Review - After the Circus, Patrick Modiano, Mark Polizzotti (Translation)
One of the hallmarks of French author Patrick Modiano’s writing is a singular ability to revisit particular motifs and episodes, infusing each telling with new detail and emotional nuance. In this evocative novel the internationally acclaimed author takes up one of his most compelling themes: a love affair with a woman who disappears, and a narrator grappling with the mystery of a relationship stopped short.
In the middle of the sixties, in Paris, a young man being questioned by the police is released and a waiting girl called straight in. He has no idea who she is and yet he then waits for her in a nearby café. They return to his apartment and spend the night in his room. Why is really not explained or explored. Nor is there any explanation of who these two are. Instead the reader is pulled immediately into something infused with doubt and restrained in its menace.
Whilst the blurb does clearly indicate that Patrick Modiano's writing style is to revisit motifs and episodes, it doesn't explain the stripped down, deceptively simple way in which he does that. In releasing small snippets of information about the boy at the centre of this story, then the girl, then the apartment, then the boy's father and his business contacts and finally the girl's associates, and her background, it's a style that means you're discovering much and at the same time, really so little. This is pencil sketch writing, lines drawn on the page designed to lead the reader to fill in the gaps, search for the overall structure, interpret the hints.
Balancing beautifully with that stripped down style is a sense of pace, movement, speed and the need for resolution. The story evolves quickly, over a period of just days, and in that short time there's also a sense of melancholy and worry. This young boy has already lost connection with his mother (who lives in another country) and his father seems to have left France under questionable circumstances. Now he's fallen rapidfire into something with this unknown woman / girl / and his longing for connection, and terror of being left, yet again are palpable.
Although there's a lack of detailed information about the people, and the odd situation they find themselves in, the author has built a strong sense of the place in which it occurs. It could, however, be that this sort of almost travelogue detail of Paris would be frustrating for some, as there is the vague possibility always that by describing place, you're avoiding motivation. By concentrating on the beauty and intricacies of setting you're avoiding declaration.
Whilst not one for fans of neat resolutions, there is no doubt AFTER THE CIRCUS is a most unusual novella that is utterly mesmerising. It definitely reminded this reader of watching French Film festivals. There's often something very unexpected, often something utterly incomprehensible, but there's always something intriguing and moving.
Review - FOR THE DIGNIFIED DEAD, Michael Genelin
A woman’s body is pulled from the frozen Danube in Bratislava. Police Commander Jana Matinova recognizes the killer’s calling card. She had him in her grasp once before …and he slipped away. But not this time. Determined to end the bloody killing spree, Matinova’s investigation plunges her into the center of an international conspiracy involving hundreds of millions of dollars and turns the hunter into the hunted.
The 5th book in the Jana Matinova series (as best as can be gleaned from online lists which universally don’t seem to include it), FOR THE DIGNIFIED DEAD was so good the first book leapt straight into Mt TBR. It also extremely readable if you are new to them as well.
Part of the strength of the book was undoubtedly the central character of Jana Matinova who is strong, smart and unwilling to take any crap from anyone - crims and colleagues alike. She’s compassionate without being soppy and dedicated. She’s also very driven in this book as she’s well aware that the killer’s signature is that of one who got away. She’s not too proud to take assistance from unlikely quarters when it’s offered, and she’s definitely no super-hero.
The sense of place here is interesting, somehow there is a very Slovakian sensibility in the attitudes, the physical locations and, obviously, the impact of the weather. There’s a rapid pace, but it’s always supported by a sense of the places that Matinova encounters as she searches for a serial killer, a lot of money and some very unexpected connections.
Finally there’s a good plot, with internal consistency, enough twists to keep you paying close attention, and enough depth and complication to make the path that Matinova must tread believable. There’s also quite a bit of action and some tension and threat which works really well.
Thanks to Netgalley I happened upon this book and liked it so much that the it has became a series I’m making sure I catch up with from the start.
