Collaboration during the Occupation: The “St-Cyr and Kohler” Mysteries

Robin Walz
University of Alaska Southeast

 

After a decade-long hiatus, mystery author J. Robert Janes has produced Bellringer, a new crime and detection novel set during the Nazi occupation of France. The thirteenth novel in the “St-Cyr and Kohler Mystery” series, Bellringer is set in February 1943. The scene is the internment camp established for British and American women trapped in France during World War Two at the Vittel thermal spa complex of hotels in the Lorraine. The protagonists of the series, Sûreté Chief Inspector Jean-Louis St-Cyr and Gestapo Detektivinspektor der Kriminalpolizei Hermann Kohler, have been summoned from Paris to investigate the suspicious deaths of two young American women interned at the Vittel camp. One is Mary-Lynn Allan, a college co-ed whose corpse has been discovered at the bottom an elevator shaft, and the other is Caroline Lacy, the youngest daughter of a Bethlehem Steel magnate, who was stabbed to death by a hayfork in a donkey stable and carefully laid out on the ground after her murder. While the former is a classic “did she fall, or was she pushed?” murder mystery populated with multiple possible culprits, the peculiar death of the latter – whose pockets contain a treasure trove of suggestive items such as a small oval seashell, a pack of Craven cigarettes, a bar of Lifebuoy Soap, and a cloth Star of David – yields the greater mysteries in the novel. This line of investigation brings St-Cyr and Kohler into a web of relationship entanglements and intrigues that include Caroline’s close women associates, her lover, an overbearing guardian, a clairvoyant, an itinerant monk herbalist, the camp’s commander, Senegalese POWs, and an American spy. Although both murders are solved by the end of the novel, as well as a number of other mysteries and a past murder revealed over the course of the St-Cyr and Kohler investigations, the great strength of Bellringer lies in Janes’s ability to evoke sympathetically the human emotions of petty selfishness, visceral pain, and moral confusion engendered by the murky atmosphere of the Nazi Occupation of France.

As with all of the novels in the St-Cyr and Kohler mystery series, Janes has done an excellent job of situating Bellringer within the historical arc of the Occupation and at the level of everyday life. From September 1940 to mid-September 1944, the Nazis interned over 2,000 British, Canadian, and American women (after December 1941) trapped in France  at the Vittel thermal park complex of hotels. [1] The resort buildings served various purposes: the large majority of British women were packed into the Grand hotel and the American women in the Vittel Palace; the Continental served as the Nazi headquarters, barracks, and infirmary (as it had during the Great War); and, in Janes’s novel, the Pavillon de Cérès serves as the residence of the enterprising clairvoyant Mme de Chevreul. In sharp contrast to the opulence of the Parc Thermal during the Belle Époque, in the winter of its third year as a make-shift internment camp the spa resort was plagued by scarcities of electricity, heating fuel, and food (ameliorated to a slight degree by Red Cross parcels, most valued for their currency bargaining value). The extreme conditions in Vittel in February 1943 were exacerbated politically by the establishment of a detention camp for three hundred Polish and Russian Jews who had arrived from Drancy the previous month. Beyond the general device of setting murder mysteries during the Occupation, Bellringer is located precisely in time and place.

The power of Janes’s storytelling emerges from the fusion of an imaginary crime story with these larger historical forces and details. As Lynn Hunt has noted about the intersection of fiction and history, the interplay between the two may be most fruitful when seeking the “convergence between certain kinds of history and certain kinds of fiction,” rather than by judging the worth of a novel by how closely it adheres to historical details or, worse, how it merely illustrates a previously established historical narrative.[2] Janes is fully aware of this issue, as each of his novels in the St-Cyr and Kohler series opens with the disclaimer that it is “a work of fiction in which actual places and times are used but altered as appropriate” and that, together with the historical characters invoked in the novel, “the story makes of them what it demands.” For Janes writes mystery novels concerned with dark acts of murder, arson, and violent sexual assault within the historical context of occupied France. Those specific crimes are “solved” under the shadow of the much greater criminal machinations of Vichy and the Nazi Occupation. It is precisely this imaginary convergence of fiction and history that make Bellringer, and all the novels in the St-Cyr and Kohler series, so compelling. [3]

The unlikely pairing of Sûreté and Gestapo detectives is a good place to start to explore this convergence, for it imaginatively combines these middle-aged policemen as partners under extraordinary historical circumstances that force occupier and occupied to act as one. As younger men, each of them was traumatized by the Great War – St-Cyr as one of the war wounded and Kohler as a P.O.W. – and became a police detective afterward, each working his way up the police hierarchy only to a certain point. Now assigned to solve sensational crimes under the Occupation, the national and personal qualities of the detective partners complement each other. Louis helps Hermann negotiate the subtler aspects of French social relations and etiquette, while Kohler flexes a bit of Gestapo muscle from time to time to obtain special privileges for them, such as securing an automobile for their investigations or enjoying an evening of fine dining at Chez Rudi in Paris. In their interrogations, St-Cyr performs the “good cop” role, akin to a priest in confession sympathetically attuned to the sins of victims and perpetrators alike, while Kohler plays the part of the “bad cop,” a Gestapo interrogator and sexual seducer. However, their fortunes as detective partners have been difficult during the harsh winter of 1942-1943.[4] Consumed by their detective assignments, both men have been cuckolded by their wives (although only Kohler exercises the prerogative of taking on mistresses). Violent death in the family has struck close for each: St-Cyr lost his wife and son in a Resistance terrorist bomb attack intended for him, and both of Kohler’s sons died in the Battle of Stalingrad. Kohler’s status as a Kripo detective is compromised by his association with the Sûreté inspector, and at one point he is whipped by the Gestapo and bears a permanent scar across his face as a result.

