Part of the appeal of “Syndrome E” is that it’s hard to classify. It’s part police procedural, part Michael Chriton style medical thriller, part docudrama and completely French.
It stinks of a gritty, uncompromising, almost fatalistic realism while embracing some on-the-edge-of-credible ideas. It is fundamentally about violence, the degradation of the human spirit, mental illness and the corrupt use of power.
It contains scenes and ideas that are truly repellent but which avoid exploitative voyeurism through a crusading need to find the truth and right wrongs.
It weaves horrific real events and conspiracy theories into a story about an evil obsession, powered as much by art as by science. The plot is woven from dark threads of French and Canadian history from the Fifties onwards, avant garde cinema, inhumanly relentless science, and a disturbingly credible view that there are no limits to what those with power will do to the rest of us.
The story moves forward through two French detectives: a man in his fifties who has lost so much that his mind has broken and a woman in her thirties who has already started to be ground down by the things she sees in the work she cannot abandon. There is love here and perhaps a little hope but these are occasional rays of sunlight pushing through the dark clouds of duty, depression, and deadly menace.
The book works well until the final few chapters. There is suspense, action, tension, violence, exotic locations and sex. What more could you ask for from a thriller?
Sadly, when the evil force behind it all is finally confronted, the book degenerates into a long let-me-tell-you-all-the-wicked-things-I’ve-done-and-why speech that is disappointingly clumsy. As for the epilogue, I’m sure it was meant to be clever but I found it annoying. I wished I stopped one chapter earlier.