00 in the morning, and working until about 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.
It takes me about one year to write a novel. I outline the plot in three to four months, do three months of research, which means interviewing experts, policemen, and doctors. By that time, I know exactly where I am going with the story. And then I do about four months of pure writing.
The end of Syndrome E is also a cliffhanger. Have you already written the sequel? And if so, when will be able to read it in the U.S?
Yes, I have written the sequel. It has already been published in France, and it is called, Gataca. The French title refers to the way that DNA is sequenced. It is also a story about violence, but this time, I am pulling the far reaches of time into today, and asking how is violence inherited from humans living 20,000 years ago? Is violence genetic or cultural? And, is violence necessary to survive?
Franck Thilliez is the author of numerous bestselling novels in his native France. Syndrome E is the first of his novels to be published in the United States. He lives outside of Lille.
Mark Polizzotti is the translator of more than thirty books from the French. His articles and reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Nation. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.