In Bellringer, signs of the detective duo’s misfortunes grow more acute as the harshest winter in the course of the war and Nazi occupation drags on. Separate dining and hotel accommodations are unavailable for the detectives in Vittel, so St-Cyr and Kohler are forced to use the camp’s regular barracks and dining hall. Over the course of their investigations, Louis pulls his familiar pipe from his overcoat with some frequency, but the tobacco pouch is perpetually empty. Similarly Hermann longs for absent cigarettes, so he resorts to filching tobacco from the clairvoyant Mme Chevreul and Second Lieutenant Weber. When the detectives interogate various camp inmates regarding the circumstances surrounding the murders of Mary-Lynn and Caroline, the interior dialogs of those being questioned express thoughts of suspicion and disdain for St-Cyr and Kohler, even as their spoken responses feign cooperation with the detectives. Materially and professionally, things are not going well for the series’ heroes.

The wide array of secondary characters face similar hardships and frustrations after three years of continuous confinement in the Vittel camp. The British women resent and occasionally attack their American counterparts whose Red Cross parcels are better provisioned than their own. Emotionally and psychologically, many of the interned women are at wits’ end, having been cooped up for two years now, with moods that swing rapidly from caring intensely for one another to engaging in petty jealousies and trysts. The clairvoyant Mme Chevreul profits handsomely from the desperate women who can afford her séance consultations with Cérès, the Roman goddess of fertility goddess and of motherly care. Untersturmführer Weber, a diehard Nazi who has recently replaced a more sympathetic officer, expresses the anger of a presumptive victor for whom the war is going badly, and he threatens deportation of Jewish women and hurls verbal abuse at nearly everyone else. The Senegalese POWs who perform the menial labor in the camp maintain a tenuous existence, feared by some of the American women as threatening black men who may rape them, while themselves fearing summary execution by the unpredictable Weber.

Only one character, Brother Étienne, a monk herbalist, appears to move freely between the outside and camp worlds. A godsend to many of the women he succors with his remedies and various ingredients that can be used to make ersatz cosmetics, Brother Étienne’s comings-and-goings are a mystery in themselves. In St-Cyr and Kohler’s view, he appears at times too much at ease with the camp administrators, while at other moments they wonder whether he might be a member of the Franc-Tireurs et Partisans’s resistance, despite his Catholic garb. Most pertinent to their investigations, Brother Étienne has been providing some of the women with Datura stramonium or Angel’s Trumpet seeds, a powerful hallucinogenic narcotic that, in sufficient quantities, can induce death through respiratory failure –and a deadly dose has gone missing. St-Cyr and Kohler also wonder whether this monk might be the “bellringer” of the camp that they have been hearing about.

Thus in Bellringer the history of the Occupation converges with the murder mystery genre in imaginative and compelling ways. The abundance of carefully researched details about the Vittel thermal park complex, as well as the challenges and deprivations of everyday life under the Occupation by February 1943, provide the novel with a strong sense of place and time. Janes also has a distinct writing style, akin to stream of consciousness, where interior and spoken dialogs weave together, which creates a polyphony of voices that mingle within the reader’s mind over the strict delineation of individual characters along detective-versus-suspects lines. Janes also spices the text with French and German phrases, which are literally correct, but are not always idiomatically what native speakers would say. Even so, the intended audience for the St-Cyr and Kohler series is English-language readers interested in crime novels, France under the Occupation, or ideally both.

With the publication of Bellringer by the Mysterious Press, the entire St-Cyr and Kohler series is now available in e-book formats for a variety of electronic tablets and readers.[5] Bellringer is also available as a print-on-demand book through Amazon and through Barnes and Noble. Word on the street is that Janes already has a new St-Cyr and Kohler mystery in the pipeline. It will be interesting to see what the French and German detective partners are up to in March 1943.

J. Robert Janes, Bellringer (New York: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, 2012).

  1. The Vittel internment camp for British and American women is touched upon briefly in Chapter 20 “Alone in Vittel” in the popular history by journalist Charles Glass, Americans in Paris: Life and Death under the Nazi Occupation (New York: Penguin, 2010).
  2. Lynn Hunt, “ ‘No longer an Evenly Flowing River’: Time, History, and the Novel,” The American Historical Review 103, no. 5 (1998): 1517.
  3. See the forum dedicated to the St-Cyr and Kohler series in The Proceedings of the Western Society for French History 30, Selected Papers of the 2002 Annual Meeting (2004): Robin Walz, “The Convergence of Fiction and History in the Crime Novels of J. Robert Janes” (61-63); Sarah Fishman; “The Messiness of Everyday Life Under the Occupation” (64-70); Pierre Verdaguer, “The Occupation as Fictional Setting in French Romans Policiers and in the Crime Novels of J. Robert Janes” (71-76); and J. Robert Janes, “Commentary” (77-85).
  4. Nearly all of the novels take place during the winter of 1942-1943, with the exception of Stonekiller, which is set earlier in June 1942.
  5. The St-Cyr and Kohler series by J. Robert Janes, originally published in the U.K. by Constable or Orion and by Soho in the U.S., is currently available through the Mysterious Press in New York (mysteriouspress.com) in e-book format, at this link. The thirteen novels to date, in order of original publication: Mayhem (a.k.a. Mirage, 1992); Carousel (1993); Kaleidoscope (1993); Salamander (1993); Mannequin (1994); Dollmaker (1995); Stonekiller (1995); Sandman (1997); Gypsy (1997); Madrigal (2000); Beekeeper (2001); Flykiller (2002); and Bellringer (2012).

 

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