Murder, Intrigue, the Quad: A Mystery

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French author Frédéric Mars visited Harvard as part of a two-way interview.

When stereotyping the French novel, one conjures up images of darkly lit Parisian cafés and picturesque cul-de-sacs, charging chevaliers of old epics and anguished lovers à la Flaubert. This is not so for Frédéric Mars. “I switch genres,” says the French author, who dabbles in thrillers, romantic comedies, and even fantasy. “I have to renew myself and my writing.” With this commitment to the protean in mind, he has an embarked on his newest endeavor: a suspenseful novel, evocative of Dennis Lehane’s “Shutter Island,” that splits its time between Harvard, downtown Boston, and Devens, a medical prison an hour west of Boston. In order to gain a better understanding of the upcoming book’s setting, Mars visited Harvard and met with The Crimson as part of a two-way interview, revealing important aspects of his work and learning about Harvard life in the process.

Mars has been writing for more than half his life: he worked as a journalist for 11 years before switching, 10 years ago, to popular fiction. Although Mars says much of contemporary French literature is focused on attaining literary awards like the prestigious Prix Goncourt, Mars claims that in the past 10 to 15 years “popular genres of literature or ‘polars’ in French [have become] more respected by the critics.” He has published more than 40 works, including six novels. These range from “Le Sang du Christ” (“The Blood of Christ”), a tale of intrigue set in the Jerusalem of Jesus of Nazareth, to “L’amour Est une Femme” (“Love Is a Woman”), an amnesiac love story. Mars’ most recent novel, “Nonstop,” takes on a global terrorist threat that emerges in the wake of September 11’s eleventh anniversary. “Nonstop” was released in November, but Mars is back at work on a new novel.

For his next project, Mars chose Harvard as “the center of [his] literary universe.” His novel follows an undergraduate as he becomes embroiled in a series of murders that take place on Harvard’s campus and in the Greater Boston area. Mars’ protagonist is a bit of a loner—he is of lesser means than his classmates and has lost both his parents—but he soon sees his name in lights, or rather printed on the front of a new bestseller. This may sound too good to be true, and it is, for the book in the story is no mere novel but a handbook for serial killers. When a number of murders are carried out according to the handbook’s specifications, the young protagonist is naturally seen as a primary suspect.

It might be hard to imagine a series of murders happening in vibrant Harvard Square or the heavily patrolled Yard, but luckily for Mars’ plot—if not for his fictional victims—he has tied up that loose end with a geographical adjustment. The protagonist of the new novel resides in the Quad, a place where Mars suggests “it is easier to see bad things happening.” It becomes even more true when you consider that, despite its nearly 1,000 residents, these three Houses possess the eerie quietness of an abandoned city. In addition to the Quad’s almost haunting aura, Mars had socioeconomic motives at heart for, at least in his perception, “the Quad is set apart from the more aristocratic Yard and River Houses; it is the suburbs of Harvard. My character is also an outcast.” Though residents may disagree with this characterization, the Quad’s location does lend itself well to the premise of Mars’ novel.

Because Mars believes that it is important to fill your writing with “details you grab from your everyday life,” it was imperative for him to see Harvard, especially his character’s home. After all, experiencing the locales in his novels firsthand has suited him well while in the midst of writing previous novels; he spent time in New York for “Nonstop” and Jerusalem for “Le Sang du Christ.” As we walked around the Quad, Mars took note not only of large-scale details like architecture, but also of seemingly inconsequential ones like the lettering above a doorway or the size of a Cabot common room. “You discover little things that are useful from photos,” says Mars, dutifully using a camera to record whatever struck his eye. Indeed, it’s the small details that make a novel, however outlandish its plot, most convincing.

When asked what audience he was trying to reach with his account of murder and intrigue at Harvard, Mars succinctly replied, “The first reader you want to reach and move is yourself.” Write a book that you yourself would want to read, he explained. Don’t try to appease the critics or reach the top of the best-seller list. “It is more important for a writer to feel strongly about his subject, so that he wakes up everyday wanting to create something astounding,” says Mars. Thesis writers, take note.

—Staff writer Sophie E. Heller can be reached at sophieheller@college.harvard.edu.

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