Category Archives: Fiction

She Who Was No More: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac (1952)

After reading Vertigo and The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, both books from Pushkin Press’s new Vertigo imprint, I couldn’t resist plunging into She Who Was No More. For film fans, She Was No More was made into Les Diaboliques–a far more appropriate title for a wicked tale of adultery, devilish deception and murder

she who was no moreThe book opens with travelling salesman Ferdinand Ravinel waiting, with his mistress, Lucienne, for the arrival of Ravinel’s wife Mireille. Lucienne has lured Mireille to this spot, a house in Nantes, in order to murder her. Ravinel and Mireille have only been married for five years, and this cold, calculating plot to murder Mireille and collect the life insurance has consumed the last two of those years. After they collect the insurance money, the plan is that Lucienne & Ravinel will move to Antibes where Lucienne, a doctor, will then buy a medical practice. But Ravinel is supposed to get a payoff too:

He gazed at a shining carafe which magnified a piece of bread till it looked more like a sponge. Antibes … A smart shop–for he was to set up on his own too. In the window would be air guns for underwater shooting and all the gear for frogmen. Rich customers. And, with the sea in front and the sunshine, your mind would be full of pleasant, easy thoughts that didn’t make you feel guilty. Banished the fogs of the north. Everything would be different. He himself would be a different man. Lucienne had promised he would. As though seeing the future in a crystal, Ravinel saw himself sauntering along the beach road in white flannels. His face was tanned. People turned to look at him.

Lucienne met Mireille, became her physician, and even moved in with the married couple at one point. Imagine the married couple, Ravinel and Mireille, as a fundamentally unhealthy organism and Lucienne as the disease that moves in and takes over. Lucienne is a repellent character–utterly cold-blooded, a seemingly nerveless creature, and yet underneath “her outward coolness, you could see she was strung up and anxious.”

Strange how unfeminine she was. Even when they made love… How had she ever became his mistress? Which of them had really chosen the other. At first she had taken no notice of him, behaved almost as if he wasn’t there. She had seemed only interested in Mireille and she had treated her more like a friend than a patient. They were the same age, those two.

Obviously Lucienne, who has a much more forceful personality than Ravinel, appeals to his worst characteristics. An underachiever, he’s weak and unhappy with his life for reasons he can’t identify. He describes Mireille as a “nice little thing. Insignificant, however,” and yet from Ravinel’s thoughts, we get a picture of a woman who’s a good wife and rather pleasant (much more pleasant than Lucienne).  Ravinel doesn’t even like Lucienne; she has several habits he loathes–including the way she devours her meat almost raw. There’s none of the grand passion/lust found in other stories with a similar frame–I’m thinking here of The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity For Ravinel, sex with either Lucienne or Mireille is a bit of a let-down. With Lucienne, sex is almost surgical; it’s “brief, hasty intercourse, sometimes on a consultation room couch, within a yard of an enameled trolley on which stainless-steel instruments were laid out under a sheet of gauze.”

On the sexual side, things had not gone any better with Mireille than with Lucienne. Possibly it was his own fault. Lack of experience. Or had it been his luck to come upon nothing but frigid women. Mireille had done her best to pretend, but he had never been taken in. She had remained completely unmoved, even when she had clutched at him with an ardor that was meant to be ecstatic. As for Lucienne, she had never bothered to pretend. Love-making left her cold, icy cold, if it didn’t positively irritate her. That was the difference between them. Mireille took her duties seriously, and it was a wife’s duty to respond in the flesh. Strange that she couldn’t succeed. She was so feminine, so human, that there ought to have been a streak of sensuality in her somewhere.

Ravinel has a wife he likes but he undervalues and a mistress he’s terrified of disobeying. Quite a dilemma for the man who plans to murder the former in order to be with the latter.

The emphasis in She Who Was No More is on the psychological aspects of murder, and we see the story through Ravinel’s perspective as he rationalizes and justifies his actions. At one point, he says that in a way, it’s Mireille’s “own fault” they have to murder her after which he immediately tries to make himself the victim while carrying her unconscious body. Murdering Mireille is just a way, or so Ravinel thinks, of reinventing himself into the man he’d like to be. Once the crime is committed, everything begins to fall apart, and Ravinel, already established as an inherently weak character, finds himself, with increasing paranoia, resorting to a childhood vision of the “next world.”

We’re not meant to like anyone here, and it’s that total lack of sentiment which allows the reader to toss aside sympathy and pity and instead concentrate on the puzzle and the paranoia in this tale of the survival of the most wicked.


Filed under Boileau Pierre & Thomas Narcejac, Fiction

The Last September: Nina de Gramont

“I remember turning-the sunlight so much flatter, in that direction, pixels from staring at the water still dancing in front of my eyes.”

Nina de Gramont’s novel The Last September is described as a murder mystery, and while a murder occurs soon after the book opens, this is essentially the story of how love corrodes into a troubled marriage.  The story is narrated by Brett, who when the novel opens, is struggling to finish her PhD thesis (after 8 years) on Emily Dickinson. Brett, her husband, Charlie and their 15 month old daughter are staying in Charlie’s father’s rundown beach house in Cape Cod Bay. This could be a romantic setting, but romance isn’t part of the equation. Simmering resentments linger under the surface of the marriage as Brett struggles to write while Charlie abandons his share of child care seemingly oblivious to Brett’s need to work. This unsettling tableaux unfolds into a picture of a marriage that is falling apart at the seams.

