Mysteries of Paris: Eugène Sue Part I: Translation Comparisons

At almost 1400 pages, I’m not going to claim that I’m close to finishing the mega volume, Mysteries of Paris from Eugène Sue. This  Penguin Classics edition is the first new translation in more than a hundred years, and with free or very low cost e-versions on the internet, the big question becomes, ‘is it worth it to spring for this new version?’ My opinion: if you’re ready to commit a large chunk of your reading life to this book, then it’s worth forking out for this new edition.

the mysteries of ParisThe Mysteries of Paris ran, as a series, in the Journal des Débats from June 1842-October 1843. The Penguin edition’s excellent foreword from Peter Brooks introduces the novel with an overview of the main characters and also details the reception of the series by its French readers, stating that it  “was perceived by many of Sue’s contemporaries to be dangerously socialist in its political agenda.”

It was certainly the runaway bestseller of nineteenth century France, possibly the greatest bestseller of all time. It’s hard to estimate its readership, since each episode was read aloud, in village cafes and in workshops and offices throughout France. Diplomats were late to meetings, countesses were late to balls, because they had to catch up on the latest episode. It was truly a national experience, riveting in the way certain celebrity trials have been on our time, breathlessly maintained from one installment to the next in a manner we now know through the television serial.

Brooks goes on to explain that Sue was only a “moderately successful author of seafaring tales and sentimental fiction” before he hit his stride with The Mysteries of Paris, and that “he began his exploration of low-life Paris largely from sensationalistic motives.” As the serial grew in popularity, fans wrote to Sue and “Socialist reformers, too, began to bombard Sue with ideas and tracts.” Sue’s work became part of a feedback loop between reader and author:

Sue began responding by way of his novel, introducing such reformist schemes as a nationally organized pawnshop that would provide credit to the poor, public defenders for the accused, and a hospice for the children of convicts. A real dialogue developed, and by the time the novel drew to its close, Sue was ready to proclaim himself a socialist.

Since one of the originally unintended, inadvertent results of The Mysteries of Paris was to raise social consciousness regarding the plight of the poor and disenfranchised, it’s inevitable that comparisons must occur between Sue and Dickens. It’s certainly something to think about…

The translators, while discussing the difficulties presented in translating slang note that “all three of the 1843 translations have considerable shortcomings and inaccuracies. None of the translations have been available in book form since the early twentieth century (all current e-book translations reproduce the British translation, which is characterized by significant omissions).” **Actually The Mysteries of Paris is available in another printed book form, but the edition available on Amazon states it’s just over 400 pages and one reviewer complains that the pages appear to have been scanned from a really old edition. Not sure what’s missing there….

This matter of omissions became glaringly apparent immediately. In the Penguin Classics edition, Sue begins chapter one “The Joint,” thus:

In the slang of murderers and thieves, a “joint” is the lowest sort of drinking establishment. Ex-cons, called “ogres,” generally run these taverns; or when it is an equally debased woman, she is known as an “ogress.” Serving the scum of Paris, inns of this variety are packed with freed convicts, swindlers, thieves, and assassins. Whenever a crime has been committed, the police first cast their nets in this mire, so to speak. And here they almost always find their man.

This opening should alert the readers to the sinister scenes that await them. If they proceed, they will find themselves in strange places, foul urban abscesses that teem with criminals as terrifying and revolting as swamp creatures.

We have all read the legendary work of the American Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, whose pages describe the brutal ways of savages, their quaint and poetic language, the countless tricks they use to pursue or flee their enemies. Their readers tremble for the welfare of the colonists and town dwellers when they consider how they are surrounded by these wild tribes whose bloody ways mark them off from all things civilized. For our own readers, we are going to attempt some episodes from the lives of French savages who are as far removed from civilization as the Indians Cooper so vividly described. And these barbarians are all around us, We will spend time in their dens in which they get together to plan murders and robberies, in the holes where they divvy up their victims’ spoils among themselves

And there’s more, a lot more, I’m not adding here….

This entire preamble is missing from the earlier kindle versions (either free or low cost), so it’s up to you to decide if you think this preamble added anything to the story. I think it did. If I’m going to spend a portion of my life reading a book this big, I want to read the whole thing–not the Reader’s Digest condensed version, thank you very much. In this preamble, Sue creates a titillating atmosphere, ramping up the thrilling, delicious suspense and naughtiness, coated with a collaboration between the writer and the reader to take this mysterious “journey” into the criminal underworld together.

Thus forewarned, readers may wish to follow us on the journey we are inviting them to take among the denizens of the infernal race that fills our prisons and whose blood stains the scaffolds. We do not doubt this investigation will be new for them. Let us reassure our readers that once they begin this story, with each step on its way, the air becomes purer.

Anyway, I’m reading The Mysteries of Paris, so there will be multiple posts this year–(there are ten “books’ with an epilogue), multiple translation comparisons (or omissions as in this case). In terms of readability, so far, I’m reminded of Dumas. The pages go down like honey.

Translated by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg.

