Sébastien Japrisot Essay - Critical Essays

Japrisot, Sébastien

Introduction

Sébastien Japrisot 1931–

(Born Jean Baptiste Rossi) French novelist, screenwriter, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Japrisot's career through 1991.

Japrisot is recognized as a master of the mystery novel. His stories feature likable protagonists caught up in increasingly complicated predicaments that are often resolved in strikingly simple ways. Acclaimed for their literary style and thematic richness, several of Japrisot's novels have also been adapted for the screen.

Biographical Information

Born Jean Baptiste Rossi, Japrisot achieved literary acclaim in France with his French translation of J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories (1953). Writing Les mal partis (1950; Awakening) and all of his subsequent novels under the pseudonym Sébastien Japrisot—an anagrammatic rendering of his given name—he eventually adapted several of his novels for the screen and wrote screenplays for such noted directors as Constantin Costa-Gavras, René Clement, and Anatole Litvak. Winner of the Grand Prix de la Littérature Policière for Piège pour Cendrillon (1962; Trap for Cinderella) and the 1966 Prix d'Honneur for La dame dans l'auto avec des lunettes et un fusil (1966; The Lady in a Car with Glasses and a Gun), Japrisot continues to live and write in France.

Major Works

Japrisot's novels often use complex plots to create intrigue and suspense. In Trap for Cinderella, for example, two young women are burned in a fire. One of them survives but has amnesia and is disfigured beyond recognition. The woman's identity becomes the novel's main mystery: she is either a flamboyant heiress or the heiress's sister, the murderess who set the fire. Beginning with the murder of a young woman in a train, Compartiment tueurs (1963; The 10:30 from Marseilles) reveals, through a series of flashbacks, information about the lives of the main characters as the police attempt to solve the crime. After various suspects are killed off, a small child accidentally stumbles upon the solution to the murders. The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun also focuses on a young woman. Borrowing her employer's car for a trip to the seashore, the protagonist picks up a hitchhiker who injures her hand. From then on—though she is in an area she has never visited before—she encounters people who recognize her as a murderess. L'été meurtrier (1980; One Deadly Summer) is narrated by four characters and concerns the murder of an Austrian woman by her French neighbors. Hated for unclear reasons, the Austrian woman is derisively nicknamed "Eva Braun"—the name of Adolf Hitler's mistress—and eventually beaten and raped. Before dying from her injuries, she gives birth to a daughter who, years later, avenges her mother's murder. La passion des femmes (1986; The Passion of Women), considered more erotic and less suspenseful than Japrisot's previous novels, concerns five women and a mysterious young man who, as the story begins, lies dying from a gunshot wound. The young man loved and abandoned each woman, using a different name with each one. As the women narrate the stories of their relationships with him, they eventually reveal why he was shot and who did the shooting. Early twentieth-century France is the setting for Un long dimanche de fiançailles (1991; A Very Long Engagement), a story about a young woman investigating the death of a soldier to whom she was engaged. Unlike Japrisot's other novels, A Very Long Engagement is based on an actual historical event, in which a young soldier and four comrades wounded themselves to avoid combat in World War I. Convicted by their commanding officer of treason, they were thrown into the no-man's-land between French and German lines where, presumably, they would be killed in the ensuing battle. In Japrisot's version of events the soldier's bride-to-be travels throughout France after the war, interviewing people who can provide information about her betrothed's death.

Critical Reception

Most critics have applauded Japrisot's clear, concise language; his well-constructed, complex plots; and his ability to make the conventions of the mystery genre plausible. They have also praised his skill at creating realistic, likable characters while evoking and maintaining an aura of suspense. Critics have noted that Japrisot's use of multiple narrators—in The Passion of Women and One Deadly Summer—is unusual in the mystery genre. His often intensely erotic portrayal of human relationships adds, most critics agree, another unique aspect to his oeuvre. As Howard Junker has stated: "Japrisot is obviously a great talent, whom students of the popular novel and of the narrative form in general will want to analyze."

Principal Works

Les mal partis [Awakening] (novel) 1950
Piège pour Cendrillon [Trap for Cinderella] (novel) 1962
Compartiment tueurs [The 10:30 from Marseilles] (novel) 1963; also published as The Sleeping-Car Murders, 1978
Compartiment tueurs [with Constantin Costa-Gavras] [The Sleeping Car Murders] (screenplay) 1966
La dame dans l'auto avec des lunettes et un fusil [The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun] (novel) 1966
Adieu l'ami [Goodbye, Friend] (screenplay) 1968
§Le passager de la pluie [with Lorenzo Ventavoli] [Rider on the Rain] (screenplay) 1970
§La course du lièvre à travers les champs [And Hope to Die] (screenplay) 1972
L'été meurtrier [One Deadly Summer] (novel) 1980
∗∗L'été meurtrier [with Jean Becker] [One Deadly Summer] (screenplay) 1984
La passion des femmes [The Passion of Women] (novel) 1986; also published as Women in Evidence, 1990
Un long dimanche de fiançailles [A Very Long Engagement] (novel) 1991

∗This film was also directed by Costa-Gavras.