I’m not giving anything away to say that Charlie is brutally murdered, and that Brett assumes the killer is Charlie’s schizophrenic brother Eli who has a history of violence when he goes off his meds. As Brett struggles with guilt and might-have-beens in the aftermath of the murder, slowly, the story of Brett and Charlie’s marriage unfolds.

The Last SeptemberAt university, Brett was best friends with pre-med student Eli, and through Eli, she met Charlie, the much more charming, live-lightly brother. A one-night stand later finds Brett wondering how she could have misinterpreted Charlie’s intentions, but she picks up the pieces of her shattered ego and carries on with her studies. Meanwhile Eli descends into schizophrenia, and eventually his illness brings Brett back into Charlie’s orbit.

The eventual solution to the murder comes as an understated event–far from the usual settings of police interviews and line-ups. Instead the story is solidly on the tragedy of Brett’s marriage and the many mistakes made along the way. The story is beautifully written, and yet I’ll admit no small frustration with Brett–a woman who seems to be moved along more than once by those with much stronger characters. Like many other women before her, Brett has multiple warnings that Charlie is an irresponsible womanizer, and yet she can’t resist that excessive charm and attention. Once again, the very traits that attract become the nails in the coffin of a dying marriage.

Woven into Brett’s tale is her love of Emily Dickinson, and while these passages seemed occasionally over applied to the love story of Brett and Charlie, the Dickinson thread also underscored the overall problem of having a romantic nature to begin with. Brett had ample warning about Charlie but nonetheless plunged ahead into marriage with a man who’d already shown his true nature.

Ultimately this is a story of regret & loss: Brett’s lost relationship with Eli, Eli’s loss of mental stability, Brett’s lost marriage to Charlie. Here’s Brett reacting to Eli’s absence and building a future that never happened for Eli:

For a while I tried to e-mail Eli, to update him on Tab [the cat] and find out if he was ever coming back to school. But he never answered. After a month or so went by, I helped his roommates pack up his things to ship back to his parents’ winter house in New York.

“He’s in some swanky hospital outside Boston,” one of the roommates told me. “It’s called Maclean.”

I knew about Maclean from studying poets and listening to James Taylor. In my mind, it was like a boarding school with rolling green lawns and maybe a swimming pool and tennis courts. I imagined Eli lying on a grassy hillside under a broad, blue sky, writing poetry in a spiral notebook. That image comforted me, even as the years unfolded without ever hearing from him. Eli went away. He had treatment. He was cured. Maybe when he got out he enrolled in a different college, went on to med school, got married.

Life is seen as a series of damaging incidents, and yet at the same time, Charlie, who’s gone not long after the novel begins, is one of those people who’s made of different, impervious material. Sailing through life with few cares, Charlie never realises how much he hurts people simply because he never sustains damage. The two brothers present an interesting contrast. While Eli is definitely mentally ill and is expected to cause problems , Charlie is deemed  “normal” by societal standards, and yet Charlie damages those who love him. A highly readable novel, the emphasis here is on a troubled marriage and not the murder mystery.

Review copy


Filed under de Gramont Nina, Fiction

The Waitress Was New: Dominique Fabre

Dominique Fabre’s Guys Like Me is the story of a divorced, lonely, fifty-something office worker, a gray, balding Everyman who could be one of the hundreds of similar anonymous-looking men we see everyday. The Waitress was New is narrated by a similar type, but this time it’s Pierre, a fifty-six year old barman who works in Le Cercle, a restaurant in Paris. Madeleine, the waitress of the title plays a very small role in this story; she’s a temporary replacement for the regular waitress, Sabrina, who may or who may not be out on sick leave.

The Waitress was New is a look at a very small slice of life as Pierre goes through a few work days, copes with various problems and mainly looks forward to retirement. Pierre was married for eight years a long time ago, and he occasionally recalls his last girlfriend, so unlike the protagonist in Guys Like Me, romance and sex are both things in the past for Pierre. Pierre notes the messy personal lives of others while he seems to appreciate his uncomplicated solitary life and his friendships. Unfortunately employment at the restaurant suddenly becomes problematic and less secure when the boss, a middle-aged man named Henri, “slips out on the sly.” He doesn’t return.

The waitress was newThe boss has had affairs in the past and in spite of owning a business, isn’t the most reliable of men. When Henri fails to return, those who remain at Le Cercle scramble to share the workload in the boss’s absence. Pierre, like most barman, is a good listener, and so that’s probably why he finds himself listening to the boss’s wife Isabelle. The general consensus in the restaurant is that Henri must be having an affair with the coincidentally absent Sabrina.

As a barman with regulars, he gets to know his customers well and he has favourites. There’s a developer who comes in three times a day, runs up a tab and has the occasional breakdown

Sometimes we talk, which for a barman means I listen while he throws out sentences that don’t always know where they’re going, about his life, his career, his children. He has three, with three different wives. The oldest of the girls is thirty, and he’s just turned sixty. They look a lot alike. Sometimes they eat together at Le Cercle. She’s a psychiatrist at Marmottan Hospital. She must be his favorite, I’ve never seen the others. Does she know her daddy makes a habit of undressing in Le Cercle to go throw himself in the Seine when he’s had one too many?

