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.