Review - NIGHTMARE IN BURGUNDY, Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen,
The Winemaker Detective leaves his native Bordeaux to go to Burgundy for a dream wine tasting trip to France's other key wine-making region. Between Beaune, Dijon and Nuits-Saint-Georges, it urns into a troubling nightmare when he stumbles upon a mystery revolving around messages from another era. What do they mean? What dark secrets from the deep past are haunting the Clos de Vougeot? Does blood need to be shed to sharpen people's memory? A made-for-TV series.
The third in the Winemaker Detective series, NIGHTMARE IN BURGUNDY takes our hero Benjamin Cooker away from his native Bordeaux to Burgundy, where he is being named Chevalier du Tastevin by the Knights of the order that are proud of their slogan 'Never whine, always wine!'.
Which will probably give you a little bit of an indication of the tone of this charming series, set deep in the world of French wine, and the intrigues that seem to pile up alongside it. In NIGHTMARE IN BURGUNDY this intrigue revolves mostly around a series of extremely erudite graffiti attacks which start to show up around the small town that Cooker is visiting. In Latin, ultimately identified as quotations from one of the more sobering Psalms, our graffiti writer doesn't seem to be any ordinary teenager, despite the locals taking matters somewhat precipitously into their own hands.
This series is one of those perfect little morsels for fans of all sorts of crime fiction. For the cosy fans this is a perfect way to immerse yourself in a beautiful place and a very different background industry. There are deaths, but they are almost off-screen, the puzzle of the Psalm and what the graffiti is trying to tell its readers is the point of the story. For fans of the darker side, there's enough plot here to keep the reader occupied, and whilst the style is a little on the arch, vaguely amused with itself side, it's not going to result in an overdose of the cutes.
It also doesn't hurt that the books come with a wonderful sense of place. Some of the descriptive elements are positively glorious. Then there's a sprinkling of wine education, a bit of local history, and even a brush up of your Latin.
As is this reader's usual wont, I've gotten out of sequence, and have now read the first and the third books, although I'm definitely going to catch up with the second at some point. NIGHTMARE IN BURGUNDY is an unusual setting for crime and an unusual plot into the bargain, but it is done well, with a central character who is definitely on the eccentric side. Which suits him very well.
YOUNG PHILBY - Robert Littell
When Kim Philby fled to Moscow in 1963, he became the most notorious double agent in the history of espionage. Recruited into His Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service at the beginning of World War II, he rose rapidly in the ranks to become the chief liaison officer with the CIA in Washington after the war. The exposure of other members of the group of British double agents known as the Cambridge Five led to the revelation that Philby had begun spying for the Soviet Union years before he joined the British intelligence service.
You can't help thinking that this is an interesting idea for a book, the story of one of the most famous real-life spies, told from the point of view of Philby's own life. Now the book and it's publicity material is quite tricky about the background of this book. Whilst there's nothing there to indicate whether or not this is a true story or fictional, it's written in a way that implies that the whole thing is the true story of Kim Philby's early years.
YOUNG PHILBY is however, a novel. It expands on what is known about Philby's life after Cambridge University (where he, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt formed the truth-life Cambridge Spy Ring), but embroiders the facts with the fictional imaginings of the author, Littell, about how he came to learn his spycraft, and the people and influences that guided his activities. Told from a variety of different viewpoints, YOUNG PHILBY takes the reader back to the time at which Philby is recruited, time that he spends with his handlers, lovers and friends, the time in which he learns and masters the art of surviving as a double agent.
You'd think, because of the inherent danger in the life that Philby was setting up for himself, this should be an extremely compelling story, even allowing for the fictional excursion, but for some reason it just didn't come alive for this reader. Part of the problem seemed to be that the story is told from a series of different viewpoints, which I rapidly found almost impossible to tell apart. Men, women, participants, observers, there's was a constant tone throughout the book that didn't clearly distinguish each of the various players. The other problem was that everyone seemed cynical, bored, frequently arch and whilst that could have been trying to create some sort of overall feeling of insouciance, what it ended up doing was make everyone seem rather bored. Which kind of made this reader rather bored with the lot of them.
