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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Staging Missing Emilie

by Don Webb

Missing Emilie begins in issue 472.

On rare occasions an audience may gain understanding of a play before it even opens. Such may be the case with Michael E. Lloyd’s novel Missing Emilie, which concluded in issue 494. Let’s come in early and watch the preparations behind the scenes, as the director has the stagehands move the props into place.

First, picture the stage crew foreman — namely your Managing Editor — suitably clad in paint-spattered overalls and work belt. The director — that is, the author — comes on stage and hands him a work schedule.

Your grizzled, cigar-chomping foreman nods approvingly: there’ll be no last-minute rush to paper over chaos in this show. An Excel spreadsheet lays out the plan of the entire 23-week run: issue numbers, chapter titles and numbers, part numbers and word lengths. Each episode (read “chapter”) has its own weekly marquee billing (in the Readers’ Guide) in the form of a “description” meta-tag. No ad-hoc guessing needed. This production is going to proceed like clockwork.

Actors need chalk lines on the stage to show where they’re supposed to go and stand. It’s all there, too: each scene has its own diagram in the form of detailed formatting in the original submission. The experience with the author’s Observation trilogy has paid off handsomely in a professional job. The stage manager (editor) normally has to block out submissions by guess and by gosh. Not this time: the actors will “hit their marks” without a hitch in every scene.

The audience can’t see the blocking on the stage floor, but the spectators (readers) see everything that takes place on stage (on the page). The invisible directly affects the visible, however subtle it may be.

Take one example: the ubiquitous suspension points. The typographical device may seem absurdly insignificant, but such details have a cumulative effect. The suspension points “float” in British style, and each set consists of the requisite odd number: 3, 5, 7 or, in an extreme case or two, even more. Each set of suspension points conveys its own subtle shade of emphasis. What the readers see is a veteran musicologist at work, displaying in typography the kinds of subtleties one would expect in a musical score.

Readers cannot fail to notice such meticulous attention to detail in the text itself, particularly in the precise references to time and place. And the “stage directions” are by no means arbitrary. Veteran readers will know from the Observation trilogy that if they ever want to take a sight-seeing tour, they won’t buy a Guide Michelin, they’ll hire Michael E. Lloyd as a guide. Their tour will be entertaining, informative and, above all, exact.

Break out a map of Nice, Toulon, Marseilles or Paris, and you can follow the hero Arthur Narone’s footsteps from one street and building to the next with Joycean precision, even down to the ubiquitous cabines téléphoniques at which he receives calls from Inspector Hardy as well as the mysterious, off-stage characters Luc and Xérus.

The city wastebaskets are there, too. Just don’t go to Nice and start rummaging about in anything marked déchets for “wads” of Old Francs; they’re the only thing that will be missing.

An example of precision:

Avenue du Prado, Marseilles
Sunday 14 November, 9 p.m.

‘Good evening, Governor Delacroix. I am Inspector Simon Hardy, and may I present Monsieur Charles-Pierre Orceau?’

Place, time and speakers, all up front. But a word of caution: readers don’t always get such precise stage directions and must remain constantly alert to keep straight who’s talking to whom.

Now, how does the “play” play out? Let’s take an overview of its structure.

The novel is divided into three “books” of unequal length. Book I recounts the “bank caper,” where Xérus recruits Luc and Narone to rob the Banque Artisanale in Nice. Book II recounts Arthur Narone’s life after his release from prison seven years later. Book III concludes his sporadic search for an old love, Emilie.

The style of Book I, “Self Above All,” takes some getting used to. There is no narration; the action is recounted entirely in dialogue in some form, namely speech, depositions, or interior monologue. Readers will not see all the action in progress; rather they’ll hear the plans being made and, afterwards, various participants’ accounts of what has transpired.

And Book I is full of poker-faced comedy. Xérus’ telephoned instructions to Luc and Luc’s to Narone might be a parody of Mission Impossible’s “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.” After giving lengthy, convoluted and downright incomprehensible instructions, the plotters say, “Don’t write this down.” To which the reader can only think, desperately, on the recipients’ behalf: “You gotta be kidding! Go through that again. Slowly. And I am writing it down. Nobody can remember all that.”

The bank robbery itself takes a dark turn with gunplay but is, all told, a farce. Readers may imagine Luc disguised with Groucho glasses and moustache. And the getaway car becomes the victim of what amounts to vehicular slapstick.

In Book II, “Reparations,” the pace and focus change dramatically — but not radically — from Book I. And yet some readers may be perplexed by the shift. There’s no need for puzzlement: the separation into different “books” is ample notice that the story is entering a new phase. Dialogue continues to predominate, but narration plays a new and important part, mainly to express Arthur Narone’s thoughts and state of mind.

Arthur Narone is fresh on the street after serving a seven-year prison sentence. Xérus remains a sinister, unseen figure. Luc is on the phone but out of sight. Detective Inspector Simon Hardy is still doggedly on the trail of the bank robbers even though the case has become, after so long a time, if not exactly “cold” at least rather tepid.

Book I was mostly “cops and robbers,” but Book II, in contrast, resembles a chess game. Narone is a knight who must protect three pawns (the money, Pureza and Julia) from two hostile bishops (Xérus and Luc) while being shadowed by a more or less neutral king (Hardy). And the action plays out as in chess, with move and counter-move, attack, block, and escape.