That’s an example of the embedding of other stories in the narrative. This character, a developer, since he’s not a main focus, is not explored, but this is not a flaw in the novel. Instead it’s a reflection of how people linger in the periphery of our lives and how we don’t really know the stories of all those we meet. It’s easy for us to imagine this man’s chaotic life–three wives, three children. Is the oldest the favourite as Pierre imagines or is she the only one who speaks to him?

Also the novel has a graceful way of showing how life flows on in spite of interruptions and radical changes. People adjust and move on, and we see this through the ebb and flow of customers as they stream into Le Cercle from habit and then are diverted elsewhere.  At 117 small pages, this is a quick, quiet, simple read. There are no deaths, no chases, no love scenes–this is just a glimpse at the life of an ordinary working man who faces a crisis at work and must handle the situation as he has handled many other problems in the past. Pierre is an engaging, old-fashioned narrator–a quiet man, on the serious side who has a very particular way of speaking and frequently punctuates his thoughts with a handful of expressions.

There was a young couple camped out at a table in back. I went over and started to clean up all around them, but they kept right on making out. They were getting on my nerves, the boss’s wife still hadn’t come down. I told the holdouts that closing time had come. In England they have a bell, when it rings the people leave without making a fuss, as orderly as you please. The boss’s daughter says there are always taxis waiting just for the drunks, with a special rate. That place must be a boozer’s paradise. Oh Pierrot, am I tired. This was a fine establishment before the boss started chasing after his life. The young couple finally left, they seemed very much in love, the way people are when it’s part-time, if you don’t mind my saying.

While Guys Like Me has more substance, it would easy to dismiss The Waitress was New as a pleasant, refreshing little tale about an ordinary man who lives an ordinary life, and who has the sort of anxieties and concerns that most of us have. This is an extremely well-crafted look at the minutiae of daily life through the eyes of a credible Everyman. While Pierre briefly touches on mistakes he’s made, he also accepts that there’s no point in dwelling on that which he cannot change, and while the boss is evidently in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Pierre is long past that point. Oddly fascinating and charming due to Pierre’s stoicism and sense of duty in the face of a meltdown, The Waitress was New comes recommended to fans of modern French fiction.

Translated by Jordan Stump


Filed under Fabre Dominique, Fiction

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia: Piero Chiara

“Justice is a machine with neither heart nor intelligence: it acts as instructed.”

Pushkin Press‘s new Vertigo imprint suggests the reader “step inside a dizzying world of criminal masterminds,” and Piero Chiara’s crime novel, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, certainly fits that rather ambitious description. This is the story of the disappearance of a married woman, and it’s a case which continues to haunt the man who leads the investigation. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is definitely not a traditional detective novel, but it is intriguing.

It’s 1955. Commissario Corrado Sciancalepre is a talented policeman who’s “blessed with a special form of intuition, that particular mental agility that enables great policemen to delve into the minds of criminals.” He’s due for a promotion and yet he feels a tie with the small town of M, located in Northern Lombardy. He has a varied job: he’s an investigator, commissioner for public safety, and a counselor of sorts. The novel opens with Sciancalepre looking ahead to a golden future and with no idea that the case of his career is headed his way.

The case begins when Esengrini, the region’s “most agile and authoritative criminal lawyer,” a former mayor and chief magistrate “during the fascist period,” contacts Sciancalepre for assistance. It seems that Esengrini’s much younger wife, the very attractive Signora Giulia has disappeared. Giulia has a standing appointment every Thursday to travel by train to Milan to visit the couple’s daughter, Emilia, at boarding school. This Thursday is different. Her bedroom is a shambles, and it appears that suitcases, clothing and a substantial amount of jewelry are all missing. Esengrini has ascertained, from the gardener, that Giulia didn’t leave by the main gate, and he concludes that his wife has run off with another man. Esengrini had his suspicions that his wife was having an affair and that the weekly trip to Milan was just a cover for these assignations.

The disappearance of signora giuliaSciancalepre’s investigation of “The Esengrini Affair,” initially yields plenty of clues–all leading to adultery and the theory that Guilia ran off with another man. Sciancalepre asks himself what he would have done in Esengrini’s shoes and concludes:

I’d have poisoned her, he mused, or shot her on the spot, at the right moment. No one could have argued that it wasn’t a crime of passion, and I could get off with a few years.

It appears that the case will remain unsolved. Years pass, and events in the small town of M, now involving Guilia’s daughter, stir the embers of the old, still unsolved case….

Here’s a long quote in which the now adult Emilia talks to Sciancalepre about her mother’s disappearance:

One evening she found Sciancalepre in that [train] compartment. They made the entire journey together, and for the first time, Emilia spoke about her mother. She’d realized by now that there was something strange about her mother’s disappearance, and she wished she knew what was in her father’s heart. But it was something she’d never been able to ask him because she felt intimidated–or perhaps because she understood it was something they must never discuss.

“It’s a mystery. A mystery!” said the Commissario. And he tried to get her to speak, asking what her father thought about it. “Did you read the papers?” he asked.

