Les Rivières pourpres, Jean-Christophe Grangé

Albin Michel, 1998, 405 pages, C$29.95 tpb, ISBN 2-226-09331-1

(Available in English as either Blood-Red Rivers or The Crimson Rivers)

I wish I could tease you by saying that Jean-Christophe Grangé’s Les Rivières Pourpres is one of the best French thrillers I have ever read and that it’s forever out of the Anglo-Saxon literary sphere. Fortunately for you, the book is available in English as either Blood-Red Rivers (the original title) or The Crimson Rivers as the movie tie-in edition.

Additionally, most English-speaking cinephiles probably remember the 2000 French movie starring Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel as two policemen investigating what turns out to be related cases. But as it so often happens, the novel and the movie don’t necessarily agree.

For one thing, the characters are very different. In the film, Inspecteur Pierre Niémans, played by Jean Reno, is a grizzled but basically competent policeman, riffing off Reno’s quasi-patented screen personae to good effect. The novel version is a lot darker: in the dynamite opening chapter, Niémans severely beats a homicidal hooligan after a soccer riot, leading to a messy internal investigation that drives him out of Paris and into a tragic character arc that finds resonance in the novel’s conclusion. Things aren’t much better for his partner, as Arab-French policeman “Karim Abdouf” suddenly becomes “Max Kerkerian”, under the handsome Gallic traits of Vincent Cassel. Exit the entire beur back-story of a young troubled youth becoming policeman for fear of becoming a criminal. Exit the dreadlocks. Exit, indeed, most of the character’s distinctiveness, replaced by a cool “I don’t like fascists” one-liner to stoke the film’s memorable skinhead-beating.

Oh well.

I suppose you won’t be surprised to find out that the movie ends up on a far more optimistic note, won’t you? The book, after all, doesn’t leave much room for a sequel…

But never mind that. Finding a translated copy of the book in North America will be challenging enough; too bad you won’t be able to experience the book in its original form: If Les Rivières Pourpres does something exceedingly well, it’s to present a French-language thriller that is initially as gripping as its American equivalents. French authors can do mysteries with the best of them. Thrillers, on the other hand, require a different discipline. French authors have a hard time recreating the urgency, the electric charge of a well-plotted suspense. Les Rivières Pourpres is an exception.

From the beginning, there is a fluidity to the writing, a hardness to the dialogue that makes Les Rivières Pourpres a pleasure to sink into. Grangé writes well, but he doesn’t leaden his prose with useless words; the story moves along at a brisk clip, and the very particular atmosphere of the book (set deep in France’s rural Alps) has a unique quality that immediately distinguish this thriller from countless others. Grangé isn’t afraid of gore, and a number of scenes are simply dreadful in a delightful fashion.

Alas, I’m not so fond of the book’s latter half, which pretty much reflected my disenchantment with the movie’s second half: The ominous rumblings of a gigantic conspiracy turn out to be bottom-basement eugenics that never reach the promises of the book’s initial mystery. As with many other thrillers, The Secret so murderously well-protected doesn’t seem all that important after the fabulous set-up. At least the movie had the sense to end on an action sequence; no such luck here in a rushed finale that settles things far too easily.

Despite Bruce Sterling’s wry admonition that “there’s a quality in a good translation that you can never capture with the original”, I’m not sure that even the best possible translation of Les Rivière Pourpres could recapture the sheer fun of an original French-Language thriller that has nothing to envy from les Américans. (Chances are that the English translation will be read as “just another thriller.”) It’s both a comfortable quality and a mildly refreshing treat; even with the lacklustre conclusion, Les Rivières Pourpres is a darn good read, and that often all that’s necessary. If you can’t get the book, why not have a look at the film?

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