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Investigate Thyself: Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person

Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person focuses on a private detective, introduced as Guy Roland, who investigates himself. The location is Paris, the time period, the mid-1960s. I say “introduced as Guy Roland,” because from page one of this novel, we comprehend that we are dealing with a detective narrator with little sense of his own identity. “I am nothing,” is how the book starts. “Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop…”

The head of the agency he works for, a man named Hutte, is retiring. The agency is closing. But Hutte is keeping the lease on the apartment where the agency operates, which means that all the “street-and-trade directories and year books of all kinds going back fifty years” will remain there. Hutte, who brought Roland into the agency eight years ago, who taught him how to be a private investigator, has described these volumes as “the essential tools of the trade,” objects he’d never discard. Roland asks about them, and when Hutte asks Roland what he intends to do with himself, Roland says that he’s following something up. You think that he’s talking about a case that needs closing and that he wants access to the volumes for his work, but then he tells Hutte what he’s really talking about: “My past.” Hutte understands – “I always thought that one day you’d try to find your past again.” – and gives him a key for free use of the premises while’s he off to retire in Nice. Though Hutte asks him whether finding his past will be worth it, he does nothing to dissuade Roland from beginning his stated quest; he, too, it seems, suffers from a strange amnesia.

At some point, both these men lost contact with a whole part of their lives, and as Roland will eventually suggest, the memory blur dates back to World War II. What happened then to trigger the amnesia? Beyond the fact of the war itself, was there a shared trauma? Why doesn’t Roland know his real name or anything about his life before Hutte took him under his wing and even secured a “legal identity record” for him? At that time, Roland was living in a fog, lost in his amnesia. Hutte gave him a direction and a job. But with the closing of the agency, Roland is on his own again, and, in essence, he has decided to hire himself to investigate the mystery of his own existence. Missing Person has the succinct prose, clipped dialogue, and moody first person narration of many a private eye novel, but from the first chapter, we get the impression that this book is not going to take us through the usual private eye environment.

At first, without question, Roland proceeds like a typical detective. Pursuing information, he sets up a meeting with a man he feels can help him. But when Roland tells us that he needs a cognac to calm himself merely to make a phone call, that the phone call has brought sweat pouring out of his temples, we know we’re not dealing with an investigator who exudes the strength of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. It's evident also that absurdity will mark an aspect of his quest; he’s a detective who doesn’t know himself.

Roland is a man in search of a history, and his nebulous sense of self leads him to keep changing his thoughts on who he is and where he comes from. Early in his investigation, he has reason to believe he was once Howard de Luz, a Frenchman from a rich family, and he learns that this De Luz lived an idle life, becoming associated with a silent film star. He likes the idea:

Howard de Luz. It might be my own name. Howard de Luz. Yes, the sound of it stirred something in me, something as fleeting as moonlight passing over some object. If I was this Howard de Luz, I had shown a certain originality in my life style, since among so many more reputable and absorbing professions, I had chosen that of being John Gilbert’s confidant.

What's fascinating is how Modiano plays with the concept of detective work as an act of imagination. From Holmes, through Maigret, to hardboiled characters like Lew Archer, detectives have always solved cases by making connections others don’t see.  From these connections come narratives the detectives build. In a book filled with contradictory narratives, many of them false, incomplete, or incorrectly remembered, the detective is the person who constructs the final and dominant narrative. But what if the detective, try as he might, cannot find the “real” narrative?

Missing Person won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, in 1978. For his body of work, Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Now 70, he has written about 30 books over a nearly 50-year career, and if one thing can be said about his writing, it’s that he’s exhibited a remarkable thematic consistency over those decades. Indeed, you might call his concerns an obsession. I’ve read a handful of his novels, but each one explores the same areas. They wrestle with the question of identity and the murkiness of the past. Or as James McAuley writes in a recent New Republic article about him: “...nearly all of them are variations on the theme of missing persons, either murdered in the German Occupation of France or adrift in its uncertain aftermath.”

Luckily, because of the Nobel Prize, Modiano’s books are now easier to find in the United States than the traces of a beach man’s footsteps. He’s easy to read, but thought-provoking, contemplative, and frequently humorous. His literary credentials need no burnishing, but the crime lit aficionado will appreciate his inventiveness with genre. You can admire how he articulates an idiosyncratic and personal vision through the lens, albeit a skewed one, of detective fiction.

—Scott Adlerberg

Excerpted from a longer version published in Criminal Element.

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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love.

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