Review - VERTIGO, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
"Do you think it's possible to live again, Monsieur? ... I mean ... is it possible to die and then ... live again in someone else?"
Being a huge Hitchock fan this book particularly intrigued, but even if you’ve never seen a single Hitchcock film in your life, VERTIGO is an engaging, fascinating, and frequently beautiful book. If you are also a fan of the film, then there is greater nuance here than the film, and plenty to conjecture about for the reader.
Set at the start of World War II, the central character of Flavières is troubled by many things, not just the need at one point to flee the war’s encroachment. He seems, on the face of it, a man who was destined to be obsessed with the wife of his friend. Her behaviour whilst mysterious, is mesmerising and her beauty in the eyes of Flavières incomparable. His obsession and the moral dilemmas presented to him by her husband’s insistence that he continue the friendship are understated, yet beautifully illustrated.
The reasons posited for her behaviour are unexpected and yet oddly believable, but nothing is ever that straight-forward and VERTIGO delivers some twists and turns and stings in the tail that make it end up sitting somewhere between a mystery and a morality play.
Beautifully translated with nary a bump to be detected in the language, VERTIGO is complicated, clever and another of those wonderful, one sitting reading experiences.
Review - THE CITY OF BLOOD, Frédérique Molay
When a major Parisian modern art event gets unexpected attention on live TV, Chief of Police Nico Sirsky and his team of elite crime fighters rush to La Villette park and museum complex. On the site of the French capital's former slaughterhouses, the blood is just starting to flow, and Sirsky finds himself chasing the butcher of Paris, while his own mother faces an uncertain future.
The third novel in the Paris Homicide Series, THE CITY OF BLOOD sees Chief of Police Nico Sirsky trying to solve a 30 year old murder, whilst his mother is desperately ill in hospital.
Readers of either of the earlier two novels will know that Sirsky is one of those wonderful grumpy, rumpled sorts of cops, who had a chequered love life, now resolved as his relationship with one of the specialist that solved his own health problems moves into something more permanent.
The investigation at the centre of THE CITY OF BLOOD's an odd one. Thirty years ago artist Samual Cassain held a banquet in a park. Influential people were invited to attend, and bring their own utensils. Once finished, the remains were to be buried, in a part of the park that originally used as slaughterhouses. The plan was always, after thirty years, to excavate the location, an archaeological investigation of a modern art installation. Nobody, however, expected to find a skeleton amongst those remains. Although very quickly, there's a sense of inevitability about the identity of the body, the reasons he died, and the location of his body is surprising to say the least.
In the middle of this bizarre scenario, and with a series of other deaths and an attack in the same area, Sirsky is juggling the investigation, and pressure from above for resolution, with the illness of his beloved mother. This keeps the pace and the tension up needless to say, with just the occasional wander into the developing relationship between Sirsky and his new love Caroline. Her inclusion in his family life, and in running interference between the medical system makes her somebody that Sirsky increasingly relies on. It's the personal aspects that don't quite jell as well as Sirsky the driven police officer makes sense. Sirsky the devoted son is slightly less convincing, a little odd; but Sirsky the devoted lover is almost off-putting. It might be that it's new love and it seems strange in a man of his age, and his work persona, but when this grumpy, tricky man suddenly gets all a bit gooey, it feels a little weird. Perhaps Molay is trying to make him seem like a more rounded man, a real human being rather than just a cop with an undivided attention span.
It's a minor quibble as so much more about this book works than doesn't. The plot is clever, and complicated, and the damage caused by the long wait for the first body to be found profound and quite moving in its portrayal. The escalation of the deaths, and the way that the case is investigated is believable and the manner in which the truth carefully and methodically revealed, seemed authentic. There are also some really interesting little tidbits of information about the French legal system - like the statute of limitations including murder. Having been lucky enough to read a couple of the books in this series now it's one that's well worth pursuing.
