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les yeux des morts

25 march 2017

Elsa Marpeau's Yeux des morts is like a novelized episode of CSI: Paris. Which got me to thinking – is there an equivalent of CSI set in Paris? Come to find that there is a series called R.I.S, police scientifique, of which you can watch a lot of complete episodes free on YouTube, and I just might. It is based on an Italian series called RIS Delitti Imperfetti, and in turn both they and the American CSI draw on the granddaddy of forensic procedurals, the German Tatort (though in its origins that was more a straight detective show, not a true crime-scene drama).

In Les yeux des morts we are in an impossible world where a team of crime-scene technicians follows up their dusting and snapping by interviewing witnesses, much as in Gil Grissom's Las Vegas. What's more, our French CSIs (or RISs?) develop deep attachments to the victims they document. Protagonist Gabriel Ilinski keeps pictures of the victims of unsolved murders on the walls of his apartment. When the authorities move slowly in investigating the murder of a drug addict near a Paris hospital – a murder coupled with the recent death of a patient there, both killings effected with the help of injections of potassium chloride – Gabriel goes so far as to have himself admitted to the hospital by hazarding a just-short-of-suicide attempt. Whereupon he barely survives an injection of potassium chloride, and the game is afoot.

Les yeux des morts is a very standard mystery. Corpses keep appearing in brand-name ways: dosed with KCl, carved up quasi-erotically. Our suspects comprise the night shift at the deadly hospital. Gabriel, wouldn't you know it, falls in love with the cold-fish doctor who commands the fateful ER team. This complicates his cowboy investigation. Meanwhile, even though there must be dozens of other potential suspects, the list narrows early on to the few team members on that doctor's shift. Louise Delaunay is a gifted healer with no bedside manner and a parcel of lugubrious secrets. Her assistants are a group of nymphomaniacs with curious attitudes toward patient care. Things start bad and can only get worse from there.

As in many a psychological-thriller mystery, there comes a juncture where our hero can return to SOP and play things by the book, or choose instead to pursue justice by his own lights. In Les yeux des morts, Gabriel takes the latter path. I guess we get to know Gabriel well enough in the first half of the novel to make his going completely off the rails seem in character. It does strain the reader's credulity still further, though. As an RIS, Gabriel is a past master at deceiving his own colleagues by planting phony evidence. He even deceives his best friend, boss, and erstwhile lover Nadja for a while. Nadja is such a forthright and competent character that to see Gabriel turn on her loses him much of our sympathy. But the ensuing complications are brisk and suspenseful.

The title – "the eyes of the dead" – refers to the folk belief that an image of a killer is imprinted on the victim's retinas after death. Gabriel had once tested this theory to find it hooey – and in any case, it seems that the killer stood behind some of these victims anyway, slashing their throats unseen. But heck, it's a good title.

Marpeau, Elsa. Les yeux des morts. 2010. Paris: Gallimard, 2012.