Because tone is such a very personal thing, and because there are also readers who don't mind the fictional playing a bit loose and fast with real life history, YOUNG PHILBY is a novel that could really work for other readers. Ones that like the cynicism, that can find depth in the people, that are intrigued by the imaginings of what could have happened in Philby's life, and who rather enjoy the peek behind a fictional curtain on real-life espionage.
THE PARIS LAWYER - Sylvie Granotier
As a child, Catherine Monsigny was the only witness to her mother's death. 20 years later as an ambitious attorney in contemporary Paris, she catches a professional break when her boss assigns her to major felony case in rural France. An immigrant stands accused of poisoning her husband, but her secrets are not the only ones hidden in the scenic rolling hills of Creuse. While preparing the defence, Catherine is reunited with images of own past and a high-intensity search for two murderers ensues. Who can she believe? And what will Catherine do with her past should she discover it?
It is always a pleasure to come across publishers who are bringing works from different cultures to the English-reading world, particularly when there is such a strong sense of place in the books I've been lucky enough to read from Le French Book (http://lefrenchbook.com/). THE PARIS LAWYER has a particular French sensibility, combined with a clever take on lawyer based crime fiction.
The Parisian Lawyer is Catherine Monsigny, a young lawyer whose earliest memories are fleeting glimpses of the day that her mother was murdered. Her debut criminal trial involves an enigmatic immigrant, accused of murder, a defence harder to build because this person seems to have come from nowhere. Called out of Paris to assist her client, the case triggers Monsigny to confront her own history. Along the way she develops a relationship with a strange man who may have an ulterior motive for his pursuit of her.
One of the most interesting aspects of THE PARIS LAWYER is how what starts of as a slightly meandering, low key sort of a story, builds into something that becomes extremely involving. It's almost sneaky how the combination of an isolated location, a man with a secret and a central character with a confronting past, all combine as Monsigny's investigation into her own background and the defence of the murder accused, twist and turn together. The story deftly balances the idea of a lawyer, trial based book; with many of the aspects of a psychological thriller.
Whilst much of the standard formula of a psychological thriller is twisted on its head early in the book, and Monsigny's reveals her insecurity, there is a further twist that may or may not work for many readers. At some point in the search for the murderer of her mother, Monsigny becomes even more preoccupied with what the mother she never had a chance to know was really like, and hence who she is herself. At that point the book becomes increasingly less about the who and more about the why. What is driving many of the central characters, why they do what they do, and who they really are. For this reader it added an extra layer, and there was absolutely no reason not to follow where the author was leading.
The only other problem is likely to be in the way that many of the plot elements are left unresolved at the end of the book. Not necessarily a bad thing, unless that lack has no apparent reason. Be it to allow the reader some thinking material, or because everything in life is not automatically wrapped up neatly, unresolved elements aren't automatically an issue as far as this reader is concerned. Unfortunately here, some of the elements left hanging at the end of THE PARIS LAWYER didn't leave a question to consider, instead they contributed to the feeling of a bit of a mad scramble to the end.
Fortunately these minor problems did not lessen any enjoyment of THE PARIS LAWYER at all. It is a refreshing, different, challenging approach to some standard and not so standard crime fiction norms.
TREACHERY IN BORDEAUX - Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen
Strange things are happening at the Moniales Haut-Brion wine cellars in Bordeaux. Who would want to target this esteemed vintner? World-renowned wine specialist turned gentleman detective Benjamin Cooker and his sidekick Virgile Lanssien search the city and the vineyards for answers, uncovering mysteries lurking in the shadows of prestigious estates.
Living on the edge of the Pyrenees (the ones in Victoria, Australia), surrounded as we are by wineries and winemakers, it's was a rather interesting experience to find myself reading TREACHERY IN BORDEAUX which is steeped in wine-making tradition, methodology, and a dash of intrigue.
TREACHERY IN BORDEAUX is the first in a series of books that are likely to be compared to the Number 1 Ladies Detective agency, if for no other reason than its incredibly strong sense of place and culture. Plus, whilst the book is crime fiction, there's not a murder in sight. This is a very different, dare I say, very French sort of a crime.
