Brussels embodies the contradictory nature of modern Europe. The city, as the headquarters of the European Union, represents a faceless bureaucratic technocracy. Brussels is also famous for its waffles and chocolate, the very tout court of touristy quaintness. Cue the Rick Steves b-roll and inoffensive images of gingerbread architecture, people drinking coffee at cafes, and darling confectioneries.
“It’s impossible to write about my city without first drawing a portrait of the bureaucracy at the origin of all its misfortune – and all of its richness,” Michel Dufranne says in his introduction to Brussels Noir. “The capital of the federal state known as the Kingdom of Belgium, it is enclaved within the region – relatively autonomous, Flemish-speaking – of Flanders, of which it is the capital (despite the fact that few of its inhabitants actually speak Flemish). But, to keep anyone from kicking up a fuss, it’s also the capital of the French-speaking community of Belgium, represented by an entity called the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles. And if this isn’t already hard enough to keep straight, Brussels also insists on being a region in itself, with its own elected government, which geographically covers the city of Brussels: a city made up of nineteen municipalities (arrondissements, for those who speak Parisian), the largest of which is named … Brussels. Are you lost yet?” Dufranne later mentions that Brussels is the land of surrealism, pragmatism, and irony.
After an initial exploration of Brussels in its whimsical and bureaucratic strangeness, he mentions the darker side of the city. The Brabant murders and the Heysel Stadium disaster. Dufranne, who also edited Brussels Noir, has collected thirteen pieces, ranging over different languages (Francophone, Dutch, Hispanic) and different genres (mystery, thriller, urban fantasy, science fiction).
All of the stories are wonderful, but I want to focus on one specific short story. “In the Shadow of the Tower,” by Émilie de Béco is one of the best (and most satisfying) revenge tales I’ve ever read. De Béco tells the story of Lydie, a working class girl who grew up in the shadow of “the colossal structure: Vlaamse Radio-en Televisieomroep on one side, Télévision Radio Belge Francophone on the other.” When she was a child, her father was falsely accused of being a child rapist by a newscaster.
“Jean-Marc Peereman was quickly, but perhaps too ambivalently, redeemed to the public. The actual criminal’s name, as it turned out, was a near-homonym – Peermans, with an s. A nineteen-second correction on the next morning’s news, rattled off between soccer scores and a report on protesting dairy farmers. Never look back, always head, was the “law of the airwaves” that had been declared by the newsroom’s editor-in-chief.” The typo and the lackluster gesture to correct the error couldn’t stop the inevitable. “Six months later, Jean-Marc Peereman committed suicide. Hanged himself in the stairwell, leaving no note, one cold, gray morning.”
We fast-forward eighteen years later and follow Lydie, the daughter of Jean-Marc Peereman, on a meteoric rise in the cut-throat TV news industry. “In the meantime, she studied. She read the papers, listened to the radio, watched TV. She watched him. Daniel Claverie, still very handsome, his teeth so white, so personable, so kind.” Daniel Claverie was the young TV reporter who exposed Peereman as the alleged child rapist. Lydie has other plans for Claverie. As Laura Prepon’s character said in Orange is the New Black, “Revenge is a long game.”
In the end Claverie gets his just deserts and Lydie ends up in prison. Yet Lydie ending up in prison is not seen as a tragic end to a villainous character. What she did – infiltrate, seduce, and then destroy – comes across as justified and morally right. (All the more so since the downfall of media creepazoids like Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer. Misogynist predators all.)
“Ever since her confession, she’d occupied a pleasant cell in Prison de Forest. There was plenty to read and write about, and her cellmates, though foul-smelling, were not so inhospitable as the American television shows would lead on to believe. She wasn’t so bad off.” De Béco’s short story is a middle-finger to sanctimonious moralizers. These same unctuous do-gooders make up the same demographic feeding the predatory media machine. In the United States we have a proliferation of codes: the Comics Code, the Hays Code, the FCC, the MPAA, and the PMRC. Yet we act shocked when moral self-policing collapses from its own inherent rot and hypocrisy.
“In the Shadow of the Tower” is one story of many in Brussels Noir. Yet again the Akashic Noir series curates an entertaining genre-bending anthology of dark tales, bad decisions, and charismatic characters.