Thirty-eight-year-old Franck Thilliez, who lives in a small town in the north of France with a population of about 10,000 people, was a computer engineer for a decade before he began writing, but it was his love of cinema that inspired the novel Syndrome E, a scientifically minded thriller about two detectives investigating the sudden onset of blindness after a viewing of an obscure film from the 1950s. The book, already a bestseller in France, was acquired by Viking and translated by Mark Polizzotti.

Thilliez says, “When I was younger, I was fascinated by horror movies and thrillers. Watching them, I felt two strange feelings, completely opposite: excitement and fear. I always wondered how movie directors could cause them. When I started thinking about stories, I tried to reproduce this pattern of ambiguous feelings. Basically, I think this is what readers of thrillers are looking for: taking pleasure in being scared.”

The source of Syndrome E was more historical than personal, Thilliez explains. He was reading some information about the history of psychology when he came across the story of the Canadian Duplessis orphans, who, he says, “although completely sane, had been placed in psychiatric hospitals in the 1950s for financial gain—to the hospitals.”

The author reports that he wrote every weekday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for five months to get his U.S. debut down on paper. But the research for the “complicated story” was long lasting and far ranging. Thilliez says he covered “forensics, cinema, studies about the brain, psychiatry. I had to read a lot of professional books, meet specialists, to talk with them about all the detail.”