The book relies heavily on the development of the central, somewhat eccentric and rather bombastic character Benjamin Cooker. Cooker might be a man who agonises over his professional reputation when it comes to his wine based writings, but is also very firm in his position about life, food, wine and his place in the world. To this reader he seemed like an unusual combination of a quintessentially English Frenchman, and there are times when you wonder how it is that his new sidekick Virgile Lanssien doesn't simply throw his hands in the air and walk away. It also builds a picture of a very particular world. That of the winemakers, of ancient and revered wine cellars, of the pressures of modern life and the relentless urban push. It has a message about the destruction of tradition that particularly resonated.
TREACHERY IN BORDEAUX is not, however, a book for action fans. It takes forever for anything like the crime to occur, and you'd be forgiven if you kind of missed it in all the wine facts (why was I hearing Oz Clarke and James May's voices all the time....). It's definitely a book for fans of expertise, of eccentricity and of a strong sense of place and people. Benjamin Cooker could be exactly the sort of wine-buff that makes some of us roll our eyes and mutter under our breath a little, but if you can handle the slightly superior tone, and see it with the humour implied, it is the perfect book for people who might like a little treachery with their evening glass of Bordeaux, a little history and tradition with their Merlot.
About the Publisher: Le French Book (http://www.lefrenchbook.com/ is a digital-first publisher that brings France's best crime fiction, thrillers, novels, short stories, and non-fiction to new readers across the English-speaking world. If we love it, we’ll translate it.
DEATH IN THE LATIN QUARTER - Raphael Cardetti
Early one morning in Paris, the tranquillity of the Sorbonne University is shattered by a death. But why would Albert Cadas, a quiet, crumpled professor of medieval literature, have any reason to kill himself. Meanwhile, Valentine Savi, a talented young restorer, receives a visit from an enigmatic elderly gentleman with a unique commission: to restore a priceless manuscript whose time-worn pages promise to reveal the truth of a mystery that has fascinated scholars and writers for centuries.
DEATH IN THE LATIN QUARTER is the first novel by Raphael Cardetti, translated from the original French, released in English in 2010. Categorised on the cover as a "treasure-hunt tale", this is a book set in the halls of academia and the world of art collection, restoration and museums.
The story, as outlined in the blurb, revolves around Valentine Savi, a talented young restorer, taking in private commissions to clean and restore artwork on behalf of the great general public. She has fallen from grace, fired from a prestigious job after a mistake, which is slowly revealed as the book goes on. After being approached by an enigmatic elderly man with a unique commission, she quickly finds herself involved in nefarious plots to possess an ancient manuscript and the secrets it allegedly holds.
Okay, up front, I really really struggled to finish this book. Originally I thought it might be a slight personal wariness that I feel about these great artwork / secrets from the past / enigmatic old millionaires / playing fast and loose with everyone around them type scenarios. There were a number of things that worried me about this book: why we couldn't just confirm what had happened to make Savi lose her job so that we could all move on (it wasn't hard to take an educated guess after all). Why the Dean even had time to develop such a hump with some poor hapless student (and quite what all that was supposed to be about anyway). Why so many millionaire art-collectors have to be "enigmatic"; and most of all why their assistants have to be gorgeous, wound up like a top, perfectly coiffed blonde women (for that matter why are their bodyguards always "disguised" as the chauffeur and built like the proverbial without a brain cell to spare). And I haven't even mentioned the compound, the state of the art security system that wasn't, and the security consultant who would have been better paying more attention to the aforementioned state of the art security system, and a lot less to lusting after the main female characters. Whilst these sorts of books are very much about the manipulation of the reader experience, there must be something in the storytelling that makes the reader willing to go along with the obvious tension building, and I couldn't, no matter how hard I tried, swallow a lot of it.
At one point I thought I'd nailed the problem, assuming I'd missed a subtle sense of humour. Maybe the story was teasing me, it was supposed to be slightly tongue in cheek, and I'd misread the tone completely... Toiling on through the book, I looked for these signs, but I simply couldn't find them. Instead I found an increasing pile of overt red herrings, a bit of romantic tension, much rushing around and a hefty dose of telegraphed character-jep that would have made a movie fan pitch Jaffa's at the screen. As the pace tried to pick up in the book, my ability to stick with it was getting less and less. The villains were too much, the bad guy too obvious, the characterisations too clichéd and the plot too transparent for my taste.
