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!
THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN - Fred Vargas
Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. His methods appear unorthodox in the extreme: he doesn't search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted.
When strange blue chalk circles start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, the press take up the story with amusement and psychiatrists trot out their theories.
THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN is the first book in the Adamsberg series by French writer Fred Vargas. As they have been translated out of series order, fans of this fantastic set of books know Adamsberg well by now, without having had the chance to be in at the beginning so to speak. This release gives the reader a unique opportunity. For existing fans a chance to see where Adamsberg came from, and to consider a first book, in light of knowing how good the series has become. For new readers a chance to start at the beginning if that is your preference.
The strange blue circles that start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, each circle enclosing a seemingly pointless and meaningless little article - cigarette lighters, badges, a hat, a doll's head, seem to most people to be a distraction. The press take up the story with great amusement and psychiatrists and other experts are soon making pronouncements on what the artist is trying to say (or not!). Adamsberg seems to be the only person who feels the stirring of malice and sees cruelty in the circles. He is the only person who doesn't seem all that surprised when the body of a woman is found - her throat savagely cut, placed carefully in the middle of one of the chalk circles.
Adamsberg is not your traditional policeman. He's unorthodox, seemingly permanently distracted, he's a thinker and an acute, but unobtrusive observer. He's profoundly aware of human nature yet he often has flashes of insight which seem to have come from nowhere. He constantly baffles his colleagues but his methods work and he's comfortable with who he is.
The thing a new reader to this series is going to get most clearly from THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN is a sense of the quirkiness of Adamsberg. The other ongoing feature of the books is the wonderful cast of supporting characters - mainly of them as eccentric as Adamsberg. All the characterisations become more assured as the series goes on, and at no stage does anyone become cartoonish or unbelievable. There is something quintessentially French about Adamsberg and the world that he inhabits - to this outsider at least. There's also something delightfully matter of fact about them all, and in particular, the way that Adamsberg works - leaving it totally up to his colleagues to adjust, just as it will undoubtedly require from some readers.
I understand that the translation order of a series is often dictated by the perceived popularity of a particular book. Perhaps it was felt that the character of Adamsberg got stronger, more clearly drawn in later books. Perhaps it was felt that the plot was not quite as unique as some of the later books. Regardless of the reason, it's a good book, it introduces Adamsberg with a very deft touch, and it does hint at where the rest of the series is going.
If you're new to the Adamsberg series, you could start with THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN and get a sense of how the rest of the series is going to progress. You can also read the entire series out of order if needs must and that's how the books become available for you. But if you're a fan of something with a strong sense of a place and the people, with a central character who is not afraid to be a little odd, a little eccentric, a little different; decent, caring and extremely human make sure you read these books.
The books in translated order:
2003 - Have Mercy On Us All (Published in French in 2001)
2004 - Seeking Whom He May Devour (Published in French in 1999)
2007 - Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand (Published in French in 2004)
2008 - This Night's Foul Work (Published in French in 2006)
2009 - The Chalk Circle Man (Published in French in 1996)
There is also a standalone novel, released in translation in 2006
The Three Evangelists (Published in French in 1995)
GOAT SONG - Chantal Pelletier
Depressed doesn't do justice to the dripping, sad, obsessed melancholy of the magnificently complex Maurice Laice (More is less just being one of his nicknames). Maurice is just one character that stands out from the page, his boss - she of the totally obsessed with her sex life; Aline Lefevre is gay, out, proud and coarsely (but hilariously and in a strange way touchingly) vocal. Her sex banter drives Maurice crazy - partly from jealousy, partly from embarrassment, mostly because he's feeling his damn age and she's not!
At the core of the GOAT SONG though is a complex mystery - the two dead bodies discovered in the Moulin Rouge have been killed with startling brutality, the following death of a junkie is equally violent and Laice and Lefevre find that the downward spiral of Montmartre is deeper and dingier than they could have imagined. Of course there's a bit behind their desire to clean up the drug problem in their area - and those motivations are revealed as the investigation proceeds. As does the ongoing understanding of all the characters in this fabulous little book.
GOAT SONG is beautiful to read, provided you read it with French attitude. (Okay maybe this Australian's idea of that glorious, complex, deep, introspective, cynical, melancholic, hopeful, celebratory, attitude - but that's the feeling that you get from GOAT SONG). There's unfulfilled desire, fulfilled desire, questioning, sarcasm, friendship, hatred, tacky and the superb. And there's food and wine. It's a complex little book - and it's fascinating that so much happens in 176 pages.
WASH THIS BLOOD CLEAN FROM MY HAND - Fred Vargas
Commissaire Adamsberg is a man with a profound belief in his own hunches. Whilst a lot of his squad are preparing for a DNA technology study trip to Quebec, Adamsberg is really distracted. Firstly, he's distracted because his right hand man, Danglard is quite convinced that they are all going to die in a fiery plane crash and Adamsberg is wearing the brunt of keeping him calm and getting him on the plane. But there's something else that's not right and finally it dawns on Adamsberg that a newspaper report of the murder of a young woman in another district of France has triggered recognition in him. Recognition of nine other murders, all occurring between 1943 and 2003, all in different parts of France. Adamsberg is the only person who is absolutely sure that he knows who is doing these murders, despite the suspect's own funeral, years before.
