Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Some French Crime Fiction

1. I just finished reading The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas, the most recent of her Commissaire Adamsberg novels.  In fact, I read all seven of them more or less one after another.  I thought they were brilliant.  They are all police procedurals but are unusually concerned with modern manifestation of old French myths and legends.  Vargas is an medieval archeologist and historian who apparently started to write crime novels for fun or stave off boredom - but these books are so good I can't possibly believe that to be true.  My only complaint here: the English translations of her books were published out of order.  Since I came late to her work, this did not effect me.  But much of what happens in each book carries on from the previous one, it makes no sense to start in the middle and skip around.  Why would the publishers do this to us?  Its not right.

2. I am now reading the brand new translation of Irene by Pierre Lemaitre, another French police procedural.  Most cops or private eyes come from the same mold.  Typically they are middle-aged men, they drink too much, have excess emotional baggage, etc, etc - you know what I am talking about.  But in Irene, the police officer is different.  Commandant Camille Verhoeven is very short and loves to draw.  He sketches and doodles constantly.  So it seems strange that Commissaire Adamsberg in the Fred Vargas books is also rather short - though he has a few inches on Verhoeven, who is only 4'11" - and also loves to sketch and draw, though Verhoeven, too, is the better artist.  It doesn't seem strange to have one troubled, alcoholic cop after another - it does seem a little strange to run into two short, artistic French cops in a row.  (Is it also strange that Adamsberg's estranged girlfriend, who plays a major part in some of the books, is named Camille?) (Is Lemaitre a big fan of Vargas?)  (And how long will I have to wait for more books by Lemaitre to be published?)

Irene is the first book in a trilogoy.  The second book, Alex, was published first.  I should have waited until all three books were available in English to start reading Lemaitre but I exercised poor judgement and read Alex last fall.  Doing so has ruined the big surprises that are found in the first book, Irene.  Really big spoilers.  So why did they have to be published in translation out of order?  I just don't get it.

3.  I won't complain about the quality of the translation of these books.  They are excellent.  In fact, Alex and The Ghost Riders of Ordebec shared the 2013 CWA International Dagger.  One thing that I can't believe I haven't encountered before now is that these books were translated from French into British English and the slang is all British:  Lads, lanky streak of piss, come a cropper, boozer.  I had a list of a lot of others (which I have misplaced).  I have no complaints about the British slang - I rather liked it.

Irene just came out in the UK and won't be published in the US for some time.  I liked Alex so much that I had to get myself a UK copy.

4. For some reason, I've been hooked on French crime fiction lately.  I get hooked on countries from time to time.  But what is really exciting about being on a French kick right now is that Penguin is now publishing, in the correct order, new translations of all of Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels. Thank you Penguin.  

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Ambrose Bierce and Me

Ambrose Bierce is a mystery to me.  I have long known the name but I know almost nothing about him.  He wrote at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th.  Mainly short fiction, I think.  And journalism.  Died mysteriously, walking off into the desert.  I think most of what he wrote was very dark, maybe like a pre-HP Lovecraft.  A cult figure?  Notably obscure?  I know he is considered important and influential but I've never taken the time to properly learn about him and his work, even though he was recently on the cover of The Weekly Standard.

So it has been weird to see him pop up three times in some current TV shows.  I have yet to watch HBO's True Detective but from what I understand, his work is referenced in it (mainly through his influence on The King in Yellow  - the name of a city in a story by Bierce figures prominently in the show).  

Then Ambrose Bierce popped up on The Simpsons (in an episode originally aired in November but one I just caught up with).  Lisa Simpson is running for second grade representative and the debate she is in is interrupted when the school drama teacher rolls a prop (for a hanging) onto the stage, indicating it is for a production of An Occurrence at Owl Creek, which  is a famous Bierce story about a hanging.  It's a funny gag.

The third appearance is the one that has me really thinking about Ambrose Bierce.  Late in season four of ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars, the liars are analyzing the stories in Ali's diary when it is stolen from them and then altered and then planted so they will find it and be misled by the new text.  In one entry, concerning where Ali used to meet Board Shorts (her stalker and maybe the liars' English teacher), a name that sounds just like Ambrose Bierce is changed to make it read Ambrose Pearson, which they think is code for the Ambrose Pavilion at the Norristown zoo.  The liars then set a trap at the zoo hoping to catch their dead friend Ali (whom they have only recently discovered is alive and had somehow faked her own death to escape Board Shorts, by whom she may or may not have been pregnant).  Pretty Little Liars is full of literary references (including to Patricia Highsmith, recent Raymond Chandler references, and a bunch of recent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde material - indicating the Ezra, the their high school English teacher is also their tormentor, even though he his secretly dating one of the girls).  It is because of all this that I am convinced the Ambrose Bierce reference is somehow meaningful.  The problem is that I do not know enough about his work to figure out what the show is trying to tell us by it.  The Ambrose Pavilion houses snakes and Bierce has a famous story about a man scared to death by a snake.  Or maybe this is not significant, just the work of some former English majors getting carried away dropping literary references.  And so far there do not appear to be many people conversant in both Pretty Little Liars and Ambrose Bierce so the internet has yet to provide me with proper answers to my questions.

It seemed to me that three recent television references to Ambrose Bierce was a strange coincidence but in researching this post, I was stunned to learn that for the past 20 something years, Ambrose Bierce has been my neighbor.  He lived in DC from 1899 to 1913 but his last address was just down the street.  I've been past the building a million times but never knew.