THIS NIGHT'S FOUL WORK - Fred Vargas
On the outskirts of Paris, two men are discovered with their throats cut. In Normandy, two stags have been killed and their hearts cut out. Meanwhile, a seventy-five-year old nurse who had murdered several of her patients has escaped from prison. Is there a connection between the three cases?
Being more than a little bit fond of the Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series I was very annoyed with myself when I got a bit behind with the releases and had to make an effort to catch up. Poor me. So tragic. Having to spend some time with one of my favourite, eccentric detectives and the rest of his team of mildly odd compatriots.
THIS NIGHT'S FOUL WORK sees Adamsberg team pretty well settled, so the introduction of any new lieutenant could be complicated. Louis Veyrenc is even more disruptive, with his tendency to speak in verse (twelve-syllable alexandrines to be accurate), to say nothing of his oddly striped hair and his deeply held, childhood grudge against Adamsberg. Which grudge Adamsberg is pretty well oblivious to until slapped over the head with the evidence. He's somewhat preoccupied by the return into his life of old nemesis Ariane Legarde, pathologist, and Adamsberg enemy since he questioned her conclusions in a case twenty-three years earlier. But there are crimes at the centre of this book and typically baffling at that. You can only guess at what the connection could be between the ritual killing of stags in the hills of Normandy, two local "lads" found murdered after raiding the graves of recently deceased spinsters, and the escape from prison of a seventy-five-year old multiple killer nurse that Adamsberg has dealt with before.
Needless to say THIS NIGHT'S FOUL WORK has a wonderful feeling of the Gothic about it. Odd glimpses of shadowy figures creeping around graveyards; curses past and present; places with strange histories; things going bump in the night in Adamsberg's new house; childhood grudges; deeply held beliefs; long enmities and friction. Lots and lots of friction. All of action swirls around Adamsberg as he sort of floats through life. He's more a cerebral than rush around detective, prone to leaps of faith and acute observations - his odd behaviour is no longer regarded as anything out of the ordinary by a team which kind of specialises in odd behaviour. But this team is also capable of immense kindness, understanding and support for each other - they are the perfect group to spend time with if you like things just that little bit batty.
If you're not aware of this series - Fred Vargas is the pen name of Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau, French medievalist and archaeologist. Vargas, as of THIS NIGHT'S FOUL WORK a twice winner of the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger award, is translated by Siân Reynolds who does a sterling job at translating the language but keeping the overall feel and quirkiness of the books.
Just a quick word of warning - I rather like a series where it doesn't matter if you get them all out of order. In the main I've read the Adamsberg books all over the place but in this case, with the next book AN UNCERTAIN PLACE out already, you'd really be best to read THIS NIGHT'S FOUL WORK first. Without this, earlier, book I suspect a reader could get bamboozled otherwise as there's a lot of setup for AN UNCERTAIN PLACE in THIS NIGHT'S FOUL WORK.
Needless to say I just love these books. But really - don't read them if you're looking for precise behaviour, keen logic, rules and regulations being followed, and no idiosyncrasies. Do read them if you're looking for humour, darkness, quirky, a hugely entertaining police procedurals... well police scenarios. Let's go with that...
ZULU - Caryl Ferey
As a child, Ali Neuman narrowly escaped being murdered by Inkatha, a militant political party at war with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. His father and brother were not so lucky. Only he and his mother survived the carnage of those years. But as with many survivors, the psychological scars remain. Ali has been marked, indelibly, by the brutality of those years, and healing only comes at a price.
Unbelievably violent, amazingly confrontational, searingly honest and profoundly emotional, ZULU is one of those books that you may have to read through spread fingers, but it is almost impossible to put this book down until it screeches to an ending that will make you shudder.
