(Illustration by Rico Schacherl 4 Feb 2010)
Jean-Baptiste is being painted, in miniature. The image is to be reproduced on the back cover of each copy of his latest crime novel, The Bloodiest Rose. As he poses, pretending to be hard at work, he contemplates his successful career with something close to despair. He is living a bit of a lie. While the artist hums, and squints at him, he softly sinks into a cherished reverie, in which he stands at the centre of an admiring circle, the acclaimed and unabashed romance novelist who does not hide behind a nom de plume.
Detective Inspector Duchamp, JeanBap’s protagonist, is a loner, given to blunt, cryptic statements and the occasional moral stance. Men envy his insistent smoking and drinking, his lack of remorse and his silent suffering of chronic wind. Women, with no foundation, love him too. Each one believes that were he a real person – by the ultimate twist of fate, should he turn out to be real – she will be the one to break down his defences.
They have no basis for this conviction, that is, other than sixth sense, which if it came to it would turn out to be accurate. There is indeed a heart – warm and strongly beating – beneath both Duchamp and JeanBap’s impassive exterior.
As a child, secretly encouraged by the women in his family, JeanBap wrote little stories of love and tragedy, short-lived joy and untimely death.
‘Like Romeo and Juliet,’ his mother would sniff, putting down his latest offering.
‘Sadder!’ his aunt pronounced.
Or ‘Like that Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ his mother would chortle.
‘Funnier!’ his aunt proclaimed, dropping her knitting.
JeanBap would lower his head modestly and suck his pencil.
His father, involved not at all, exerted a powerful influence nevertheless. Should he have discovered his son’s favourite subject matter, there would have been hell to pay. Scorn would have dripped. JeanBap knew this without ever being told, and as he grew into the role of creator of the Duchamp cases – texts even his father admitted to enjoying on the rare occasion he had time to read – he, his mother and his aunt kept quiet as quiet can be. For his childhood yearning developed too, and over the years he has written copiously of the affairs of the lovely Dominique, former Duchesse de Deauville, under the pseudonym Jeanne Bécu. Which brings us to this day, and JeanBap’s despondence.
A fundamentally honest man, he is made tense by guilt. He wriggles in his seat, and yawns a great anxious yawn. The artist has to ask him to settle down.
‘Just relax,’ he tells the author. ‘Be yourself.’
Myself? JeanBap ponders. Do I know who that is?
But yes, he answers himself. It’s easy. You’ve always known.
So, he decides, one day, soon, I will stand up among my gathered devotees and say, I am Jeanne Bécu. I am the creator of your beloved romance series, les affaires de coeur de Domi.
It’s a decision he makes now for perhaps the fifth time in as many years, but it feels brand new.