“Yes, I read then, but I don’t believe any of their speculations. In any case. as far as I’m concerned, my mother’s dead: I can feel it.”

Truth to tell, Sciancalepre also sensed it, but he didn’t want to think any more about the case. The folder, with all the notes and photographs of Signora Giulia, was still in his drawer. Formally, the case was still open, but the paper in the file was starting to yellow and surely some day soon one of his successors would send it to the archives. And Sciancalepre was expecting a promotion–which would mean a transfer.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is an unconventional, compelling crime novel. Like any great detective, Sciancalepre is haunted by a case he cannot solve, and yet he also knows that the mystery hasn’t vanished; it’s just festering there in the recesses of his mind. I was frustrated by the ending–as we’re probably meant to be, so I immediately reread it in order to try and ‘solve’ the mystery for myself. This is the second novel I’ve read from Pushkin Press‘s Vertigo line, and so far I’m very impressed. For those interested, Vertigo is also recommended for crime fans.

Finally, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia takes place in the mid-50s, and there are a few references to the social views of the times, so we see the Commissario telling Esengrini to launch a suit against Giulia for  “abandoning the marital home.” Additionally, it seems as though it was possible to arrest someone for adultery.

Review copy. Translated by Jill Foulston


Filed under Chiara Piero, Fiction

The Body Snatcher: Patrícia Melo

We think the devil comes in the back door, that he comes in with your enemies, but the truth is that we ourselves open the door to him the moment we trust someone.”

In The Body Snatcher, from Brazilian author Patrícia Melo, a tale of drug trafficking, police corruption, and blackmail, an unemployed former telemarketing manager who worked “in a boiler room in São Paulo”  has retreated to the rural area of Corumbá near the Bolivian border. It’s hard to imagine the pinnacle of your professional career trapped in a boiler room but that’s life for our narrator. After leaving São Paulo, he lived with his cousin, a mechanic, until he started lusting after his cousin’s woman. He moved on yet again, and now, when the novel opens, he rents a room from the son of the chief of the Guató tribe and spends his days loafing around. He has a girlfriend, Sulamita who works for the police initially as an administrative assistant and then, during the course of the novel, she becomes head of a morgue. One day the narrator goes fishing and witnesses a small private aircraft crashing into the Paraguay River. He tries to rescue the pilot, but the young man dies at the scene. Also in the plane is a kilo of cocaine, and for the narrator, it’s just too good an opportunity to pass up….

The Body SnatcherWith a kilo of coke to his name and no job, the narrator places his toe into the local drug trade and this soon escalates into full-blown trafficking. When things go wrong, the narrator finds himself in debt to Bolivian drug-dealer Ramirez. The book does an excellent job of showing how one bad decision leads to freefall.

You rob a cadaver. You hire some loser of an Indian to sell the blow you stole off the corpse. You fuck your cousin’s wife. You do that because you believe you can make a mistake, just one, just one more, and another, just one more little screw-up, and then return and go on with your path, your film, because the course of life continues there, static, waiting for you to screw up and return later.

With a lack of options, the narrator decides to approach the wealthy family of the dead pilot. It’s a macabre interest which would appear to be founded in some sort of guilt–although ultimately, guilt never really comes into play here. It’s puerile interest combined with self-preservation.

When you commit a crime like this the problem isn’t the others. Much less the reality. The evidence. The problem is you yourself. The slip-up you make when you’re asked a question. The imperfect actions. Your inappropriate reaction in a given situation. Not to mention the urge to confess that arises time and time again.

This novel is a slow burn read with the narrative gathering speed and sticking power as the narrator, nicknamed Porco by Ramirez, slides deeper into irreversible actions. The narrator has a linguistic tic of adding the word “over” to many of his thoughts. The linguistic tic, which isn’t guilt but a combination of common sense & justification, is finally explained at around the half way point:

You’re being stupid, over. That’s what my internal radio, which it was no longer possible to turn off, was saying. I would think and my private interlocutor, over, would counter, always trying to show me I was wrong, that goodness, over, like god, was a fantasy, that man was born bad and gets worse with time, and that I should forge ahead with my diabolical plan.

The Body Snatcher conveys the stinging, harsh bitter sense of the desperate side of Brazilian culture by positioning the lives of the extremely wealthy against the life of the dispossessed narrator who thinks a kilo of coke is the answer to his prayers, but instead it just opens the doors to more complications. Grabbing the coke, the narrator’s act of seemingly benign self-interest morphs into evil. As the narrator explains, “we are born with evil ensconced in us like a dormant virus only waiting for the moment to emerge.” While the narrator plays with the idea of guilt and conscience the author makes it clear that neither exist–or can afford to exist–in this tale of the baseness of human behaviour.  Instead of guilt or conscience, the fear of being caught dominates the narrator’s actions, and the author allows the narrator to play with a sense of regret at having to behave this way while showing his callousness. What’s so interesting is the permeation throughout society of bad behaviour from the brutal, vicious drug dealer, Ramirez to the man who beats his pregnant wife. Everyone is pitted, in some fashion, in a battle for survival, and there’s the sense that in this culture of corruption, the only way to survive is to leave morality behind and join in.