Leading up to their trip away, Adamsberg runs his theories past a number of colleagues and the police in charge of the latest case and, as he feared, nobody places much credence in the idea that a man, dead for years, could be a prime suspect in the last murder. Adamsberg is obsessed with this case, not the least because he knows the man he suspects, Judge Fulgence, only too well, with a very close family and childhood connection to him.
When he trip to Quebec commences, the plane doesn't crash, and the team arrive and commence their training. Adamsberg returns to his lifelong habit of walking miles in an effort to exercise, think and clear his head, and in the process of which me meets a strange, young French woman with whom, despite his own better judgement, he forms a quick sexual liaison. When she threats to join him on the trip home, he is relieved when she doesn't show up to the plane. When he is lured back to Quebec after a few days, he finds that she has been stabbed to death and he is the prime suspect.
Adamsberg needs to get out of Canada and back to France, where he must conceal himself and solve not only the death of the young woman in Canada, but prove once and for all that a dead Judge is a killer.
There are some really interesting elements to WASH THIS BLOOD CLEAN FROM MY HAND. Guilt - Adamsberg is not sure that he has not killed the young woman - he had blanked out for the period of time and he doesn't know why. Concealment - in order to be safe in France and solve the case of the Judge and the 10 past murders, he must remain free so he goes into a sort of hiding. Betrayal - there is obviously somebody in Adamsberg own team feeding information to the Canadian police about events in France as well. Friendship - Adamsberg takes refuge with an old friend who, along with her resident lodger and 80 year old computer hacker, they provide support and belief in Adamsberg. Loyalty - members of the French Police believe in Adamsberg and go out on a limb to help him. Madness - how could a deadman go on killing, and why would that man have started on a career of murder that has gone on for so long with so much effort to cover his tracks.
And then there is the madness of Adamsberg himself. He's always been a quirky character, prone to hunches, flashes of understanding (or guesswork - depending upon your perspective). He walks miles, he talks to himself, he believes totally in the idea that dead men can walk and he is tortured by events from his childhood. He's tricky, he's not straightforward and Vargas can write a story that weaves a web around the reader and draws you into the joy of the book.
MAIGRET AND THE WINE MERCHANT - Georges Simenon
When prosperous wine merchant Oscar Chabut is shot dead outside a fashionable bordello he has just been visiting with his mistress and secretary, Maigret finds that extra-marital behaviour in Chabut's social group is pretty much the norm. Chabut seems to regard sexual conquest as a means of exerting power and maintaining his self-esteem, and has in the course of his business, created rather a large cast of enemies. Hints of blackmail, anonymous telephone calls and letters and glimpses of a shadowy figure tracking Maigret complicate the case Maigret is struggling to come to grips with, all the while fighting a bad dose of the flu.
MAIGRET'S BOYHOOD FRIEND - Georges Simenon
Taking a bit of a wander back through some of the classic crime fiction authors, I've been reading a few Simenon's. In Maigret's Boyhood Friend, Inspector Maigret receives a visit from his old school friend Leon Florentin. Florentin had been the class clown, and despite only seeing him once since their childhood, Maigret can remember him well. Now, although, nobody is laughing as Florentin's mistress has been shot dead in her apartment, whilst Florentin was there and, not surprisingly, he is now the prime suspect in her murder.
MAIGRET AND THE IDLE BURGLAR - Georges Simenon
From the Book: Is Chief-Inspector Maigret the only person concerned by the death of a thief?
A burglar is found battered to death on a mid-winter's night in Paris. the victim was murdered, stripped of all ID and thrown from a car on to the icy streets, yet his criminal background has Maigret's superiors eager to dismiss the killing as an underworld vendetta. Certainly nothing the police should concern themselves with, especially when they are supposed to be on the trail of a gang of armed robbers.
There is an awful lot to like about Maigret in AND THE IDLE BURGLAR. Despite dreadful facial injuries, Maigret knows the identity of this man instantly from a single tattoo on his body. The victim, Cuendet, is well known to him. He's a career burglar - a Swiss man, who started out very young as a run of the mill burglar; graduating after a period in the Foreign Legion to an extremely professional, cautious and studied burglar. He has a particular method - he carefully cases out a target, using the newspapers and social magazines to pick a victim; frequently moving into a room or hotel nearby so that he can carefully watch his intended target. He often enters houses when the victims are home, quietly leaving with their jewelery or money, not even waking up the householders. He causes no damage, he lives very simply - he even hoards a lot of his booty. And he has earned a grudging respect from Maigret. Maigret is therefore deeply aggrieved when the French Justice system decides that there are bigger fish to fry than solve a seeming underworld vendetta.
But the French Justice system is currently upside down as far as Maigret is concerned - the police don't control their own actions - Public Prosecutors now control the priorities and methods of investigation, and that is causing a lot of resentment in long-term career Police. So whilst he is seemingly concentrating on finding a gang of hold-up men - because Justice is now obsessed with crime against money - not violence against people in Maigret's opinion - he also quietly works on solving the killing of Cuendet.
In the days before mobile telephones, faxes, email and other forms of instant communication, investigation's proceeded differently. Part of the attraction of these books is the way that a police force knows it's constituency - it's citizens. They sniff the wind and find the scent, and their methodology doesn't feel overly dated because the characterisations in Simenon's books are so vivid and so enjoyable. The sense of indignation that is almost seething from Maigret's pores over the focus in crime fighting is palpable.