Fresh Meat: Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez

Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez
Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez
Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez is a medical thriller featuring detective Lucie Hennebelle (available August 16, 2012).

Beleaguered detective and single mom Lucie Hennebelle has just about enough on her plate with one daughter in the hospital and another off at summer camp for the first time when she receives a panicked call from an estranged ex-lover. Ludovic, a diehard cinema buff, has developed a case of hysterical blindness after watching an extremely rare and violent film from the 1950s. Lucie begins an investigation into this strange movie that quickly reveals itself to be much more than meets the eye—literally. Embedded within the film are layers of subliminal images that are so unspeakably violent and heinous that Lucie realizes she must get to the bottom of it—especially when nearly everyone who comes into contact with the film turns up dead.

Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez is the English translationof Le Syndrome[E], a fast-paced medical/scientific thriller that has already been optioned by Paramount Pictures for a possible movie.  It’s the first translation of Thilliez’s work, but as the book is the first in a series, it may not be the last—the detective characters are rounded enough that they could easily support a long run. I felt that the novel did have a movie-like structure, with strong visuals and a couple of interesting points of view, detectives who have problems in their lives as well as the problems presented in the plot.

The reason I chose to read Syndrome E is the scientific mystery, concerning an unidentified experimental silent film that gets the story going.  The first point of view character is a collector of film rarities, who has a chance to score some serious bargains with a little sneaky dealing at an estate sale. He chooses an unlabeled canister in the hope that it will contain something special, and it does; but the special features turn out to be harmful.

“There is no tumor, Lucie. It’s because of the film.”

“What film?”

“The one with the little white circle. The one I found yesterday at a collector’s. It was . . .” Lucie noticed his fingers clutching the sheets. “It was weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Weird enough to make me lose my sight, for Christ’s sake! . . . Take the [card] with the name Claude Poignet. He restores old films, and I want you to bring him the reel. I want him to look it over, all right? I want to know where that footage comes from.”

To me, the mystery of the film, and how it might have caused hysterical blindness, was even more enticing than the more human aspects of the plot.  Why did the film affect one person and not another? Was the effect intentional? Who had made the film, when, and why? Who are the people starring in the film? And how does it link up with the other mystery in the plot, a mass grave with strangely mutilated bodies?

“All men—you’ll get all that from the forensic anthropologist. Four of them in pieces . . .”

“And the fifth?”

. . . “Also male, fairly well preserved. Comparatively speaking. With the other bodies above and below, it must have created a kind of insulating layer.”

“Any body bags or special wrapping around the bodies?”

“No. No clothes either. They were completely naked. The guy who was better preserved had been . . . had scrape marks over part of his body. Arms, chest. Shit, I saw it with my own eyes . . . He was like a peeled orange. You can’t imagine.”

Actually, he could. He sighed.

Meanwhile, an expert in old film examines the reel, giving Lucie many answers, but even more questions; the mystery becomes even more intriguing, not less so.

“Is that all we can get out of this film?”

Claude hesitated. “No. I think it’s a vehicle for something else. For starters, why fifty frames a second? And what’s the point of that white circle in the upper right? It’s present on every frame. On top of which”—he shook his head, lips pinched—“there are those areas of fog, parts of the screen that are very dark, that omnipresent dullness, like a kind of film over the lens. The cameraman seems to be playing with contrast, light, things unsaid. I felt the same anxiety as you when I watched this. The porno images, or even the ones of the woman being tortured, aren’t enough to create such a powerful unease . . .”

If you like puzzles, and the sort of thriller where the mysteries keep coming, and interesting detectivesSyndrome E might be a good choice for your summer reading! At the least, when the movie comes out you’ll be ahead of the game.

See more coverage of new releases in our Fresh Meat series.

Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories.  Her World War I-set Spice Brief, “Under Her Uniform,” is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress.  Follow her on Twitter:  @victoriajanssen or find out more at

Read all posts by Victoria Janssen for Criminal Element.

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