Review copy. Translated by Clifford Landers


Filed under Fiction, Melo Patrícia

The Mistake I Made: Paula Daly

“Do you ever look at your life and think you were meant to have more?”

The Mistake I Made by British author Paula Daly explores not the understated ONE mistake, but the multiple epic mistakes made by Roz Toovey, a talented hardworking physiotherapist who, nonetheless, finds herself burdened with debt and making some tough choices.

Roz is a 40-something woman. Separated from her immature husband, she lives in the Lake District, commutes back and forth to a corporate clinic, and frantically juggles the care of George, her troubled nine-year-old son with fifty-hour-a-week work demands. Her harried life is just a breath away from imminent disaster, and shortly after the novel opens that disaster arrives in the form of bailiffs who strip her rented cottage of its contents. This is followed by the arrival of an eviction notice. Roz, who’s swamped with credit card debt racked up by her irresponsible husband who gives her no financial support whatsoever, has nowhere to turn to for help. Thanks to a failed business venture, she’s already tapped out her parents and is loath to appeal to her sister, Petra, for help.

One day at a gathering at Petra’s house where she meets the very wealthy married couple, Nadine and Scott, Roz, blurts out the thought that men should hire professionals for sex rather than poach on other married women. It’s a statement that shocks the guests, but then she’s approached at work by Scott who offers her 4,000 pounds if she spends a night with him, no strings attached.

the mistake I madeThe plot, of course, evokes the film: Indecent Proposal–aging millionaire offers a married woman a cool mill is she spends the night with him. It’s a film that got a lot of buzz and made a lot of money upon its release in 1993, and that can probably be explained partly by the fantasy elements at play. At the time, a friend of mine told me she’d spend the night with someone for a lot less, and I remembered that comment as the plot unfolds. The film is referenced in the book, but the author turns the film’s romantic nonsense on its head. No Hollywood glitz here; Roz agrees to spend a night with Scott and all of her money problems will be over, right?

It would be easy to say that to agree with Scott’s proposal is the FIRST mistake that Roz made–but that isn’t true. As the book continues, we see that the decision to sleep with Scott is just the latest screw-up in a long history of screw-ups. At first as details unfold, it seemed as though perhaps the author was making Roz an unreliable narrator–rather than the rock solid force she seems to be. Instead Paula Daly gives us a very human character who, after making as series of mistakes and poor decisions, is drowning in debt and sees the proposal of sex-for-money as the lifeline it isn’t.

There were no good options; just one bad option slightly worse than the other. And you know what you should do. Your gut is screaming at you to back up. Reverse. Come clean now and take the hit before things get really out of control. But you don’t, because you are weak. And your habit of taking the less bad option is what got you here in the first place.

The Mistake I Made is a pageturner–partly due to unforeseeable twists and turns of plot, but also due to the author’s narrative style and the very convincing, compelling voice of the Roz. It’s easy to accept that Roz is a real person, and that makes her decisions easy to accept. Here she is describing what is like to be self-employed in an industry in which clients/patients tend to see themselves as customers:

I gave my best emphatic self: listening to patients’ worries, concerns about their lives, their children’s lives, their money worries, their health issues. I gave my best educational self: repeating facts about healing, posture about the links with stress and myofascial pain, facts that I’d been reciting all day, every day, year in year out. And I gave my best in merriment and entertainment, acting as though the patients were funniest, wittiest, most enjoyable people in the world to spend time with. I listened, smiling accordingly, as old men recited tedious jokes, as old women discussed how funny Alan Carr was. At the end of each day I would have to little left for George–so little left for me, in fact–that the most I could do was sit mute and expressionless, until it was time to go to bed.

The Mistake I Made is a well-plotted, gripping distracting read. It veered towards OTT towards the end, but that’s a minor quibble. I really liked Roz, and after the book concluded I asked myself why–after all she does some really questionable things during the course of the novel. Ultimately, in spite of what Roz has done, she convinces us of her untenable position–squeezed between working for a living and being the sole provider for a son who’s beginning to show emotional problems.

The slightly out of focus cover which shows a portrait of a woman’s face. It’s both symbolic and appropriate as Roz loses her balance and her moral compass in her efforts to stay afloat–right and wrong blur and merge. While it’s fairly easy to identify with Roz’s debt dilemma (in other words, it’s fairly easy to imagine getting into this position), the book also makes a strong case for working less, buying less and living a bit more. I liked the author’s style a great deal and will check out her backlist. And on a final note, I’m glad to see an author FINALLY tackling the problem of a character having mounds of cash and no way to spend it without raising eyebrows. That’s the one thing that annoyed me about Breaking Bad. Yes, Walter White eventually turns to money laundering in order to stockpile his millions, but the scenes with Walt paying for his cancer treatment with cash were unreal.

Thanks to Cleo for pointing me towards this book–a recommendation that was seconded by Crimeworm

Review copy


Filed under Daly Paula, Fiction

Vertigo: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac (1954)

“Everything was the colour of the past, the colour of memory. What feast of the dead had he come here to celebrate?”

Regular readers know that I’m fascinated by the film-book connection, so it was a matter of time before I read Vertigo, a novel written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. This title is one of the first, appropriately, to be released in the new Pushkin Vertigo line, and this is exciting news for those of us who enjoy intelligent crime novels.