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Marseille Noir: ed. Cédric Fabre

“As long as I was only whacking them in my dreams.”

It was a bizarre coincidence that the night I finished watching the French-Belgian film, The Connection, I started a story from Marseille Noir which mentioned Gaetan Zampa and the murder of a judge. The film doesn’t leave the impression that things were ‘cleaned up’ in Marseille–rather the opposite–that political and police corruption triumphed in the end. But that was in the 70s, so let’s fast forward to 2015 and Marseille Noir. How do a group of writers depict this famous city now? I’ll have to say that after finishing this collection, I don’t think any reader is going to rush out and book a trip to Marseille.

marseille noirThe book contains an introduction from author, contributor & Marseille resident, Cédric Fabre, which gives an overview of the current crime situation in Marseille and just why Marseilles is such great raw material for the crime novelist.

However, Marseille-bashing–the city is a byword for economic stagnation, political patronage, drug trafficking in the northern suburbs, organized crime (actually in decline since the demise of the French Connection smuggling chain), recurrent drive-by killings and, of course, police corruption–is grist for the mill of crime fiction.

Here’s a breakdown of the stories.

The Josettes Really Liked Me: Christian Garcin

Extreme Unction: François Thomazeau

Silence is Your Best Friend: Patrick Coulomb

The Dead Pay a Price for the Living: René Frégni

I’ll go away with the First man Who says I Love You: Marie Neuser

On Borrowed Time: Emmanuel Loi

What Can I Say: Rebecca Lighieri

Katrina: François Beaune

The Problem with the Rotary: Philippe Carrese

The Prosecution: Pia Petersen

Green, Slightly Gray: Serge Scotto

The Red Mule: Minna Sif

The Warehouse for People From Before: Salim Hatubou

La Solidarité: Cédric Fabre

I’m not going to discuss every story in the book, but instead I’ll mention my favourites: The Josettes Really Liked Me–a wonderful story set against a backdrop of the shifting face of crime in Marseille,  Extreme Unction– the tale of a young boy who has a series of strange meetings with an even stranger man, and The Problem with the Rotary, a tale packed with atmosphere and dark rancid humour. In one story, The Prosecution: Pia Petersen, a disgruntled man finds himself stuck in Marseille, a “city where anything was possible.” In some of the stories, crime comes to the average person;  In Silence is Your Best Friend, a teacher in Le Panier neighbourhood is plagued by noisy neighbours, and in I’ll go away with the First man Who Says I Love You–a woman takes her strayed lover on a bizarre, gory trip. Other stories argue that the past never really goes away; in The Dead Pay a Price for the Living, a ex-prisoner returns home to exact vengeance, and in On Borrowed Time, a man’s past catches up with him after ten years. I’ll also mention the story The Red Mule about a violent punk who works for the “narco-jihad” and poses for bloody selfies. Well you know that story isn’t going to end well…

The Josettes Really Liked Me (Christian Garcin) is told by a man who recalls the four sisters of Ange Malatesta.

I never knew which one of Ange Malatesta’s four sisters was the craziest. I don’t know anything about the symptoms of dementia, psychosis, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, so I certainly wouldn’t dare to diagnose them, but I do know they were all nuts. Besides, they took turns in a mental hospital, sometimes even together.

The narrator’s father is supposed to be a “salesman of wine and spirits” but is rumoured to work for the mob.

Sure, he was a mobster, but a small-time mobster, someone who never threatened anyone. Or not very often–or let’s say, not on a regular basis. Who in any case had never stolen, or killed anyone. He had connections to the Corsicans, who controlled the slot machines in the bars and cafes. He was a collector. Otherwise he was a very nice, sensitive, and generous man who loved his wife and son. I was an only child.

The narrator grows up with Ange, who comes from a Sicilian family. Ange’s father is a frightening presence, and Ange’s four sisters, known as “the four Joes,” are all completely crazy. When the narrator is nine, something strange occurs between him and one of ‘the Joes.’ It’s an event that reveals Ange Malatesta’s violent nature, but it’s also an event that leads to payback years later when the narrator is called to an appointment with Raymond Burr:

 the nickname of a baron of the Damiani branch of the powerful Altieri family, who ran part of the city. Raymond Burr was mostly in charge of the Endoume-Corderie Catalans sector, going up toward Notre-Dame de la Garde. He was said to be utterly devoid of scruples. Some claimed his nickname came from his temperament, others said it was because he was paralyzed and in a wheelchair, which still others denied. Me, I had no idea: I’d never met him.

Extreme Unction (François Thomazeau) is a story centred on the Vélodrome Stadium. A narrator, now an adult, recalls 4 times  when he was picked up from his grandmother’s home by a man and taken to Vélodrome Stadium.

We wouldn’t exchange a word. He’d light up a cigarette, lower his window, stick out his arm, and cough all the way. At the stadium, a flunkey would open the gate for him and we’d park smack in the middle of the empty parking lot in front of the main entrance that said Jean Bouin. When there was someone there beside the guard, he’d politely say hello to André, lowering his eyes. Occasionally some bolder guys would throw out a “Hi, Dédé.” And he’d cough to answer them.

