Sébastien Japrisot is the name under which Jean-Baptiste Rossi wrote his marvelous, twisty, cunning crime novels. (It is interesting to see that his biographers and critics often write about his early novels as “literature,” as opposed to his crime novels. I wouldn’t draw that particular opposition, myself.) In my French Crime Fiction class, I asked my students to read his second crime novel, the one for which he won the Grand Prix de littérature policière in 1963: Piège pour Cendrillon (Trap for Cinderella.)
Trap for Cinderella begins with an odd little prologue. Once upon a time, it says, there were three little girls: Mi, Do, and La, and their godmother, Midola. Mi was the prettiest, Do was the smartest, and La soon died. With this chilling beginning — and the clear implication as it goes on that the godmother strongly prefers Mi to the other two girls — the reader is already questioning the story. Are we in fairyland or reality? Who is Cinderella, the princess or the girl sent to sit in the ashes? Who is setting the trap?
The novel (which rids itself of the fairy-tale prose but not necessarily its structural or symbolic importance) revolves around two girls who were trapped in a fire at a beach resort in France. One died in the fire, burned beyond recognition. The other, our narrator, has lost her memory in the wake of the accident. She has burns on her face and hands that make it impossible to tell her identity (no DNA evidence available in the 1960s). But one girl was rich, an heiress, and one girl was penniless. Which girl is she? Wealthy Michèle (the Mi of the fairy tale) or poor bank-teller Domenica (Do)? Who can she trust to tell her? Where is the trap, and who set it? Is it, in fact, a trap she might have set herself, before the accident? What evidence is real, and in the case of someone with no identity, what does “real” mean?
Japrisot has done some very clever things with this book. One is the fact that all the characters who are usually in a crime novel — victim, detective, murderer, witness — are, or may be, the same person here: the girl herself. As she reconstructs the crime, she is reconstructing her own past, implying that identity — and justice itself, therefore — are merely ideas, constructions in our minds, reflections of what others say about us. Another clever thing about this is how deeply we identify with her search. We, the reader, want to solve the crime, as we do with any mystery; the girl wants to find her identity. In this book, both quests are the same. We’ve both fallen into the Cinderella trap, which, as it turns out, is a narrative one.
I could go on for a long time talking about how interesting and well-done this book is, and how it draws you in with its ambiguity. Clues in this book lead only to more twists and turns, and just when you think you know something, you’ll just walk around another bend. Japrisot is well worth discovering.