Vertigo (French title: D’Entre Les Morts) begins in 1940. War is in the background–taking place somewhere else off stage, and curiously the novel’s action takes a parallel thread to the war.

The novel opens in the office of former detective, now lawyer, Roger Flavières, who is talking to Paul Gévigne, a man he knew fifteen years earlier “at the Faculté de Droit.” Flavières didn’t like Gévigne then, and he likes him even less now. Gévigne has grown plump and bald, yet he’s clearly affluent whereas the last fifteen years haven’t been kind to Flavières. Flavières is extremely thin and he carries an air of anxiety following a tragic accident in which his partner on the police force was killed. He blames himself for the incident which was rooted in … vertigo.

vertigo vintageGévigne’s air of bonhomie seems a little forced, but then he reveals that he’s worried about his wife, Madeleine. After four years of marriage, she’s become withdrawn. There are also some unexplained absences and other times when Gévigne has discovered that she wanders to strange destinations–almost as though she’s in a trance. Flavières wonders if this can be explained by worry or illness, but Gévigne dismisses these arguments and insists that something strange is going on. He claims she’s become “someone else”

At first I too thought there was something at the back of her mind troubling her–some unreasoning fear provoked by the war, for instance. She would suddenly relapse, into silence and hardly hear what was said to her. Or she would stare at something–and I can’t tell you what a queer impression it made. I know this sounds absurd, but it was as though she was seeing things invisible to the rest of us… Then, when she came back to her normal self, she would have a slightly bewildered expression on her face, as though it took her a little time to recognize her surroundings, and even her own husband…

Gévigne isn’t convinced that his wife is mentally ill, but he’s concerned that she’s become obsessed with a dead ancestor– a woman who committed suicide. He persuades Flavières to follow his wife and report back what he sees….

Since Flavières doesn’t like Gévigne and certainly doesn’t consider himself a friend, he’s initially reluctant to become involved in Gévigne’s marital problems, but he agrees to watch the couple at the theatre, and once he sets eyes on Madeleine, he’s entranced.

Flavières couldn’t see her features clearly, but he had the impression she was pretty, with something a bit fragile about her. That might have been due to her abundant hair which seemed too heavy for her face. How could a man like Gévigne have procured a wife of such elegance and grace? How could she have put up with his advances?

Flavières, who’s always been a failure with women, decides that the delicate, fragile Madeleine must be repulsed and bored by her husband, and so from fascination, a growing obsession, and a sense of chivalry, he begins to follow Madeleine. Eventually Flavières has reason to question whether reincarnation is possible.

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss, and for those of us who’ve seen the film, well we more or less know what is going to happen next. The fact I’d seen the film version didn’t spoil the book in the slightest; this was still an intense, completely fascinating read. It’s been years since I saw the Hitchcock film, but the book is different enough that I only found one or two old screen shots running through my head. In the film, the role of Flavières is played by perennial screen hero James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson) and Madeleine is played by Kim Novak. The book is a great deal more cynical, more nuanced and much darker. Plus Hitchcock’s film, which capitalizes, as it should on visuals, is set in America while the novel is set in WWII France. When the novel opens, Gévigne, an industrialist with new government contracts, refers to the impending “phony war” and everyone predicts it will be over quickly. The action in the novel parallels the build up to war, and the displacement due to the German takeover explains why some of the characters pick up their wrecked lives four years later.

Finally a note on the authors: There’s an afterword at the back of the book which explains the Boileau/Narcejac collaboration and how they “wanted to try and develop a new type of crime fiction.”

Boileau-Narcejac had one golden rule: the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare.

That is certainly true in Vertigo, a compelling psychologically complex novel which explores the dark, shifting boundaries of fantasy and reality, and the way our minds fill the gaps in questionable narratives to suit the version we want–the version that feeds our desires and our egos. Vertigo is the story of the twisted obsession of one man who gets a second chance, and yet driven to the edge of madness by reality, can’t accept it as the gift it is.

Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

Review copy


Filed under Boileau Pierre & Thomas Narcejac, Fiction

Thirteen Guests: J Jefferson Farjeon (1936)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a country house murder mystery, and I’d forgotten how much fun they can be. Thirteen Guests from J. Jefferson Farjeon is a delightful read and a perfect example of the sub-genre. I recently read The Z Murders from the same author, and while I liked the book until about the halfway mark, it’s definitely not my favourite from the British Library Crime Classics series. I’m glad I gave Farjeon, who’s largely OOP, a second chance.

The novel is set at Bragley Court, the ancestral estate of Lord Aveling, and the story opens at a railway station in Flensham as the guests begin to arrive. Twelve guests were invited, and the number thirteen is due to the inclusion of a young man, John Foss, who injures his foot at the railway station and is taken to Bragley Court for medical attention.

