Friday, July 1, 2016

Fantômas by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre

More clever than smart
Although far from a household name these days, Fantômas was all the rage 100 years ago, and he enjoyed popularity in books, movies, and comics for most of the 20th century. Created by French authors Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, the character’s debut, simply title Fantômas, was published in 1911. Fantômas is a legendary criminal and a master of disguise. He seems to be patterned after Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief created by Maurice Leblanc a few years earlier. However, Fantômas ups the ante in sheer sinisterness. Like his predecessor, Fantômas is an expert thief, but unlike Lupin, he is also a brutal murderer. He kills not only for personal gain, but also because he enjoys it. No one is sure what Fantômas looks like or what alias or persona he will assume next. In this first book, even his very existence is in doubt.

One true believer is Inspector Juve, a police detective tasked with solving a string of murders and thefts that may or may not have been committed by this mysterious villain. Inspector Juve has kept track of Fantômas’s exploits over the years, but never before has he gotten so close to capturing this elusive killer. Juve is the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist, but the authors jump around to different members of the ensemble cast in each chapter. In a typical murder mystery, the author provides his audience with clues, challenging the astute reader to figure out the puzzle. Allain and Souvestre, on the other hand, frustratingly conceal the clues from you as well. Because the reader doesn’t spend a lot of time with Juve, he’s always showing up armed with knowledge the reader couldn’t possibly have foreseen. A typical chapter in the book opens with a pair or more of unfamiliar characters. They engage in a protracted dialogue in which very little is revealed, then at the end of the chapter you find out one or two of them were so-and-so in disguise. There are three or four masters of disguise in the book—some good, some bad. Another oft-used tactic is to refer to a character simply as “a man” and then after 20 minutes of reading you find out that man was Juve or some other previously introduced character. Games such as these get annoying after a while, and the plot defies belief more times than is pardonable. It’s so easy to fool someone with a disguise in this book, you’d think they were wearing the laser-cut latex masks from Mission Impossible.

Despite all the confusion and obfuscation, the story ends up pretty much just how you would expect. When Juve points out the guilty party, it’s no shock. You’d think that after all the twists and turns Allain and Souvestre would want to wrap it up with a surprise ending, but no. Over the course of the book, the authors craft an intricate web of relationships between the disparate cast of characters, but the ultimate revelation of the guilty part is anticlimactic. The novel then ends with an incredibly convenient contrivance that leaves the door open for a sequel.

Given the international popularity of Fantômas, I expected more. Perhaps this sort of thing plays better on film, because I found the debut novel quite disappointing. It’s entertaining at first, but by the end I was glad to be done with it. Fantômas and I may cross paths again someday, but for now I think I’ll go back to Arsène Lupin.
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