†This work served as the basis for the 1970 film The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, directed by Anatole Litvak and written by Richard Harris and Eleanor Perry.

‡This film was directed by Jean Herman.

§These films were directed by René Clément.

∗∗This film was also directed by Becker.

Criticism

Anthony Boucher (review date 17 November 1963)

SOURCE: A review of The 10:30 from Marseilles, in The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1963, p. 58.

[Anthony Boucher was a pseudonym used by William Anthony Parker White, who was a mystery writer and critic. In the following excerpt, he favorably assesses The 10:30 from Marseilles.]

Sebastien Japrisot, one of France's distinguished translators (he was, for instance, the first French translator of J. D. Salinger), recently won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, the major French crime-novel award, for his second novel, Piège Pour Cendrillon (A Trap for Cinderella)—of which one of the jurors exclaimed, "C'est le Marienbad du roman policier!" His first novel, Compartiment Tueurs, which some French critics have preferred to the prizewinner, now appears here, in a highly readable translation by Francis Price, as The 10:30 from Marseilles. It clearly reveals the most welcome new talent in the detective story to reach us from France since … well, probably since the early Simenons almost three decades ago.

This is largely a straight police-procedural starring the likable and believable Inspector Grazziano of the Police Judiciaire; but is also a puzzle-novel in the classic mold, with a fine setup of murder in a train compartment sleeping six, with the remaining five (suspects or witnesses?) being steadily eliminated by death as the Inspector investigates them. There are excellent flashbacks into the lives and characters of the compartment sleepers and admirable use of that rare device, the Least Suspected Detective. In all, a highly satisfactory import that makes one hungry for more.

Anthony Boucher (review date 5 July 1964)

SOURCE: A review of Trap for Cinderella, in The New York Times Book Review, July 5, 1964, pp. 14-15.

[In the following excerpt, Boucher offers a favorable review of Trap for Cinderella, contending that the novel is "a beautifully intricate essay in novel-writing and mystery-making."]

Sebastien Japrisot, the French translator (of J. D. Salinger among others), achieved a good deal of recognition here last year with his first novel, Compartiment Tueurs, translated as The 10:30 From Marseilles—a book which most reviewers, including me, welcomed as the most interesting French import in the crime field since the debut of Simenon. Meanwhile his second novel, Piège Pour Cendrillon, went on to win the Grand Prix de la Littérature Policière, the most prestigious of France's many crime-novel awards. It has now been ably translated by Helen Weaver, as Trap for Cinderella.

This is a beautifully intricate essay in novel-writing and mystery-making, in which the narrator, having almost been burned to death, finds herself with a mind wiped blank and a body reconstructed by plastic surgery—so that she has no notion whether she is the madcap heiress people tell her she must be. If she is, who tried to kill her? If she is not, may she herself be a murderess? The uncertainties and ambivalence are sustained with great skill. I still find The 10:30 even more impressive, both in plot and in writing; but Trap certainly maintains Japrisot's reputation as a highly original and professional writer of murder-suspense.

Howard Junker (review date 18 December 1967)

SOURCE: "On the Road," in Newsweek, Vol. LXX, No. 25, December 18, 1967, pp. 110-110A.

[In the following review, Junker praises The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun.]

Whodunit? Who is responsible for keeping this magnificent thriller hidden? Why haven't critics heaped praise upon it? Why haven't readers fought to buy it? Unlike most novels published this year, The Lady in the Car can be—and must be—read in one sitting. It cannot be put down, and that, mystery-lovers, is the ultimate test. Last year in France, Lady spent months on the best-seller list—an achievement few suspense novels ever match. And it also won the coveted Prix d'Honneur. In...

(The entire section is 321 words.)

J. Walt (review date Winter 1979)

SOURCE: A review of L'été meurtrier, in World Literature Today, Vol. 53, No. 1, Winter, 1979, p. 77.

[In the following favorable review of One Deadly Summer, Walt notes Japrisot's use of multiple narrators.]

Rebecca West, covering a trial of Southerners indicted in the wake of a "lynching bee," found a partial explanation for the townspeople's violence: the brutal heat that was a sovereign fact of life before the advent of air conditioning. Japrisot's characters (despite his title) are violent in season and out and throw morality to the winds, whether they blow from North Africa or the Alps.

Indeed, the event that sets off a train of...

