“You know what kiddo? Dragging myself up in Belleville for the last month’s at least taught me one thing: wrinklies can wander the streets at night, stark naked, with diamond studs in their navels and the family silver hanging round their necks and not one smackhead’ll so much as touch them.”
I’d had my sights on the crime novels written by French author Daniel Pennac for some time, so when Emma from Book Around the Corner and I decided to do a virtual book exchange for Xmas, I was happy to see that one of Pennac’s novels made my list. This brings me to The Fairy Gunmother (La Fée Carabine), the second book in La Sage Malassène, a series of novels concerning Benjamin Malassène and his idiosyncratic family. The first book is The Scapegoat (La Bonheur des Ogres) which introduces the main character, Benjamin.
The title, The Fairy Gunmother may give you a hint of what you’re in for as the writer loves wordplay, and if I had to compare this author to anyone else I’ve read, then that would be Raymond Queneau–specifically Zazie dans le Métro, which I loved incidentally. But back to the plot and more about the wordplay later.
The book begins in Belleville on a cold winter’s night with police Inspector Vanini hanging out on a street corner. There have been a number of old ladies robbed and murdered with their throats slit in Belleville, and with no suspects (other than Arabs in general), Vanini is on the lookout for suspicious persons and old ladies in trouble. As fate would have it, Vanini spies an elderly lady beginning to slip on a sheet of black ice:
Then the old dear’s shawl suddenly spread out, like a bat taking off, and everything came to a standstill. She’d lost her balance. Then she got it back again. The disappointed blond [Vanini] cursed between his teeth. Watching people fall flat on their faces always made him laugh. That was one of the nasty things about this blond head. Though it looked as neat and clean as can be from the outside, with its dense, evenly barbered crewcut. But its owner didn’t like oldsters much. He found them a bit disgusting.
So we know that Vanini isn’t hanging around in Belleville for the love of old ladies. In fact he’s hoping that this particular old lady will slip and fall and give him a good laugh in the process. So why is Vanini in Belleville on a freezing winter’s night? Simple: he’s convinced that Arabs are behind the vicious crimes, and he has very specific ideas about Arabs:
He was Nationally Frontal and made no bones about it. And that’s just why he didn’t want people to say he was NF because he was a racist. No, like he’d once learnt at school. This was not a case of cause and effect. It was a case of consequences. That blond head of his had become Nationally Frontal as a consequence of having objectively thought through the dangers of uncontrolled immigration. And he had quite sensibly made up his mind that all scum should be chucked out of the country as soon as possible. Firstly, with a view to saving the purity of the French livestock, secondly because of unemployment and, finally, to uphold law and order.
So although Vanini would love to see the old lady slip on the ice, he notices two Arabs standing opposite, and since he’s convinced that Arabs are behind the latest elderly whackings, he decides to go and help the frail old lady and to act as a “deterrent” to the Arabs’ imagined bad intentions. To the astonishment of the bystanders, the old lady pulls out a gun and blows Vanini “to smithereens.” The Arabs, knowing full well that no one will believe their story that a geriatric woman just felled Vanini, run from the scene of the crime.
The Fairy Gunmother then follows the fallout of Vanini’s murder as Chief Superintendent Cercaria swoops into Belleville on a mission to catch the killer. There’s a dramatic division within the department with Cercaria’s mob believing that the Arabs are to blame for everything, but meanwhile Inspector Van Thian argues otherwise. And he should know since he’s living disguised as “wrinklie” granny, the widow Ho in the middle of Belleville. But since the police are unable to catch the granny-snuffers, Belleville grannies don’t count on the police for help, and instead they begin arming themselves…
Benjamin, the main character of the series, is employed by Queen Zabo at Vendetta Press. He lives with a sprawling family with so many members it wasn’t easy keeping track of them all–especially since they tend to ‘adopt’ various old men–some of whom have been led into a life of ruin by drug pushers. The story has various threads which cover a number of crimes under investigation (with Benjamin becoming a suspect in all of them), and while the story may seem to swing out of control at times, by the end of the novel, all the loose ends are neatly tied together. Gentrification, racism, and the care of the elderly play no small role, and while there are a lot of laughs, the story’s message is deadly serious. Pennac’s tale is rife with playful humour, and many parts of the novel, bolstered by Pennac’s use of language, are laugh-out-loud funny:
Minus twelve weather can freeze your balls off, but Belleville was still bubbling like a devil’s cauldron. It was as if every copper in Paris was getting in on the act. They were crawling up from the Place Voltaire, parachuting onto Place Gambetta, doing pincer movements from Nation and the Goutte d’Or. With sirens blaring, lights flashing, tyres screeching left, right, and centre. The night was on fire. Belleville was vibrant. But Julius the Dog didn’t give a damn. In the half-light that goes with doggish pleasures, Julius was licking up a sheet of Africa-shaped black ice. It tasted delicious to his dangling tongue. A city is a dog’s favourite dinner.
During this razor-sharp night, it was as though Belleville was settling all its old scores with the Law. Side alleys rang to truncheons. Information highways stretched through Black Marias to the Station. Pushers were having their sleeves pulled, the Arab hunting season was open, big mustachioed pigs were out for a barbecue. Apart from that, the neighbourhood was much the same as usual, that is to say, ever-changing. It’s on its way to being clean, on its way to being smooth and on its way to being expensive. What’s left of the old Belleville housing sticks out like fillings in a grinning set of Hollywood teeth. Belleville’s on its way.
Translator Ian Monk