Thirteen guestsThe guests are a broad assortment of people, and while that could reflect the host’s desire for an interesting weekend, in reality, the invitations are all made with some sort of purpose in mind. The owner of Bragley Court, Lord Aveling, “a Conservative with ambition” wants  to become a marquis or an earl. He’s short of money and plans on arranging a marriage with his daughter, Anne to one of the guests. She isn’t cooperating, which is bad news for Lord Aveling as the match would be politically advantageous. Also resident in Bragley Court are Lady Aveling and her aged, infirm mother, Mrs. Morris. And here’s the guest list:

  • Widow Nadine Leveridge : A beautiful, headstrong woman who was rather hard on her husband while he was alive. He called her: “One of life’s glorious risks.”
  • Harold Taverley–a quiet man, a cricketer, who follows Anne around like a puppy.
  • Author Edyth-Fermoy-Jones: she’d rather talk about the crimes that take place in her own books than the murders at Bragley Court
  • Leicester Pratt: a painter whose works have declined in quality as he became more successful. He’s all “the rage” at the moment and is there to paint a portrait of Anne. As another guest points out, “He finds your weakness and paints around it.”
  • Mr Rowe, the Sausage King & his wife–very much out-of-place in Bragley Court, but Mr Rowe seems oblivious to this
  • Ruth Rowe, daughter of the Sausage King
  • Sir James Earnshaw: Liberal, “wondering whether to turn Right or Left.”
  • Zena Wilding: aging actress
  • Lionel Bultin: gossip columnist, a “ruthless reader of character.” “This weekend was a sort of bribe. The tobacco and beads for the naughty indian with the scalping knife.”
  • Mr and Mrs Chater–Bultin wittily quips that a letter ‘e’  “slipped between the second and third letters of their names” would describe the Chaters more accurately
  • John Foss: a young man injured at the railway station

So while all these guests have prior relationships and current agendas, John Foss is a newcomer. As Anne notes “it’s rather pleasant having you here–you’re so absolutely nothing-to-do-with-anything.” With his injured foot, he’s parked on a couch in the ante-room and mostly forgotten. Due to his location in the house he’s privy to incidents that others are unaware of.

Due to the rising body count, it’s fairly easy to imagine being one of the guests and wanting to leave and yet being forbidden to do so by Inspector-Inspector Kendall. He’s called to the case by pure circumstance, and he’s an interesting character who’s thorough when it comes to crime detection:  “If I’d been born with a kink in my brain,” he said, “I’d have been one of the big criminals, but fortunately for law and order my brain is not pathological, so I catch ’em instead.” The addition to the guests of John Foss is interesting because as a newcomer, he picks up vibes and tension that others seem unaware of. When first entering the house, he notes that “something’s wrong.”

But welcome alone did not reign in the spacious loungehall that glowed in the late afternoon sunshine and flickered in the light of an enormous log-fire. Something brooded as well. The shadows seemed to contain uneasy secrets, and none of the people John had so far met reflected complete mental ease.

The framework of the novel is good–although I was a little disappointed in the deaths (you’ll have to read the book to know what I mean). Apart from the murders, which with a diminishing number of suspects allows the reader an opportunity to solve the crimes, there is also witty repartee between some of the guests. Humour is introduced through the character of author Edyth-Fermoy-Jones, a truly insufferable woman, constantly bragging about her own books while knocking others, including: “of course that obscene thing, All Quiet on the Western Front.” She also claims that John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps was copied from the title of one of her books–Forty-Nine Stairs. A stag hunt takes place, and is thankfully not described, but the event reminds the reader that a casual killing takes place, and it’s not just the stag who dies. The author doesn’t pay equal attention to all of the guests, so unfortunately it’s easy to guess who should be scrutinized. All these murders take place against the highly mannered behaviour of the guests and creates a good sense of contrast–all that polite, social considerate under which lurks the basest of human nature, and that’s exactly how it should be with a country house murder mystery.

Review copy


Filed under Farjeon J. Jefferson, Fiction

Love in a Mask: Balzac

Love in a Mask or Imprudence and Happiness; a hitherto unpublished novel  (L’Amour Masque) was written by Balzac and given as a gift to the Duchesse de Dino. The handwritten manuscript, “incased in finely tooled binding,” remained in the library until gifted and finally published in 1911. Imagine Balzac giving you a handwritten story as a gift.

Love in a Mask is predominantly a romantic tale of a young captain in the Sixth Horse, Léon de Préval, who, when the novel opens, attends a ball on the eve of Mardi Gras. It’s midnight and he’s about to leave when he notices a richly dressed masked woman. They fall into conversation, and the woman, it turns out, is a young widow, who’s enjoying her newfound freedom. Soured by her experiences as a married women, she spurns Léon’s murmurs of sympathy at the death of her husband:

Constancy is but a chain that we pretend to wear in order to impose its weight on another. Now that I am free, perfectly free, I intend to remain so; no man living could induce me to forswear myself.

Léon tries to discover the woman’s identity, but she refuses to give it. She does agree, however, to a meeting at yet another ball in three weeks time. They meet again, and once more the woman wears a mask. He asks for a third meeting and an opportunity to “lay my heart and my hopes at your feet.” (is this a euphemism for sex?) She arranges a third meeting but only if Léon agrees to certain conditions…

While I dislike romances, Balzac creates a well-balanced tale, complete with a coincidence that we could believe is the guiding hand of fate, in which he once again examines the plight of married women who are at the mercy of their demonic husbands. He also argues that this young widow, soured by marriage, is wrong to close herself off to the possibility of love. All men cannot be measured by the experiences with one rotter.