Review - AFTER THE CRASH, Michel Bussi
On the night of 22 December 1980, a plane crashes on the Franco-Swiss border and is engulfed in flames. 168 out of 169 passengers are killed instantly. The miraculous sole survivor is a three-month-old baby girl. Two families, one rich, the other poor, step forward to claim her, sparking an investigation that will last for almost two decades. Is she Lyse-Rose or Emilie?
AFTER THE CRASH opens with private eye Credule Grand-Duc preparing to take his own life after spending nearly eighteen years failing to discover the truth behind the miracle of the baby who survived a plane crash. Preparing his papers for handover, and setting the scene for his dramatic final act, he contemplates once more the front page from the local newspaper the day that the crash happened. And suddenly realises he finally knows the answer.
Occurring at a time well before the advent of DNA testing, any chance of establishing the parentage of the baby at the time was limited to potential physical evidence - of which the type of clothes she was wearing, the lack or existence of jewellery and the location where she was found are the only possible pointers that the court, and initially Grand-Duc have to work with. The two families have had to resort to court action to settle their claims for the baby girl, one of two on the list of passengers on that ill-fated plane. The hard-fought court case eventually hangs on the slightest of evidence, and enough doubt to lead the court to decide in favour of one family. Accepting the decision, but quietly hiring Grand-Duc on a yearly retainer up until the girl turns 18, the other family clings to the idea that the baby may still prove to be their granddaughter, hence the dilemma that he finds himself in at the eleventh hour.
This is such an intriguing, and utterly believable story told in multiple narratives, switching from the baby girl's brother Mark, and voice of Grand-Duc via his case notes. Along the way there are telling observations around the events of the crash and the aftermath. The fickle attention span of the media, the nature of familial love and connection, and the love of a brother and sister which always seems to have another aspect to it. It's also not a single-threaded story, there are plenty of complications in both of these families, and each set of grandparents are left with one living grandchild into the bargain as well as their own complicated and realistic personal stories. In both these cases the families are always part of the focus, frequently part of the problem, or struggling with many unexpected complications.
Bussi is a master at the art of dropping clues into the narrative that don't become clear until much later, and of frequently leading the reader into a solution which raises more and more questions. Using the case notes of Grand-Duc as the guiding narrative for much of the action also brings in the potential of a highly unreliable narrator, especially as both he, Mark and the second possible sibling seem to be rushing to precipitate a resolution against each other. Of course you could be forgiven for wondering why it is that Mark doesn't simply flick straight to the end of Grand-Duc's notes, but that realisation might only happen with the benefit of hindsight. The quest in this case constantly seems more important than the resolution in the end. Particularly as it becomes clear that the matriarchs of both families have known the truth for much longer than anybody could possibly realise.
The pacing of this thriller is particularly interesting, somehow achieving massive leaps forward in what otherwise feels rather languid, almost rhythmic style. Even for those readers that pick many of the twists and turns coming there is more than enough unknowns to keep most people guessing right until the end of AFTER THE CRASH. Certainly this reader was intrigued, and surprised by the resolution, having got to the point where it felt like just about everybody was stepping up for the position of chief unreliable narrator.
Review - THE GRAND CRU HEIST, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen
In another Epicurean journey in France, renowned wine critic Benjamin Cooker’s world gets turned upside down one night in Paris. He retreats to the region around Tours to recover. There a flamboyant British dandy, a spectacular blue-eyed blond, a zealous concierge and touchy local police disturb his well-deserved rest. From the Loire Valley to Bordeaux, in between a glass of Vouvray and a bottle of Saint-Émilion, the Winemaker Detective and his assistant Virgile turn PI to solve two murders and very particular heist.
It's hard not to become increasingly enamoured of this wonderful series of books (of which there are now 8 translated), based in the gloriously described wine regions of France, featuring the curmudgeonly, slightly arrogant, ever vigilant Benjamin Cooker, his assistant Virgile and wife Elisabeth. In THE GRAND CRU HEIST, sadly Elisabeth who is missing in action for much of the novel.
