J. Robert Janes & His ParisFriday, June 02, 2006
While wearing a pair of immaculate white cotton gloves, I inspected Spies for Dinner (1984), the juvenile thriller by J. Robert Janes. The Vancouver Public Library’s special collection of rare and notable books is housed, behind glass doors, on the top floor of the Robson Street main branch. Here you will not find Geology and the New Global Tectonics (1976), The Great Canadian Outback (1978) or Airphoto Interpretation and the Canadian Landscape (1984). These and a few other books by J. Robert Janes are in the lesser stacks downstairs. Nobody knows why Spies for Dinner is part of the Canadiana section of the Special Collection. I am told that it is the only copy in the Vancouver Public Library system. But then, I have come to understand that not much is known about J. Robert Janes.
I thank Baroness James of Holland Park (i.e. P.D. James) for my accidental discovery of the Niagara-on-the-Lake author. It was in 1994 that I found Carousel between two copies of James’s The Children of Men at a local bookstore. Carousel is a police procedural involving the challenged pairing of Chief Inspector Jean Louis St-Cyr of the Sureté Nationale and Gestapo Oberdetektiv Hermann Kohler. It is the occupied Paris of 1942 and as Janes points out in the introduction, even in times of war someone has to solve the everyday crimes of arson and murder. When the German army rolls into Paris, St-Cyr has to give up his black Citroen and his 1873 model, French Army Lebel revolver to Kohler. Both walk the tightrope of trying to please their respective bosses while maintaining their individual integrity. Somehow St-Cyr must hide his sympathy for the Resistance while Kohler hides his disdain for Hitler.
When I tell friends that my favourite Canadian author is Janes they look at me blankly, and then ask, “James who?” Yet whenever a new St-Cyr/Kohler novel is published glowing reviews appear by crime reviewers, Marilyn Stasio at the New York Times and Margaret Cannon at the Globe & Mail. Cannon understands the subtleties of the Janes series. While she praises their accurate portrayal of everyday life in France under the Occupier (Janes’s capitalization gives the word an eerie all-powerful connotation), she misses one of the astounding features of the St-Cyr/Kohler” novels. Cannon objects to, “…his penchant for setting the novels in the freezing French winter…” Cannon has not noticed that at the pace of almost a novel per year Janes places 11 of them within two months. The first in the series, Mayhem (l992) begins at 3 a.m. on St-Cyr’s 52nd birthday on December 3d, 1942 and 11 novels later Flykiller (2002), begins at 2:47 a.m. Berlin Time on February 4, 1943 and of course it’s still winter! The cases are solved within a week and in the last pages the next case begins, announced usually in the form of an urgent telegram. We can guess the title (always one word titles) Karneval of the next book. In Flykiller, St- Cyr hands over the telegram,
‘” Karneval,” Hermann. “Kolmar. Contact Kommandant Rasch. Hangings, Stalag III Elsas. Heil Hitler.’”
The more I tried to find information on Janes the more I became convinced he is a recluse. I asked Scott McIntyre (Douglas & McIntyre published the Janes take on the geological side of the Canadian landscape, The Great Canadian Outback) if he had any memory of working with Janes. I saw the word difficult form in his mouth but no sound came out. He told me he didn’t remember anything. When I tried to find a bio in the Canadian Crime Writer’s Society web site a click on Janes did nothing. 10 letters to the editor that Janes sent to the Globe & Mail beginning in 1979 were the only personal tidbits I was able to find. The subjects ranged from complaints about noise and beer cans being thrown into his garden during the summer Shaw Festival to an extremely liberal stance against the censorship of the arts. The prospect of writing about the wonderful books of a mysterious, reclusive and even cranky author became attractive.
And then I sent a complaint to the Canadian Writer’s Society because of the missing biography. I received a reply from Cheryl Freedman, the Secretary-treasurer. When I explained what I was up to she offered, “Do you want me to forward this to Bob? He may want to get in touch with you himself. course that will mean that your concept of Bob won’t be mysterious at all.
My E-mail communication with Janes has been a pleasant, eye-opening experience. He told me it should not change my concept of him being mysterious. “Carry on if you wish, and it is absolutely true. I don’t think it’s true at all." He labours with each book for a year. Their plots, in some cases, seem to be so beautifully serpentine that only after a second reading have I finally figured their resolution. Janes finds time to garden in his 100 year old garden (“Always after 5 pm.”), write letters to the Globe, and coach lacrosse. There is a possibility that Janes, like St-Cyr, may play the euphonium, be an amateur boxer and be able to discern the different ingredients of a woman’s perfume. The latter is an important ability, as the women in the St-Cyr/Kohler books are exquisite femme fatales. On whose side is St-Cyr’s White Russian girlfriend? The Germans, or worse still the Resistance? Kohler keeps his two mistresses in the same house while his German wife jilts him for a French prisoner of war.
Janes didn’t always write. Born in 1935, he was a petroleum engineer in the 50s and later on a research engineer and field geologist. In 1976 he became a full-time writer. He has 5 adult children and his wife Gracia is an environmental activist. I believe that his early juvenile novels are responsible for the strangely adult-like but paradoxically realistic behaviour of the children, many victims, in the St-Cyr/Kohler books. St-Cyr always has tender “dialogues” with the dead victims and when these are young children, somehow their brutal murder and the brutal presence of the Occupier is softened for you the reader while decidedly breaking your heart. For new Janes readers the dialogue of the novels can seem odd at times. Some Janes reviewers have even wondered if English is his first language. As a boy in Toronto Janes lived next to some Belgian refugees. Before they spoke in English they had to think in French. Kohler learned French as a young man as St-Cyr learned German. Janes goes trough the added task of thinking in those languages before his characters speak the English of the novels. For me this oddness increases my reading pleasure.
Kohler has two sons in the Wehrmacht who are fighting on the Russian Front. The reason Janes has plunked his novels into those three months in 1942, 1943 is that they follow the inevitable defeat of the German army in Stalingrad and the death of his sons. To keep himself awake from one case to the next Kohler pops what Janes whimsically calls Messerschmitt Benzedrines.
Kohler and St-Cyr develop a rapport (ever more quickly in wartime), while strained sometimes, that is so close that it is almost as if they were each other’s favourite old shoes. This relationship fits and feels true because Janes has a daily relationship with them. He wrote to me, “St-Cyr and Kohler are very close to me, my having been with them for nearly 14 years now. Every day, but Sunday, and then, that, often too.” Of his method of writing Janes explained, “I write not from above, as a god looking down on my characters (like most writers) but rather, right on the ground, in their shoes, and through their hearts and minds. I just wish St-Cyr and Kohler would quit taking me out behind the woodshed. That 2x4 of theirs hurts!” I just hope that J. Robert Janes can keep taking more pain. It makes me happy. And when I think of Paris I always think of a St-Cyr and Kohler Paris. This view of the Paris Opera that I took with b+w infrared film haunts me. Is the Gestapo around the corner?
The St-Cyr/Kohler Series
Mayhem, Carousel, Kaleidoscope, Salamander, Mannequin, Dollmaker, Stonekiller, Sandman, Gypsy, Madrigal, Beekeeper, Flykiller. If you can find a pristine first edition of Mayhem (Constable Books) it could cost you $350.
J. Robert Janes