Here is an author who, the happier she is, the darker her stories become. That’s why Sandrine Destombes waits for the holidays from her regular job as an event organizer to write her thrillers and perform a “catharsis with evil through paper”, as she told EL PAÍS this Friday in Barcelona, where she is one of the star guests of the BCNegra festival.
In that life of an ant that collects ideas, sensations, events and locations throughout the year and then writes in its rest time, a small earthquake occurred in 2018 with the publication of The double secret of the Lessage family (Reservoir Books), which received several awards and opened the doors to translations and a much wider audience in France. “It was strange. I didn’t have the feeling that she had changed, but it was like I had earned the right to say that she was an author, and that added a little more pressure,” she reflects with a smile. Her responses are quick and direct, only occasionally does her gaze distract towards the gray and rainy panorama of the street.
Destombes (Paris, 54 years old) assures that he writes for fun and that conditions his work: “I have no plan and I don’t need one. I look for something that attracts me and I shoot.” In his new novel, Ritual (Reservoir Books), redoubles the challenge from the first pages. The approach is macabre, narratively risky and disturbing: seven feet cut off and tied together appear floating in the Seine River. The police soon realize that there is a terrible crime behind them, several crimes in fact, and they begin a race against time with unpredictable consequences. The complicated thing in these cases is that in the end the result lives up to the approach, but Destombes accepts the challenge with delight: “I have some clues and I am going in search of the solution. When I get to the end and look back I see that everything is there. It’s not that I’m so intelligent, whatever, it’s that the story and the characters manipulate me.”
Captain Martin Vaas is a good policeman, lonely, ironic and dedicated, an excellent boss who tries to do the best for his people and who brings love to his work to the last consequences. However, we do not know much more about him or the group he leads because Destombes’ style follows other paths: “I don’t like descriptions as a reader, because they break the imagination and destabilize me. “I prefer to characterize them by the way they walk or by some detail that tells us about their personality,” she argues. Only the fascinating woman at the center of the plot, an elegant and dark lady named Isolda Dupré, is described in detail for reasons that should not be revealed. With this strategy, the author cultivates a feeling of “frustration” in the reader that she likes. “It’s not very nice of me, but it is what it is and it’s a way for readers to move on. I don’t want to take them by the hand and carry them. It happens in life too: when you meet someone you’re attracted to, you don’t know everything from the beginning,” she explains.
It seems complicated that in a novel with such a macabre approach, love is a central theme, but that is what happens in Ritual, where women have a powerful role. “A woman’s approach to love is more complex and more extreme,” she resolves with a phrase that admits of no reply.
Events as inspiration
A passionate reader of the pages of events, from which she gets ideas for her stories, Destombes belongs to a generation marked by the death in 1984 of little Grégory Villémin, the most famous unsolved crime in the history of France. “We followed it for years with real passion,” she admits. A case with dark connotations that reflects like no other the power of intra-familial hatred, one of the great motifs in Destombes’ works. “It’s hard for me to imagine a family where things are going great and suddenly everything changes. It is possible, but if there are problems at the beginning it makes more sense for everything to go wrong later.” And from there she draws a line that goes from the event to the novel, where the reader finds refuge: “Many times, the most sordid events occur for the most banal reasons and that, as moral subjects, is not unacceptable. We need a justification, an explanation that is often not found in reality.”
But this author’s love story with the world of police investigation has not been linear. When she published Madame B (the adventures of a woman who cleans crime scenes and hides corpses for the hire of the criminal underworld) was tired of the “closed police-justice framework,” even of the “limitations of her language,” but now she has returned to that world. “It was a little infidelity,” she jokes, her eyes wide open, “I had a good time and that’s it. “It helped me regain strength and return to my first loves.”
An author with an audiovisual background, she confesses the great influence of Alfred Hitchcock and always shows her preference towards suspense over the more classic aspects of crime novels. This suspense may be conditioned by a technology that “has broken the magic a little” and that in Destombes’ work, perhaps precisely for this reason, is not a predominant element. Yes, it is the environment, the atmosphere of the locations, whether in Paris or in small towns in Provence, where you spend your holidays in an environment different from that of the capital, places where everyone knows each other and where a crime is not It has the same impact. There she seeks the happiness on which her novels feed, filled, paradoxically, with death and disgrace.