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Jean Strouse (review date 30 June 1980)

SOURCE: A review of One Deadly Summer, in Newsweek, Vol. XCV, No. 26, June 30, 1980, p. 68.

[Strouse is an author and editor, whose books include Alice James: A Biography (1980). In the following review, she comments on the way Japrisot constructs characters and plot in One Deadly Summer.]

This compelling new tale by the author of The Sleeping-Car Murders is set in a tiny village, population 143, near the Combes Pass in the south of France. Told in the four voices of its central characters, it takes place in the summer of 1976 but reaches back 21 years, to the winter of 1955, for the key to its mystery.

The main narrator [in...

(The entire section is 341 words.)

Charles Mackey (review date May 1988)

SOURCE: A review of La Passion des femmes, in The French Review, Vol. LXI, No. 6, May, 1988, pp. 991-92.

[In the following review of La Passion des femmes, Mackey suggests that while much of the novel is captivating, it is, finally, not entirely satisfying.]

The novelist Jean-Baptiste Rossi, whose anagrammatic nom de plume, Sébastien Japrisot, is more widely known, published his eighth novel in 1986, which found its way immediately onto the best-seller lists in France. With the renown of L'Eté meurtrier and the hugely successful film, a certain following has apparently been sustained by the commercial reclame of La Passion des...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 August 1990)

SOURCE: A review of The Passion of Women, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LVIII, No. 15, August 1, 1990, pp. 1029-30.

[In the following review, the critic contends that The Passion of Women is an erotic but slight mystery adventure.]

Japrisot, who has long specialized in languorous, eroticized suspense (The Sleeping-Car Murders, One Deadly Summer, etc.), offers [in The Passion of Women] more erotic languor and less suspense than usual in this eight-dimensional portrait of a mysterious convict on the run.

As the novel begins, its hero falls to earth, dying from a gunshot wound. In a series of flashbacks featuring eight successive...

(The entire section is 344 words.)

Christine Watson (review date January 1991)

SOURCE: A review of The Passion of Women, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 1, January, 1991, pp. 31-2.

[In the following review of The Passion of Women, Watson focuses on how multiple narrators and a clear prose style effectively contribute to the mystery and suspense of the story.]

The main character in this witty, provocative novel [The Passion of Women] is a man who appears only briefly onstage. The story of his life is told to us indirectly, by the eight women who loved and were left by this man, and by the end of the book we feel we know him as well as any of them.

Which is to say, we probably don't really know him...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 21-28 December 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles in The Spectator, Vol. 267, No. 8528, December 21-28, 1991, p. 80.

[Brookner is an English novelist, nonfiction writer, critic, and art historian whose books include Jacques-Louis David (1981) and the prizewinning novel Hotel du lac (1984). In the following excerpt, she focuses on the "clever" plot and the clear "narrative tone" of Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles.]

Japrisot is the author of those two classic mysteries, L'Eté Meurtrier and La Dame dans l'auto avec des Lunettes et un Fusil. Here [in Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles] he tackles more dangerous subject matter....

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 8 August 1993)

SOURCE: "High Above the Trenches," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 8, 1993, pp. 3, 6.

[An American critic and journalist, Eder received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987. In the following highly favorable review of A Very Long Engagement, he argues that the novel is thematically richer than most mystery fiction, describing it as "a hybrid of the detective story and the classical quest."]

Procrastination is the heart of writing, and by that measure, this review starts off with a lot of heart. You can struggle for days, not to say what you want but to resist saying what you don't want. It has been a battle to avoid writing of Sébastien Japrisot's...

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Rachel Billington (review date 12 September 1993)

SOURCE: "No Man's Land," in The New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, p. 24.

[Daughter of the seventh earl of Longford, Lady Rachel Mary Billington is an English novelist, nonfiction writer, author of children's literature, dramatist, and critic. In the following favorable review of A Very Long Engagement, she contends that the story is a morality tale about war.]

World War I has always inspired writers, as if art (in particular poetry) could do something to overcome the dominance of death. The war's notorious trenches introduced a new form of horror that killed, maddened and deformed. Afterward, Europe was filled with widows, mothers without sons,...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 21 September 1993)

SOURCE: "Seeking Fiancé's Fate, and Finding Bigger Issues," in The New York Times, September 21, 1993, p. C17.

[In the following review, Kakutani praises the clear language and philosophical themes of Japrisot's historical wartime thriller A Very Long Engagement.]

The event is horrific: in World War I, five wounded French soldiers, their arms tied behind their backs, are marched by their own troops through the trenches to the edge of no man's land. There they are abandoned in the snow to die in the crossfire with German troops. All five have been court-martialed and condemned to death for self-inflicted wounds.

This chilling story, which forms the...

(The entire section is 951 words.)