This is noir, critical, brutal writing at it's absolute best. The "Zulu" of the title refers not so much to the tribe as a whole, but to Cape Town homicide captain Ali Neuman. Heading up the investigation into the death of a young woman whose body is found with a crushed skull, Neuman accepts that his job must sometimes mean that he's put in difficult situations. His profound belief in the job he does comes from his childhood - when he was a young boy he was forced to watch the ritualised murders of his father and brother. He grew up with an overwhelming desire to put an end to the lawlessness that plagues his country. Regardless of other people's reactions to him or the colour of his skin.
There's nothing particularly uncommon about the idea that a central protagonist is fighting his own demons, or even battling against unsympathetic or antagonist authorities. What is different in the portrayal of these elements in ZULU is the context. Neuman's demons are the violent murders of his brother and father; the political complications of South African society; the appalling violence and disadvantage of the townships; attacks on his elderly mother. Murder rates that are simply breathtaking; AIDS; desperation; the disregard for life - it's all laid bare, raw and yet, there's also some sense of poignancy. There's love, affection, regard and concern for others. There's even humour and acceptance. Put all of that into a book that is written with a cynical, forthright style that is absolutely no holds barred. Then add more ways of killing and maiming and hurting people than even in your worst moments you couldn't have dreamed up and build the action and the reader's interest into a really interesting and likeable central protagonist. Then tear the rule book up and add a twist at the end that will just blow some readers out of the water, and what you've got is an intelligent, thought-provoking, frightening, fascinating and unputdownable book about a society that is still dealing with the impacts of Apartheid and profound societal upheaval.
ZULU isn't a book that is going to do much for the South African tourism industry, but it is a book that simply took my breath away.
MURDER ON THE EIFFEL TOWER - Claude Izner
The brand-new, shiny Eiffel Tower is the pride and glory of the 1889 World Exposition. But one sunny afternoon, as visitors are crowding the viewing platforms, a woman collapses and dies on this great Paris landmark. Can a bee sting really be the cause of death? Or is there a more sinister explanation? Enter young bookseller Victor Legris. Present on the tower at the time of the incident, and appalled by the media coverage of the occurence, he is determined to ?nd out what actually happened.
I suspect we all pick up a book looking forward to what is going to happen. So normally around page 50 a reader will be getting twitchy if nothing much has happened. Get to the end of the book and it still seems like you're waiting for something to happen and it's a very frustrating experience.
Set during the 1889 World Expo in Paris, the Eiffel Tower has just been officially opened and is a massive attraction. When a woman dies on one of the Tower's platforms, officially she died from a bee sting. As other people also die supposedly from bee stings, the police are not particularly interested, but Victor Legris, local bookseller and man about town type, is convinced that there is something sinister to these deaths.
Part of the reason that the book seems to go nowhere is that very early on the reader will find themselves being dragged down all sorts of cul-de-sacs, and dead-end alleyways into some, albeit fascinating historical aspects. What the book does particularly well is give you a great sense of the place and time - with some of those cul-de-sacs quite interesting in their own right. If only they hadn't dragged the focus away from the main plot point just once too often.
None of that meandering around was much helped by the investigation style of Legris. Which seemed to amount to a lot of leaping and posturing, and very little in the way of fact gathering - or disclosure to the reader for that matter.
The other problem with the book was some seriously poor character development, particularly that of Legris and his love interest, Tasha the Russian artist. He was very flat, and strangely one-dimensional and I did wonder how much the background of the author (actually two Parisian bookselling sisters) informed their view of their central protagonist. Perhaps they were aiming for dramatic and interesting, but alas ended up with melodramatic and a bit silly. Tasha didn't fare much better, as if being an artist in 1880's Paris wasn't enough of a cliché, she was Russian, she started out with a bit of potential, but quickly faded to bland.
I will dip into the next book in the series, as it's here, and first books are often not a good indicator of the potential of a series, but to be honest, I had to bribe myself with a chocolate for every 20 pages read to finish this one. I hope my doctor's not going to get all over-excited about my blood sugar levels after the next one.
