Frédéric Somon, in the meanders of the criminal mind
Frédéric Somon, a former gendarme specialised in criminal investigation, is now a deputy public prosecutor and a writer of dark, very dark, novels.
His 4th novel, Ichthus, just published by M+Editions, sends the reader right from the first pages into the disturbing depths of the human soul....
Thank you for taking part in our questioning session, which will remind you of your police interviews...
For those who are just discovering you with this latest novel, how long have you been writing?
Hello, I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth.
My relationship with writing goes back to my adolescence. I joined the Navy at the age of 17 and served for just over 3 years, so I've always had great moments of solitude when crossing seas and oceans. Life on board is punctuated by periods of work (watches) and others when we are free to choose our own schedule. In fact, I enjoyed isolating myself on the deck of the boat and giving free rein to my thoughts; short stories, poems, etc. In short, I kept nothing from this period and entrusted my most intimate thoughts to the waves.
Then, as a criminal investigation officer in specialised units, I also wrote a lot. You can't imagine how complex a criminal procedure is, requiring a few packages of A4 paper.
Knowing that the police and gendarmerie forces are due to write reports following their investigations, have you drawn from this the art of writing for your
One of the main principles of legal procedure is that, when you hear a victim or a perpetrator, you have to transcribe almost word for word the language they use. This is obviously done in the interests of truth, even if it sometimes gives the impression of poor French. But is it possible to write differently without betraying the thoughts of the person being heard? Secondly, judicial summaries or reports must be concise, without frills.
So, to answer your question, with my detective stories I've almost had to relearn how to write the way writers do, with lots of detail.
It is often said that reality surpasses fiction. In the course of your work, you have undoubtedly come across some surprising criminal profiles, from cunning criminals to calculating murderers...
How would you describe these encounters? Eventually the basis of the plots of your stories...
You must never lose sight of the fact that behind the criminal is the man and his past.
Apart from the fact that he's a criminal, however horrible he may be, I made it my duty to understand his motivations, what made him take the plunge and do it. What was the special event that made him what he became.
I've known heinous killers who took responsibility for their actions, others who no longer recognised themselves, some who regretted their actions and asked for forgiveness, and others who denied everything, even though their hands were still stained with the blood of their victims...
Why did you choose this particularly dark way of writing? Perhaps literary influences were added to your experience?
I began by writing poetry (see Frédéric Somon's blog Des mots, simplement des mots..., Le Grand Voyage, 2012, published by BOD), a collection of around twenty poems on the central theme of Love. The love of a woman, parents, children, love betrayed etc... Then I tried my hand at fantasy short stories (Les nouvelles de Nomos). But, in the end, I fell back on what I knew best... crime.
Soon, however, I'll publish a social novel about the penal colonies in France in the 19th century, of which there were about a hundred in all.
How do you select your subject and prepare your writing sessions? Do you speak with specialists (psychologists among others), do you use annotations, research, each author having his own discipline, his own creative rituals?
How do I select my subjects? It's a complicated question to which I don't really have an answer.
The forthcoming sociological book required research into the internal regulations of prison colonies and the dramatic events that led the legislator to take decisions to prevent such tragedies from happening again.
As far as crime novels are concerned, after almost 40 years with my hands in the grease, I'm more in a field that I've mastered perfectly.
After that, in each novel I try to evoke something little known. In Les Dessous de Soie, I dealt with the remote hacking of connected medical devices such as insulin pumps or pacemakers; in La Chimère de la Dombes, I talk about chimerism.
The French region of the Dombes is the setting for two of your novels. Why this choice?
The Dombes is a marvellous fishing region between Bourg-en-Bresse and Lyon, but it was very marshy until the Middle Ages. 1,200 ponds, a multitude of paths and so many opportunities to get lost. I thought it would be interesting to house a serial killer who finds his comfort zone there. And as he likes to show off his young victims by the ponds, there was plenty to complicate the task of the investigators.
Worth knowing: Frédéric Somon won the Acadénîmes du polar prize,
awarded by the Nîmes police academy, for his book La Dombes tue.
Generally speaking, how long do you need to write a novel?
Not very long... less than a year, that's for sure.
I've experimented with several different approaches and, in the end, I've found the one that suits me best. I draw a common thread on paper from the beginning to the end of the book, with twists and turns, false leads and dead ends. Then I let my characters live, and sometimes one situation leads to another and changes what I had initially planned. But that's what's good about it, because the plot becomes more complex.
At the final stage, who are your proofreaders? Do you find them in your private sphere, or does the proofreading take place solely between you and your publishing house? In your opinion, why is this essential step before publication?
First of all, my wife Liliane goes through the manuscript (sorry, typescript) chapter by chapter. She's my first reader.
Then I have three proofreaders, my sister Corinne, my daughter Emilie and Marc, a friend captain in the gendarmerie. They have a good eye and I appreciate their opinions and criticisms. They allow me to reconsider certain sentences or situations. They have the necessary distance and are, unlike me, in direct contact with the writing.
My publisher then does the proofreading before publication. To be honest, I'm always surprised to find a few typos when the book goes to print. Despite all the care we take, the human eye doesn't see everything... Perhaps we're all caught up in the plot and can't see what needs to be corrected.
Finally... You're fundamentally convinced that the darkness of the human soul is abysmal in certain cases. But do you think redemption is possible, or criminals remain criminals forever?
That's a complex question. The question of redemption depends on many factors: the nature of the crime, the circumstances that preceded or accompanied it, the criminal's willingness to amend himself...
Between you and me, is it possible to forgive a crime? That's a subject of debate. I believe that every individual can change, on the sole condition that they want to and that they commit to this long process of self-questioning. Society also has to accept the new man he has become.
Then there's the question of recidivism: why are there so many failures to reintegrate offenders? What could be done to reduce it? Are prison conditions suitable for all criminals? Obviously not, some need very special care that confinement may not allow.
Would you like to add a detail, a comment or an anecdote?
People often tell me, after reading my thrillers, that they can feel my professionalism through my writing. And that's a good thing! After 40 years of chasing criminals and living through situations that are always dramatic and stressful to the point of losing sleep, it would be sad if it were otherwise.
I try to be precise in my descriptions, analyses and situations, and I jump up and down in my chair when I read or watch a thriller where everything seems so far-fetched, or where the situations can't possibly exist in real life.
Perhaps through my books, I correct the erroneous vision of certain series or films. Secondly, one of my aims is to make people realise how difficult it is to be a criminal investigator, whether you're a policeman or a gendarme. We do the same job. You mustn't think that when they close the door on their home, they forget about their investigations. On the contrary. And as I wrote in Ichthus, investigators remember not the cases they have solved, but those they have never solved.
Many thanks to Frédéric Somon for his contribution to this article.
Frédéric Somon's novels: Le grand voyage (2012), Les dessous de soi/e (2015), L'orphelin de Mortemer (2017), La chimère de la Dombes (2021), Quand la Dombes tue
(2022). Ichthus is published by M+Editions.