Arthur Narone’s first priority is to recover the money from the bank heist. He had stashed it in his next-door neighbor Danielle’s sofa on the night of the robbery, but after seven years the sofa has gone missing. He goes to great lengths to track it down, recover the money, and hide it again, first in Pureza’s bookstore and then in his own apartment.

Pureza has taken Narone under her wing and provided him with food, money, shelter, a job and offers of romance. Narone accepts all but the romance. What’s wrong with him? Chalk it up perhaps to nostalgia for his life with Emilie. Now, seven years later, he is smitten by a much younger “woman,” Julia, age 17, a little younger than Emilie was when Narone had first met her. And we know Arthur loves Julia because she’s the only one he tells where he’s hidden the money.

Arthur Narone’s wanderings and romances are punctuated by numerous phone conversations with Xérus, Luc and Inspector Hardy, all of whom want the money, and Hardy wants to arrest everybody. With each conversation Narone must stall, bluff, lie, evade and dissemble. The criminal masterminds are extraordinarily patient with Narone’s feeble excuses. Threats are made against Pureza, but only Xérus finally takes extreme measures by kidnapping Julia.

Book III, “Lost in Action,” recounts Arthur Narone’s search for Emilie. At the outset he had two motives to search for her. First, he had been in love with her before the robbery and her disappearance seven years before. Second, if Xérus and Luc find her, they may get to the money first.

But after Narone retrieves the money and falls in love with Julia, Emilie becomes irrelevant to the plot; she holds only nostalgic interest for Arthur. Even if the two former lovers were reunited, what would they do with each other but reminisce?

Literary references do not exactly abound in Missing Emilie, but they do seem to serve as the author’s acknowledgments. And they play revealing and sometimes puzzling roles. Let’s consider a few examples.

In a paradoxical way, Emilie recapitulates the part of Don Quixote’s Dulcinea:

She was a humble peasant girl who lived not far away from Quixote ... and when he went quite mad and decided to become a Knight Errant, he built her up in his mind to be his Lady, someone much finer than she really was ... but she never knew that he had idolised her in that way, and she never learned anything of all the crazy knightly deeds he then did in her name. And of course throughout the story she is only ever talked about by the main characters — she never actually makes an appearance herself.

Of course it is Emilie who “goes mad” and does quixotic “knightly deeds” on the streets of Paris in the Days of May 1968. And she does finally put in an appearance, although only in the diary that Arthur Narone, Julia and Pureza eventually recover.

What does the title “Missing Emilie” mean? Is “missing” a present participle used as an adjective (Emilie is missing) or is it a gerund (Arthur misses Emilie)? Such a meticulous planner as the author would accept the ambiguity only by design; both are true at the same time.

Arthur Narone occasionally receives admiration — usually naive and wide-eyed — for being a “published author.” He explains honestly and modestly that he wrote stories during his long stay in prison and that two of them have appeared in pulp magazines.

Ironically, it is Julia who, at the end, seems prepared to become the real writer in the group. One might say Julia deserves the honor after a hilariously inauspicious first effort that exemplifies by exaggeration Bewildering Stories’ own “dead narrator” rule.

Arthur Narone himself has had the time to become quite well-read. As a character in the novel he might have served as a vehicle for embedding literary footnotes galore into the text, but he happily escapes that fate.

He does refer once to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in an aside, but the reason remains obscure. Obviously it’s not for Rousseau’s love of nature; Missing Emilie is a mind game played out on city maps. Perhaps we have a covert allusion to the opening line of the Contrat social: “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” Narone has been freed from prison, but he is certainly “enchained” by the competing interests of Xérus, Luc and Hardy, not to forget Pureza.

Likewise, Narone thinks occasionally of Anais Nin, albeit somewhat guiltily. Ironically, he would have to devour Anais Nin’s erotica in order to work up the enthusiasm to do with Pureza what Pureza wants to do with him but that he prefers to do with other women, especially Julia.

The plot of John Fowles’ The Collector is not summarized exactly, but readers are told enough that they can fill in the blanks and understand that Xérus acts it out by kidnapping Julia.

Perhaps the most curious literary allusion is the comparison of Arthur Narone to the image of Meursault on the cover of the Livre de Poche edition of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger. If readers happen to possess a copy, they’ll see that the image is quite generic.

And those readers will have presumably had the good fortune to read Camus’ novel in the original rather than the lamentable translation that has caused widespread misunderstanding of Camus in the English-speaking world. They will see immediately that Michael E. Lloyd’s character Arthur Narone resembles Albert Camus’ Meursault only to the extent that he’s a tourist in his own city.

One must admire Missing Emilie as a marvel of engineering. All the parts fit together with micro-tolerance accuracy, and the reader may well visualize the author drafting his plot with the equivalent of the whiteboards covered with notes and connecting lines in episodes of Masterpiece Mystery’s “Inspector Lewis” series.

All told, Missing Emilie is a “wheels within wheels” mystery and a somewhat bittersweet comédie d’intrigue. Who and where are Xérus and Luc? Where did Emilie go, and why? Where’s the money-stuffed sofa? How can Pureza put up with Narone? Why don’t Xérus, Luc and Hardy get fed up with Narone’s stalling and beat the money out of him or hire some real mobsters to do it?

Missing Emilie is not for the impatient or literal-minded. Rather it will reward readers who have a fondness for the faintly ludicrous, a dry and wry sense of humor, and an ear for subtle irony.

Copyright © 2012 by Don Webb

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