This story starts out with our renowned wine critic being bashed and robbed one night in Paris. Bad enough that the young, violent villains pinched his beloved Mercedes, but it contained his briefcase, which contained his tasting notes. A disaster of monumental proportions, outweighing the distress of his physical injuries. To recover, of course, Cooker heads to a wonderful Chateau hotel in the Tours region for rest, recuperation and wine.
Needless to say, his path quickly crosses with that of a murderer, when two people - the companion of a flamboyant British wine lover, and the concierge of his hotel both end up dead in quick succession. This leads to much conjecture on the possible connections between the victims. Cooker and Virgile, however, soon reunited with the missing Mercedes, are heading to Cooker's dear friend, Huber de Boüard, of Château Angélus fame, who has been the victim of a series of baffling wine burglaries followed by cryptic messages from the thieves.
The matter of murder is undoubtedly important, but the theft of valued wine stocks is also a national catastrophe as far as Cooker is concerned. But the resolution of both of these threads must be pursued in the correct manner, and the tasting and enjoying of various wine varieties along the way is of vital importance. It seems that Cooker thinks best when seated at a tasting table, or that of a much loved local eatery.
Cooker is wonderfully ambiguous - an insufferable know it all, astute observer and solver of many problems, there's a gentle side to him in THE GRAND CRU HEIST which is most touching. His poor assistant Virgile is very often put upon, and the commentary on food, other people, surroundings and everyone else is frequently hilarious, all very much part of the fun of these books. This series has proven to be enormously entertaining, and THE GRAND CRU HEIST, a very short novel, is up there with the rest of the series. Not just because, I hasten to clarify, it's impossible to read them without a glass of something (slightly more local) in your hand.
Review - THE 7TH WOMAN, Frédérique Molay (translated by Anne Trager)
There's no rest for Paris's top criminal investigation division, La Crim'. Who is preying on women in the French capital? How can he kill again and again without leaving any clues? A serial killer is taking pleasure in a macabre ritual that leaves the police on tenterhooks. Chief of Police Nico Sirsky—a super cop with a modern-day real life, including an ex-wife, a teenage son, and a budding love story—races against the clock to solve the murders as they get closer and closer to his inner circle. Will he resist the pressure?
Le French Book have released some excellent French crime fiction, translated into English, of which THE 7TH WOMAN by Frédérique Molay is already an international bestseller. As the blurb puts it "Winner of France's prestigious Prix du Quai des Orfèvres prize for best crime fiction, named Best Crime Fiction Novel of the Year, and already an international bestseller with over 150,000 copies sold."
A police procedural built around Chief of Police Nico Sirsky, there is a serial killer stalking and killing women in a macabre and vicious manner. The connection between these woman is obscure, and seems to be pointing towards some highly specialised knowledge. Right into the heart of Sirsky's family. The pressure is further ramped up because this killer is leaving messages that indicate he's going to kill 7 women in 7 days. And it's up to Sirsky to catch him.
Despite the serial killer storyline having been done to death, there's aspects here that help lift it - the personal grudge of killer against cop isn't that surprising, although the pathways into making this a very personal investigation are unusual. The new love under threat aspect again isn't that new, but the complication of the ex-wife and the teenage son make for something a little different. The character of Sirsky is your classic divorced, lonely, suddenly smitten older man, who is balancing a complicated relationship with his ex-wife and teenage son. His attraction to a new love interest is touching and nicely balanced, even with some obvious threats and implications.
This is now sounding like there wasn't a lot to like about THE 7TH WOMAN which is very far from the truth. Around the predictable elements, this was a strong character study, and a solid procedural with a really involving and interesting supporting cast, and a very strong, central investigator of the rumpled, slightly lost type. For anybody interested in crime fiction from other locales, then the Paris Homicide series would be well worth looking for. THE 7TH WOMAN is the first book, followed by CROSSING THE LINE and, due for release in 2015, THE CITY OF BLOOD.
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.