Translated by Alice M. Ivimy

The novel can be read online on Dagny’s blog


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

The Invaders: Karolina Waclawiak

“We were far away enough from New York to feel like we were in a different world, but close enough to have successful commuter husbands. In the evenings, I’d see a row of pursed-lipped wives idling their cars in the parking lot of the commuter rail station, watching their bar-car-riding husbands stagger off the train.”

I am fascinated by housing estates, preferably gated communities, for the conformity, and equally bizarre behaviour environment seems to imprint on residents, and this explains my decision to read The Invaders, a second novel from Karolina Waclawiak. The novel is set in an exclusive Connecticut housing community, and unfolds over the course of a summer through two narrative voices–the 40-something once trophy wife, Cheryl and her troubled stepson, Teddy. Through these two voices, we see Little Neck Cove, a paranoid, affluent community which on the surface appears to be sedate, orderly, and enviable, but underneath the parties and the fashions shows runs fear of aging, affairs to establish continued desirability, backstabbing, and various addictions–all against the threat of invasion from the dreaded plebs.

The novel begins intriguingly with Cheryl’s abashed confession that “when Jeffrey’s first wife told me he had a voracious appetite for women, I assumed she was just trying to be vindictive.” That’s a natural enough conclusion, but it’s a statement that comes back to haunt Cheryl. Married to Jeffrey for almost ten years, Cheryl still walks in the shadow of his first, now dead wife, Joanne, and Cheryl has every reason to find herself thinking about Joanne–the woman she replaced. Cheryl and Jeffrey once had a passionate relationship, but now they exist in a “state of indifference.” They no longer have sex, and Jeffrey, with long unexplained absences from home, sees Cheryl as an irritating presence more than anything else. Cheryl, now 44,  senses that the marriage is over and that her status as trophy wife has morphed into an imminent expiration date. Suffering from insomnia, Cheryl has taken to long solitary walks along the private beaches or the community nature trail.

the invadersIn spite of the fact that Cheryl has tried to conform to the standards of behaviour and dress set by the other wives of Little Neck Cove, she’s never quite belonged. We see her at the Little Neck Cove fashion show which is attended by the wives of the community, women who shop for sherbet-coloured clothing they don’t need in desperate attempts to retain their youth. The older the women become, the more chunky jewelry they wear to hide their wrinkled skin and blemishes.

We were now transitioning between desirable and undesirable–that sad moment when a woman realizes that absolutely no man is looking at her, not even a passing glance. It made us all paralyzed with fear.

We battled the decline with bright, exotic colors and bold prints–anything to draw that attention back to the curves of our bodies. Even if various parts had begun to hang or droop, at least men were looking. Men were easy after all, weren’t they?

Possibly the other wives resent that Cheryl replaced one of their own or possibly they sniff that Cheryl comes from a hardscrabble background. Affairs are a common occurrence that wives chose to ignore; that’s just one of the silent ‘rules.’

Christine found what she was looking for at the bottom of her purse. Her husband was a doctor who medicated her so she’d turn a blind eye to his side projects. We all knew it but didn’t say anything. No one took Christine’s hand and asked her if she was okay, we always just smiled politely and ignored her confused ramblings when we realized the dose for the day was too high. Although we were complicit in her humiliation, we were all concerned with ignoring our own.

Cheryl’s voice alternates with her stepson Teddy who arrives on the scene after being kicked out of college. Rather refreshingly, he likes his stepmother–although he notices her absorption into the community standard:

You’re looking more and more like the rest of them. All you’re missing is that leathery tan and a fluorescent onesie like old Elaine.

As the summer wears on, Teddy, who takes certain privileges for granted, is expected to begin a job that his father arranges. Cheryl keeps avoiding the subject of divorce, and ultimately both Teddy and Cheryl sink into self-destructive spirals. Teddy’s rebellion takes the form of a drug habit and chasing after one of the young mothers while Cheryl begins making anonymous dirty phone calls to various male neighbours. Meanwhile when a stray Mexican fisherman wanders onto the private beach, all hell breaks loose in the neighbourhood as paranoia reigns. Ironically, of course, while the residents see “being poor meant desperation, it meant being a criminal,” the threat against the community comes from somewhere else entirely.

Author Karolina Waclawiak creates a portrait of an affluent, conformist community, where women’s self-worth is rooted in their ability to attract, and hold, men. Cheryl, who was an assistant manager of the men’s department of an outlet store before she met Jeffrey, gave up her job, and even her family, in order to marry ‘up.’ Now at 44, that decision isn’t looking so good to Cheryl. The words of advice her mother, an expert on the subject, gave her regarding the fickleness of men float back into her consciousness at crucial moments.

The character of Jeffrey never came alive–even though he moved in and out of the novel, and his actions towards the end didn’t seem to mesh with his earlier stance. While I disliked the ending which was too surreal for my tastes, I appreciated what the author is doing. There’s so much going on in the book–including tantalizing unexplored information about Joanne, a young Mexican girl, and Cheryl’s rogue mother, I asked myself if the book could possibly have been stronger if just written solely from Cheryl’s perspective. At times I had very little sympathy for her and at other times, I liked what I saw when she broke out with some aberrant behaviour.

“Here was me, wanting it everywhere.”

Review copy/own a copy


Filed under Fiction, Waclawiak Karolina