Tuesday, November 14, 2017

New French Crime Fiction


A few years ago, I endured one of the greatest catastrophes of all time in reading translated foreign literature.  For various reasons, sometimes a series is published out of order.  A long time ago (pre-internet) I struggled to discover the correct order of Maj Sjowall’s and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck series.  And for a long time I held off reading Fred Vargas’s Adamsberg series as the books were published out of order in English.  In 2013, I heard about a fantastic new crime novel from a French writer by the name of Pierre Lemaitre called Alex.  I ran out and bought a copy and was then absolutely gutted to learn that it was the second book in a series.  It turns out that the untranslated first book in the series, Irene, had one of the most tragic and devastating endings in all of crime fiction.  (That sounds like an exaggeration but I think it is accurate.)  Starting on the second book first, experiencing that ending was ruined for me.  Why on earth the publisher chose the second book of a trilogy to be published first, especially when the ending of the first book contains such a smashing revelation, is beyond me.  I dutifully read the rest of the series and though I have since held a grudge for having to read the books out of order, Pierre Lemaitre became one of my favorite crime writers.

That brings us to the two books considered here - Pierre Lemaitre’s new novel Three Days and a Life and Sophie Henaff’s The Awkward Squad.  I am delighted to report that The Awkward Squad is the first book of a series and that it looks to be the start of a great series.  Sophie Henaff is journalist at the French edition of Cosmopolitan magazine and this appears to be her first book, something I find a little hard to believe as this is as finely polished a debut police procedural as I have read in a long time.  And it has a great hook - Anne Capestan, a decorated police officer, is coming off a six-month suspension and as further punishment, is exiled to head up a new squad of Paris’s worst police officers.  Other reviewers have compared this to Mick Herron’s failed spies in his Slow Horses series - an apt comparison and also a great series.  It also brought to mind the ragtag bunch of detectives assembled in the first series of the great TV drama The Wire.  Or to go back further, The Dirty Dozen.  So, not the newest concept but one that delivers when done well - which Henaff does with her awkward squad.  The squad’s first two cold cases inevitably merge (but that’s okay, this happens all the time in crime fiction) and soon Capestan’s assortment of castoffs are doing the same things that got them in trouble to solve these previously unsolvable crimes.  I look forward to reading more Sophie Henaff.

Pierre Lemaitre’s new novel, Three Days and a Life, is a stand alone. This book is stunning. Initially, it is the story of a young boy who impulsively and unintentionally murders a younger boy and conceals his body in a forest outside their small French town. Given the title, I assumed it would take three days for him to be found out or to find a solution to his dilemma. As authorities search for the missing boy, the tension is unbearable. I can't think of anything I've read where I've felt so bad for the suffering of a murderer as he waits for his crime to be uncovered. I don't want to spoil anything but that there is no immediate resolution to the disappearance of the small boy does not mean the murderer escapes. He is unable to forget what he has done and it warps his life until the time comes for him to return to the town where he grew up and murdered his neighbor. When he does, the tension and dread again becomes unbearable as the reader waits for the inevitable. Something does happen but not at all what might be expected. A sentence of a different sort will be served for this crime. Rarely have I read something so powerful, gripping, and agonizing and that has a convincing ending. Though this is not Pierre Lemaitre's first novel it is the perfect book to start reading this great French writer.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Better Late Than Never

My 2016 Top Ten List

Some might say posting a top ten list of books read in a year five months after the year has ended is a case of extreme procrastination.  I prefer to think of it as a case of extended deliberation.  Indeed, the list I drew up at the end of 2016 is not the same as my final May 2017 list.

10. Boxes/Too Close to the Edge by Pascal Garnier


A tie for 10th place for two short novels by Pascal Garnier.  In both books, people leave their lives in the cities and move to villages in the French countryside and have their worlds collapse.  No Peter Mayle-Provence escapism here, these are unromanticized depictions of modern French life.  I also read Garnier's The Eskimo Solution (sort of a reworking of A Modest Proposal that plays with killing the elderly to redistribute their wealth).  And having spent some time in Pascal Garnier's France, I have a better understanding of the rise of Marine Le Pen.  Gallic Books has been translating Garnier's books into English since his death in 2010 and publishing his work in lovely paperback editions.  I look forward to reading more of him.

9. The Human Flies by Hans Olov Lahlum

A wonderful, quirky, and deliberately old-fashioned murder mystery/police procedural set in Oslo, Norway in the late 1960s.  A young detective and the brilliant, wheelchair-bound young woman with whom he clandestinely consults work to find the killer of a retired Norwegian war hero in sort of a variant of a locked room mystery, the locked apartment building mystery.  

8. Leviathan by Paul Auster
 This is the story of a writer who tells the story of a close friend who has gone from writer to terrorist, though since this was written in the early 1990s, he's more of a pre-Unabomber, performance art terrorist rather than an unsympathetic and foreign World Trade Center era terrorist.  

