Home > 2010, 21st Century, Beach and Public Transports Books, Bouhier Odile, French Literature, Historical Crime Fiction, History of France, Polar > QDP Days #2 : At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier – Discover Lyon in 1921 and the first CSI lab in the world

QDP Days #2 : At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier – Discover Lyon in 1921 and the first CSI lab in the world

At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier (2013) Original French title : La nuit, in extremis. Not available in English.

This is Day 2 of Marina’s and my Quais du Polar.

Today is about At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier. It is the third instalment of a series set in Lyon, with professor Hugo Salacan and commissaire Kolvair as main characters.

We’re in 1921 and Anthelme Frachant gets out of prison. Commissaire Kolvair knew him from their war years and knows that he killed Bertail, another soldier and a friend of Kolvair’s. Kolvair suspects that he will kill again and decides to follow him. He takes a room in the same boarding house as Anthelme. During his first night there, Kolvair leaves his room in the middle of the night, overwhelmed by withdrawal symptoms and goes out in search of his next cocaine dose. Kolvair lost a leg in the Great War and suffers from phantom pain. He also has PTSD. Cocaine has become a coping mechanism and that night, it saves his life, in extremis. Indeed, while he was away, Anthelme slaughtered everyone in the boarding house.

Anthelme turns himself to the police and Kolvair finds him at the prison’s asylum. The question is Will Anthelme be judged for his crimes or will it be considered that he lacks criminal responsibility, due to mental illness? The alienist Bianca Serragio thinks that he is schizophrenic, an illness that doctors still investigate and try to define. Will she be able to convince Public Prosecutor Rocher that Anthelme cannot be hold accountable for his actions and that he must be placed in an asylum instead?

At night, in extremis is more a novel about Lyon, the 1920s than a true crime fiction novel. With the murderer known from the beginning and without any actual police investigation, the plot centers around the city, the times and the personal lives of the characters.

Lyon is where the cinema was born. It is also a scientific cluster for forensic science. Lyon had the first CSI lab in the world. Indeed, Edmond Locard (1877-1966) studied with Alexandre Lacassagne, a pioneer in forensic medicine. (See Lacassagne in action in my billet about The Rhône Murders by Coline Gatel) Both are from Lyon. In 1910, Locard set up the first CSI lab in the attic of the Palais de Justice in Lyon. He researched graphology, fingerprinting methods, ballistics and toxicology. He coined the Locard’s exchange principle, still used in today’s forensic science. His statement is that “Every contact leaves a trace”. His Traité de police scientifique is a seven-volume methodology of forensic science still in use in today’s CSI departments.

Kolvair believes in CSI and works with forensic scientists. Odile Bouhier evokes the famous lab in the attic. Her alienist, Bianca Serragio works at the Bron asylum, now known as Le Vinatier hospital. It was founded in 1877 and they still have some of the 19thC buildings and a big park. It’s also a reknown psychiatric hospital in France. Bianca Serragio is doing research in psychiatry, looking for ways to improve diagnosis and cures. The Rorschach test dates back to 1921 and Bianca believes it will help. Odile Bouhier depicts times of great scientific breakthroughs in criminology and psychiatrics.

This historical setting is interesting and piqued my curiosity. Since the crime plot was easily solved, the reader’s attention is focused on the characters’ personal lives.

Kolvair battles against demons inherited from the Great War and his liaison with Bianca is his safe place. Bianca has to fight for a field that needs recognition and being female doesn’t help. Forensic scientist Badou is orchestrating a hasty marriage of convenience because someone blackmails him, and threatens to reveals his homosexuality. His bride knows his sexual preferences and goes into this marriage with her eyes open. Professor Salacan’s children need extra-care, one has trisomy 21 and another is diabetic. This is how I learnt that in 1921, in Toronto, J.J.R. McLeod was conducting research and experiment on insulin.

Bouhier’s novel shows a city with a strong scientific community, but the novel felt unfinished, pieces are not stitched together well-enough. I had trouble remembering all the characters. There are too many of them for a 280 pages book. IMO, the writer should have either stuck with Kolvair and his PTSD or written a longer book, to give herself time to develop everyone’s personal lives and personalities.

It was a nice read for the local setting, the picture of Lyon in 1921. It spurred me to browse through several Wikipedia articles about Locard, Le Vinatier and other scientific facts and I always love to learn new things.

Many thanks to M. who gave me this book before moving back to America.

  1. April 4, 2020 at 11:31 am

    Can I ask you a couple of translation questions: does the author use PTSD? In English at the time we would have said shell-shock. And ‘Public Prosecutor’, from Simenon I am used to the official in charge of the case being a magistrate.

    Like

    • April 4, 2020 at 11:41 am

      Sure. I used PTSD because that’s the only English word I know for it. This term isn’t used in the original French, probably because it’s anachronistic. I should have used shell-schocked.

      Terms around legal procedures are hard to translate (like school btw) because the system is different from one country to the other. In my dictionary, they translate Procureur by Public Prosecutor, which is the role of a Procureur. And in France, the procureur is indeed a magistrate.

      Like

      • April 4, 2020 at 11:45 am

        Thanks. It hadn’t really occurred to me that magistrate wasn’t the same word in French. As I’m sure you know, in the English system a magistrate is a lower court judge.

        Like

        • April 4, 2020 at 11:51 am

          “magistrat” is a more generic title in France, it’s applicable to any “judge”, for lack of a better word.

          Like

  2. April 4, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    My book for today also has a Lyon connection and is partly set in Lyon, so great minds do think alike. This sounds rather fun.

    Like

  3. April 4, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    The setting of this really appeals to me, both Lyon and 1921. Its a shame it didn’t quite work but if it gets translated I’d definitely be interested in reading it.

    Like

    • April 4, 2020 at 9:24 pm

      The historical setting was interesting, I find the history of criminology fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. April 4, 2020 at 7:39 pm

    The historical setting sounds fascinating, with the birth of cinema and the beginnings of CSI. I’d always thought of that as a later invention, so it’s fascinating to hear what they could do back then.

    Like

    • April 4, 2020 at 9:28 pm

      The history of criminology is fascinating. I knew about Lacassagne and Locard but I didn’t know that the first CSI lab was founded in Lyon.

      Lacassagne had worked on a process for autopsies and had started to gather evidences on crime scenes.
      Locard did a lot more and worked in his lab until he was 74. Impressive.

      Like

  5. July 29, 2020 at 5:15 pm

    Did you also read On ne meurt pas la bouche pleine ? Il est disponible sur Estories en audio, mais je vois sur Goodreads que les lecteurs sont plutôt déçus. Et toi ?

    Like

    • July 29, 2020 at 6:00 pm

      No I haven’t read it and I won’t. I thought that her style was a bit trite.

      Like

  1. April 4, 2020 at 12:11 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: