Investigate Thyself: Missing Person by France’s Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person focuses on a private detective, introduced as Guy Roland, who investigates himself. The location is Paris; the time period, the mid-1960s. I say “introduced as Guy Roland,” because from page one of this novel, we comprehend that we are dealing with a detective narrator with little sense of his own identity. “I am nothing,” is how the book starts. “Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop…”

The head of the Agency he works for, a man named Hutte, is retiring. The Agency is closing. But Hutte is keeping the lease on the apartment where the Agency operates, which means that all the “street-and-trade directories and year books of all kinds going back fifty years” will remain there. Hutte, who brought Roland into the Agency eight years ago, who taught him how to be a private investigator, has described these volumes as “the essential tools of the trade”, objects he’d never discard. Roland asks about them, and when Hutte asks Roland what he intends to do with himself, Roland says that he’s following something up. You think that he’s talking about a case that needs closing and that he wants access to the volumes for his work, but then he tells Hutte what he’s really talking about: “My past.” Hutte understands – “I always thought that one day you’d try to find your past again.” – and gives him a key for free use of the premises while’s he off to retire in Nice. Though Hutte asks him whether finding his past will be worth it, he does nothing to dissuade Roland from beginning his stated quest; he, too, it seems, suffers from a strange amnesia.

At some point, both these men lost contact with a whole part of their lives, and as Roland will eventually suggest, the memory blur dates back to World War II. What happened then to trigger the amnesia? Beyond the fact of the war itself, was there a shared trauma? Why doesn’t Roland know his real name or anything about his life before Hutte took him under his wing and even secured a “legal identity record” for him? At that time, Roland was living in a fog, lost in his amnesia. Hutte gave him a direction and a job. But with the closing of the Agency, Roland is on his own again, and, in essence, he has decided to hire himself to investigate the mystery of his own existence. Missing Person has the succinct prose, clipped dialogue, and moody first person narration of many a private eye novel, but from the first chapter, we get the impression that this book is not going to take us through the usual private eye environment.

At first, without question, Roland proceeds like a typical detective. Pursuing information, he sets up a meeting with a man he feels can help him. But when Roland tells us that he needs a cognac to calm himself merely to make a phone call, that the phone call has brought sweat pouring out of his temples, we know we’re not dealing with an investigator who exudes the strength of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. It's evident also that absurdity will mark an aspect of his quest; he’s a detective who doesn’t know himself and knows even less about who he is interviewing:

“I’ve come to the conclusion that you must have been a friend of someone I used to see a lot of at one time…But who?”

He shook his head.

“You can’t give me a clue?” he asked.


“Why not?”

“I don’t remember.”

He thought I was joking…

Roland is a man in search of a history, and his nebulous sense of self leads him to keep changing his thoughts on who he is and where he comes from. Early in his investigation, he has reason to believe he was once Howard De Luz, a Frenchman from a rich family, and he learns that this De Luz lived an idle life, becoming associated with a silent film star. He likes the idea:

Howard de Luz. It might be my own name. Howard de Luz. Yes, the sound of it stirred something in me, something as fleeting as moonlight passing over some object. If I was this Howard de Luz, I had shown a certain originality in my life style, since among so many more reputable and absorbing professions, I had chosen that of being John Gilbert’s confidant.

Through the novel, Roland will assume and shed roles in a way more reminiscent of a criminal than a detective, his search for himself taking a byzantine route through the streets, bars, alleys, and hotels of Paris. Despite his lack of self-confidence, he continues to interview people. One lead, one thread, leads to another. People recognize him. They refer to events they say he participated in, friends he supposedly knew. And Roland, despite his mental fog, goes with the flow. After being Howard De Luz, he discovers new information that convinces him of a “change in my circumstances.” He’s no longer the descendent of a prominent wealthy French family, but a “South American whose trail would be infinitely harder to pick up.” Still later, he learns that he may have been named Pedro McAvoy, who worked in Paris circa 1940 in the Dominican Republic’s embassy. However, even then, he thinks the Pedro identity may have been a counterfeit one to help him escape France with his wife Denise. It seems that Pedro (meaning himself) was Jewish, and on this account, he and Denise fled France for Switzerland via the Alps. Records indicate that Denise vanished while making this secret crossing in 1943, and nothing has been heard of Pedro McAvoy or – another possible identity for him – Pedro Stern, aka Jimmy Stern, since. 

He has a vague memory of all this; he's pretty sure something happened in the winter mountains; the shady transporters he and Denise hired to help them escape may have abducted her during the trip and left him for dead in the snow. So, besides being detective and client in the present, Roland may have been a victim in the past, as well as a witness to the crime that altered his life. Everything clear? Obviously, we're on slippery footing with Patrick Modiano, and as you work through Missing Person, you start to suspect that his use of familiar detective fiction tropes, his skill at establishing atmosphere and suspense, may not lead to familiar detective-fiction closure.

What's fascinating is how Modiano plays with the concept of detective work as an act of imagination. From Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, through Georges Simenon’s Maigret, to hardboiled characters like Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, detectives have always solved cases by making connections others don’t see.  From these connections come narratives the detectives build.  In a book filled with contradictory narratives, many of them false, incomplete, or incorrectly remembered, the detective is the person who constructs the final and dominant narrative. How many mystery tales end with the detective literally telling a story? The detective may tell it to a sidekick, the culprit, a roomful of assembled suspects, or the police so they can make an arrest.  But the point is that the detective’s version of events, that specific narrative, is the one framed as the “true” story among all the various story strands we’ve heard. Through intellect and creative thinking, the detective has reduced narrative indeterminacy to certainty. But what if the detective, try as he might, cannot find the “real” narrative?  