THE MURDERED HOUSE - Pierre Magnan
One dark night in the winter of 1896, in remote upper Provence, a family is brutally massacred. Only a three-week-old baby miraculously survives. In 1920, the orphan, Seraphin Monge, finally returns home from the war to pursue the truth. Haunted by the image of his mother's dying moments, he turns on the house that has seen such misery, destroying it stone by stone. As the walls crumble, the killers' identities are laid bare and his anger turns to vengeance. But for every murder Seraphin plots, another hand silently executes it in his place.
There is a lot that I liked about this book. Not your traditional "crime story" it's probably best to flag it as a mystery. The mystery builds right from the start with the brutal massacre of an entire family - except for one. When that one orphan, now a man home from the war, returns to his family home, his agony and pain, left alone in the world, is beautifully illustrated in his manual, slow, stone by stone destruction of the house in which is family died; as is his planning of vengeance on those responsible.
Reading this book was a really odd experience for me - on the one hand I spent a fair amount of the book in a fugue of confusion, on the other hand, I found Seraphin's story and he, as a character, incredibly engaging. Sad, determined, damaged and yet powerful, this is a fascinating man. Perhaps part of the confusion for me, at least, comes with the translation. Magnan writes in the vernacular of this small area / town in France and much of that doesn't seem to have translated easily or well. The language in the book ended up feeling a little muddy, murky if you like. I always felt there was something in the descriptions of people and places, the dialogue that I wasn't quite a party too.
So whilst, there was definitely a lot I liked about the book, there was also a bit that I didn't. I most definitely didn't like the confusion. On the other hand I loved the ambiguity. I loved the characters, but felt I never really got to know them. I loved the place, but I felt I never quite got to go there.
I'd certainly not discourage anyone of a more adventurous or curious reading nature to try this book - quite the contrary in some ways. Perhaps it needs to be read as a fantastic, unusual, different style of book, that was translated too exactly. It always felt like somewhere, under the words, there was a beautiful story lurking.
DEATH IN THE TRUFFLE WOOD - Pierre Magnan
In Banon, a small peaceful village in upper Provence, the local community's principal source of income is the cultivation of truffles. Outsiders rarely venture to this remote region, but a small group of society's drop-outs have chosen to set up home on the outskirts of the village. When one of them is found dead in the freezer of a local hotel, and when a further five bodies are discovered drained of blood in a family vault in the cemetery, it takes all Commissaire Laviolette's considerable resources to unravel crimes that have been committed in a climate of age-old superstition and secr
I used to read a few cosies, although I was never totally addicted. But I've always been a huge fan of the quirky, odd and the just ever so slightly bats. Colin Watson, Charlotte MacLeod have been favourites for years. I'm adding Pierre Magnan to the list now.
Originally published in French in the late 70's, DEATH IN THE TRUFFLE WOOD was translated into English around 2005. There are a number of books in this series featuring Commissaire Laviolette, although I don't think Roseline makes an appearance in any of the others. Roseline is a truffle hunting pig, and a creature that has made me pine for a pet pig in a way that you simply would not think is possible. Mind you, I never thought I'd want a dachshund either, but this book made me rethink that as well.
On the outskirts of the small village of Banon, a group of outsiders have established a small hippie community. As they start to disappear Commissaire Laviolette is sent to investigate, but nobody is prepared for the discovery in the freezer of a local hotel, when a wedding party is trapped by snow and extra food is called for. (Obviously the freezer would just have to be replaced!)
Soon Roseline is leading the police to a cache of more bodies, and forensic assistance is reluctantly called upon.
It's going to seem an odd thing to say, what with bodies littering hotel freezers and family vaults, but there was something really joyous about reading DEATH IN THE TRUFFLE WOOD. Refreshingly down to earth, quirky, almost tongue in cheek in some places, and just plain funny, DEATH IN THE TRUFFLE WOOD draws a vivid picture of small village life and the wonderfully individualistic people that all so frequently inhabit those places. Perhaps it is partially because of that setting, but there's no feeling of the story and the environment being dated - it's easy for the reader to assume that village life continues in that manner now, and as far back into the past as you want to imagine. Along with the murders, there's a fabulous outline of the clash of cultures - the villagers and their quiet existence, the outsiders and the effect that they have. Definitely a book for readers who are looking for something light, fun and just that little bit slightly bats!