Today’s guest blog is by Gilles Pétel who was born and raised in Dunkirk. After studying philosophy at the Université de Nice, he spent several years’ abroad teaching. Pétel wrote his novel Under the Channel (published by Gallic in May 2014) while living in London at the time of the financial crisis and working as a teacher at the Lycée Français.
To my knowledge, there are very few novels or films, which take place at all in the Channel Tunnel, with the notable exception of the Brian de Palma film Mission Impossible, in the spectacular scene where a helicopter follows the Eurostar into the tunnel.
Yet the Channel Tunnel truly is an extraordinary machine, especially if one decides to commit a murder there. Like all tunnels, it links two different universes, two valleys, two countries, an island, and a continent. It’s a pathway. But this tunnel, which joins together France and England, is neither here nor there. How can we know, with certainty, whether the murder was committed on the French side or the English side? Who does the corpse belong to? Who should lead the investigation? A tunnel is also an entrenched area, hidden from view. There can be no external witnesses to the scene of the crime. Either the passengers were present when the victim was murdered, and are hence all suspects (as goes the reasoning in the famous Murder on the Orient Express), or they were elsewhere, and couldn’t have been at the murder scene. On a speeding train, the murderer cannot have come from outside. He or she is one of the witnesses interrogated. These circumstances or these elements make the crime much more complicated, both to commit, and to solve. And of course, the Channel Tunnel is no ordinary tunnel. It doesn’t pass through a mountain, as tunnels usually do, but under the sea. We’re therefore transported into an almost fantastical universe, which recalls that of Jules Verne (Journey to the Centre of the Earth or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea). This train, speeding along under the sands of the Channel, almost seems to come from a futuristic novel. Travelling in such conditions is both exciting and worrying. It somehow feels as though you might be risking your life when you climb aboard, especially if someone has already decided to kill you!
That’s what the Border Police think anyway. Before I wrote Under The Channel, I had met with a French police officer so that he could tell me not only how a murder investigation is conducted, but also how the Channel Tunnel is protected.
That’s how, one beautiful spring morning; he took me to the police station in charge of supervising the Channel Tunnel. I remember how en route, he explained the different ranks which distinguish the police officers amongst themselves, their functions, the different criminal affairs he had dealt with the most (he was now retired). I remember how the security increased the closer we got to the tunnel, and I still have the very strong impression that the tunnel entrance made on me, that gigantic hole cut out of the countryside. When we were there, drinking coffee with the guards, he explained that the owners of the tunnel had refused me permission, which I had requested a few weeks previously, to visit the inside of the tunnel, and the surrounding escape routes. I thought that the tour might give me ideas as to how this murder could have been committed. I was only at the start of my book, and I had been asking myself a number of questions about how to make this murder as realistic as possible, when it wasn’t especially so. But in terms of murders, as the police officer confided in me, nothing is really that improbable. The only limits come from our own imagination. Reality itself flirts with infinity.
It wasn’t hard to guess why permission for me to visit the tunnel hadn’t been granted. The company, which makes use of the Channel Tunnel, lives in fear of a terrorist attack. It was a little surprising nonetheless to find myself suspected of such things, but I suppose one can never be too careful when it comes to security.
I was on the other hand allowed to visit the police station whether they monitor the tunnel’s fittings. The agents were most charming, and answered most of my questions. They also showed me a plan of the tunnel, which I burned into my memory. This is how I found out that the two main tracks of the Tunnel have smaller versions, which follow them, which would allow, if necessary, an evacuation if a train broke down.
I also couldn’t help noticing, on arriving and leaving the area, the huge amount of barbed wire, which surrounded the entrance to the tunnel. And I haven’t even mentioned the cameras…
When I had returned home, I thought about what I had seen, and what I had been told. Nothing would prevent a murder being committed on the train as it passed through the Channel Tunnel, with the assailant then fleeing via one of the escape routes, as long as, of course, the train stopped for a little while. Nobody could have entered the train from the outside to commit the crime I was thinking of, but they could easily hop out, neither seen nor heard, once the murder was done. When constructing the plot, I also often found myself thinking about the huge number of surveillance cameras, the endless security gates, and all the barbed wire placed there to prevent the ever growing flow of illegal immigration. This is why I decided to write into my novel a character who is also stowing away. This character, at first secretive and enigmatic, became more and more important in spite of myself. Could he have been the murderer?
It’s always hard to know where writing ideas come from. Observations of course, research sometimes, imagination more so; all play an important role in the working out of a novel. But the importance of chance ideas can’t be ignored – as it’s so often a determining factor. As in the case of the character I’ve just mentioned, sometimes the best ideas come to us completely randomly, as though whispered in our ear, without needing much thought to come across them.
Under the Channel by Gilles Pétel is out now, £7.99 (Gallic Books)