7. Blood, Salt, Water by Denise Mina
This is the fifth installment of Denise Mina's series about Glasgow Detective Inspector Alex Morrow.  Honestly, it hardly matters what the book is about (a missing woman, a dead body, drugs, etc) - this series is so good I would read an installment about anything.  Morrow is a great character - she's normal, angry, hard-working, fierce, has a dodgy half-brother, and longs to be at home with her twin sons.  In other words, a refreshing change from the bog standard middle-aged, alcoholic male detective or the typical driven but tragically damaged female detective.  I started reading Scottish crime fiction because of William McIlvanney, then Ian Rankin.  While they are both first rate, Mina is the cream of the crop, and not just of Scottish crime fiction, but perhaps of all crime fiction.

6. Some Deaths Before Dying by Peter Dickinson

Back in the early 1990s I used to love Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski novels, about a woman PI in Chicago.  (I need to go back and catch up with that series.)  And back then, before the internet, in every magazine or newspaper profile of her, she always mentioned Peter Dickinson as the best stylist and storyteller in the genre and I've been carrying around that nugget of information about him all these years but never got around to reading him.  I found Some Deaths Before Dying while browsing in the library and loved it.  A physically infirm but mentally sharp old woman learns that one of two old dueling pistols she had given her long-dead husband, a former POW in Burma, as a gift has gone missing and she endeavors to get it back and unravel the complex mysteries stemming from its disappearance.  Quite a wonderful book, and just as much a proper novel as a mystery novel.  And the perfect example of Paretsky's claim about Dickinson's talents as a stylist and a storyteller.  I should probably rank this higher on my list.

5. Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller
Technically, this is Claire Fuller's first novel but it is so good that I don't believe it.  This is the story of a young girl in London in the 1970s with two unusual parents - her father is an survivalist (sort of a doomsday prepper 1.0) and her mother, a renowned Germain pianist.  I want to avoid spoilers so let's just say stuff happens and these survival skills are put to the test.  But all the survival skills in the world are not enough for what really has happened.  It's been a long time since I read Rupert Thomson's The Insult but this reminds me a bit of that, something normal that turns into a dark fantasy/fairy tale.  A tremendous debut.

4. The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood
I love novels about artists, painters especially.  This brilliant and strange book is the story of a Scottish painter and how and why she has come to live at a special colony for artists on a Turkish island in the 1970s.  In a way, it reminds me of a William Boyd novel, where we get the story of an artist and her times (in this one, great sections on the London art scene of the 1950s) but at the same time, there is also something very strange going on, the less of which I say the better so as not to spoil anything.  Hypnotic and engrossing.

3. The Black Notebook/Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

Like number 10, I again cheat and shoehorn in two slim French novels into one entry.  The Black Notebook is the story of a writer trying to reconstruct his past, from when he knew a young woman who may have been involved in a crime (or terrorism).   In Honeymoon, a documentary filmmaker disappears from his own life so as to be able to trace the lives of a couple he knew a long time ago and makes a moving discovery.  Modiano won the Nobel Prize in 2014 and that is how I learned of him and I'm so glad I did.  He's endlessly fascinating.  I'm still trying to figure out how he does what he does in these books.

2. Real Tigers by Mick Herron
I picked Real Tigers because it was published in 2016 but this is more of a series award as I read the three books and novella in this series all at once.  For a long time I thought spy novels were dumb.  By the time I was of an age to start reading them, the Cold War was ending and nothing seemed more pointless than books about our conflicts with the Russians (because we had soundly won the Cold War and there was no way the Russians would ever recover and infiltrate the White House).  After 20 or so years passed, that era started to get interesting again and I read some John LeCarre and realized I was perhaps a bit wrong to dismiss this genre for so long.  But I still thought any new/contemporary novels about espionage were stupid.  But then I found Slow Horses, the first book in what has come to be known as the Slough House series.  Too many crime novels are about diabolical and genius serial killers and reading about them is tiresome because those stories are all played out.  Similarly with spy novels, there is often a secret plot with the fate of the world hanging in the balance and only one special agent who can beat the ticking clock to stop it.  In an amazing stroke of genius, Mick Herron created a small section of MI-5 (the UK's domestic security service) called Slough House, where all the agents who are fuck ups get sent because it is too hard or too costly to fire them.  They are stuck in a disgusting building doing work so punishingly boring it is hoped they will quit.  The head of Slough House is Jackson Lamb, a once great agent during the Cold War who has been sidelined.  In this series, he uses his disgraced agents to handle some interesting cases that arise.  These books are fresh and fantastic and yet deliver those old thrills.

1.  Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer
I had a hard time starting this book.  I did not like the premise - a young medical student with Asperger's is convinced the cadaver he's been assigned in his anatomy class has been murdered and he's compelled to prove it.  But Rubbernecker turns into an extraordinary mystery and a coming of age story of a different kind as well as we follow this young man's search for the truth.