Modiano’s investigator keeps making connections that lead to new connections that invalidate the old connections, as happens in a traditional detective tale, but the expected last story doesn’t fall into place. His imagination, never satisfied by any one narrative he puts together to explain his past, keeps working. He tells himself autobiographical stories that may be his actual memories, daydreams mixed with memories, or just pure invention. He is not unlike a writer who keeps doing new drafts of a book, revising, reworking material, applying his thoughts to different problems, but will he ever settle on a draft he considers strong enough to say the work is done? In his quest to find himself, Roland will be mentally editing, as it were, till his dying day.

Missing Person won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, in 1978. For his body of work, Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Now seventy years old, he has written about thirty books over a nearly fifty-year career, and if one thing can be said about his writing (apart from its uniformly superb quality), it’s that he’s exhibited a remarkable thematic consistency over those decades. Indeed, you might call his concerns an obsession. I’ve read a handful of his novels, but each one (and every single other one, as the Modiano critics point out) explores the same areas. They wrestle with the question of identity and the murkiness of the past. Or as James McAuley writes in a recent New Republic article about him: “….nearly all of them are variations on the theme of missing persons, either murdered in the German Occupation of France or adrift in its uncertain aftermath.” One can grasp the importance of this historical epoch for France, when much the French did to survive was shameful, but why does it hold such overwhelming power over this particular novelist?  Born in July 1945, Modiano has no memories of the war. 

As his memoir Pedigree (2004) reveals, the answer lies in his childhood. Though he didn't live through the war, his parents' part in it affected him.  His father was French and Jewish, his mother a Belgian actress, and they themselves met in Paris during the Occupation period.  With his mother often away on tour and his father out conducting business, Modiano went through long childhood stretches where he rarely saw them. His mother’s parents took care of him a good bit. He found out later that his father had never put on the yellow badge the Nazis ordered all Jews to adopt and had not surrendered himself when Jews in Paris were rounded up for expulsion to the concentration camps. His father had done all right for himself during the war, managing this remarkable feat by wheeling and dealing on the black market, which was controlled by the French Gestapo. Corrupt police and criminal figures ran this world at the Germans’ behest, but Modiano’s father survived the war unharmed, in sound financial shape.  The thing is, he never did tell Patrick exactly what he did during the Occupation. He clarified nothing for his son. And he didn’t help matters when he tried to buy all the printed copies of Modiano’s first novel, La Place de l’etiole (1968), because its subject matter – it’s about a Jewish collaborator during World War II – bothered him. 

From youth on, due to his own peculiar background, Modiano has been re-imagining, dreaming about, and struggling to understand the Occupation period, “the black hole of French memory,” and to drive his speculations, he has repeatedly turned to the form most suited for the spirit of inquiry – the detective novel. As Missing Person shows, he doesn’t use the detective novel conventionally to lay out the solving of a crime, but he uses it to examine the preoccupations he has made his signature.  In how he returns to the same core material in book after book, working variations on a theme, he also reminds me of Ross Macdonald. In the way Guy Roland and other Modiano characters wander through hazy cityscapes, trying to forge patterns from the enigma of their existence, he reminds me of Paul Auster (New York Trilogy).  But kindred spirits aside, Modiano is an original author with a unique voice, and he carries his elusive tales along by dint of his spare yet seductive prose.  The Nobel Prize committee called him “a Marcel Proust of our time,” but I think it’s more accurate to say that he reads like a cross between Proust and Raymond Chandler (who was, in fact, his favorite American novelist).

Throughout Missing Person, Modiano sets scenes quickly, drawing readers in through surprising details: “Valparaiso. She is standing at the back of the tram, near the window in the crush of passengers, squeezed between a little man with dark glasses and a dark-haired woman with the head of a mummy, who gives off a scent of violets.” And his descriptions have the sort of trenchancy that pervade hardboiled fiction: “Everything about him was round. His face, his blue eyes and even the thin mustache, cut in an arc. His mouth too, and his plump and dimpled hands. He made me think of those balloons children hold on a string…And the name, Waldo Blunt, bulged, like one of those balloons…” But above all else, if I can put it in crime fiction terms, Modiano has a noir sensibility – a conviction that all is transient and doomed, though how he expresses his adherence to impermanence as Guy Roland is in itself lovely: 

Hutte, for instance, used to quote the case of a fellow he called “the beach man.” This man had spent forty years of his life on beaches or by the sides of swimming pools, chatting pleasantly with summer visitors and rich idlers.  He is to be seen in his bathing costume, in the corners and backgrounds of thousands of holiday snaps, among groups of happy people, but no one knew his name or why he was there. And no one noticed when one day he vanished from the photographs. I did not dare tell Hutte but I felt that “the beach man” was myself.  Though it would not have surprised him if I had confessed it. Hutte was always saying that, in the end, we are all “beach men” and that “the sand” – I am quoting his own words – “keeps the traces of our footsteps only a few moments.”

Luckily, because of the Nobel Prize, Modiano’s books are now easier to find in the United States than the traces of a beach man’s footsteps. He’s easy to read, but thought-provoking, contemplative, and frequently humorous. His literary credentials need no burnishing, but the crime lit aficionado will appreciate his inventiveness with genre. You can admire how he articulates an idiosyncratic and personal vision through the lens, albeit a skewed one, of detective fiction.

Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island.  His most recent book is the genre-blending noir\fantasy novella Jungle Horses, available from Broken River Books.

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