André tells the teenage boy stories while passing crumpled bags of potato chips, and the trips end with a pizza from the stadium pizzeria. It’s not until the narrator is an adult that he finally figures some things out about these four trips.

With various Marseille locations central to the action, one of the really good things about this collection is that you can’t imagine that you are anywhere else in the world but Marseille.

The problem with Marseille’s South End is how strangely mixed it is. Opulent homes stand alongside sordid housing projects, luxurious villas next to derelict cabins, and terraces with swimming pools look down on boat garages with rusty doors turned into summer dwellings. The beautiful Roy d’Espagne park spread its lawns one alley away from the dilapidated Cayolle projects where the former shantytown that Le Corbusier had invented was razed to make way for a supermarket on permanent borrowed time by local vandals. Baumettes prison is at the end of all the dead ends, the old stone mansions still shelter a handful of end-of-the line aristocrats holding onto their ghosts and past glory, a few wealthy families are holed up in their famous architect-built houses, their windows stained with the sticky resin of the ever-present Aleppo pines. The nouveau riches and the old poor, the show-offs and the sluts. The sun weighs down on minds, the sea cools them off, the most beautiful streams in the whole world are within any tourist’s reach, and the dealers are two bus stops away from the nearby junior high. Marseille, its pervasive mess, its generalized thoughtlessness. But is that really a problem…? (from The Problem with the Rotary: Philippe Carrese)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: short story collections are a great way to discover new authors, and in this case, many of the authors are not available in English. Finally a word on the Akashic Noir series which was launched in 2004… If you like crime and have an interest in a particular country or city, this is a great way to be a safe armchair traveler. For those interested, I read Mexico City Noir and really liked it.

Translated by David Ball and Nicole Ball

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Executive Suite: Cameron Hawley (1952)

Competence is a whip in the hands of a taskmaster,  and the lash cuts all the deeper when the whip is held by a perfectionist.”

Cameron Hawley’s novel, Executive Suite, a story of ambition and workplace politics opens in New York with the unexpected sudden death of 56 year old Avery Bullard. Bullard, who’s in New York to eliminate a man as a prospective executive vice president for the Tredwell Furntiure Corporation, suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies in the street as he is about to enter a cab. The man who was interviewed for the job witnesses the death and immediately dumps his stock in the Tredwell Corporation, and at the same time a woman passer by picks up and steals Bullard’s wallet. Bullard’s last act was to wire his secretary and order an emergency meeting of his five vice presidents so while the police in New York try to discover the identify of the dead man, back in Millburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Tredway Tower, the corporation’s company headquarters, the five vice presidents are supposed to dump their plans and prepare to gather together.  Everyone involved knows the meeting is to announce the new executive vice president, so no one can refuse. The last Executive VP died of a heart attack a few months before and the seat has been naggingly vacant ever since. The question on everyone’s mind is : who will Avery Bullard select? While the five men mull over their positions, we readers know that Bullard is dead and the bigger question is who will take over as the new president?

Loren P. Shaw: Vice president and Comptroller-ruthlessly ambitious, and of all the five vice presidents, his mask “was the best.”

Jesse Grimm: Vice President for Manufacturing: “his one weakness … demanding perfection from his machines but too quick to excuse the lack if it in his people.”

Fred Alderson: Vice President and Treasurer. The oldest of the vice presidents, he’s due to retire in 4 years.

J. Walter Dudley: Vice President for Sales–“practiced master of the art of winning quick friendships.”

Don Walling: Vice President for Design and Development. The newest of the five vice presidents. A self-made man ‘discovered’ by Bullard

The story goes into the minds of each of these men as they contemplate who will be selected as executive vice president, little knowing that with Bullard’s death, the stakes have drastically changed. Through these different minds, author Cameron Hawley explores just what work means to each man. Jesse Grimm, for example, no longer feels any satisfaction from his job and he has plans to retire imminently. J. Walter Dudley has recently found new zest in life through a no-strings relationship with a furniture shop owner, and Alderson thinks he deserves the executive VP spot since he’s been there the longest. Of course, the great irony is while the 5 VPs scramble around in various power plays assuming that the stake is the Executive VP spot, with Bullard’s death, the stakes have suddenly become much greater.

executive suiteAvery Bullard is, of course, absent after page one, but his presence dominates the lives of everyone who knew him. Originally a furniture salesman, he salvaged the Tredway Furniture Company from bankruptcy after the suicide of its founder and eventually merged seven other furniture companies which then formed the Tredway Corporation. He was a remarkable man who spent an energetic lifetime building his corporation while discovering and mentoring people. VP Don Walling was ‘discovered’ by Bullard, and it’s a debt Walling thinks he can never repay. Even Tredway’s largest stockholder, Julia Tredway Prince owes a tremendous debt to Bullard’s willpower and generosity. A few minor characters also exist to show what a powerful personality Bullard had–there’s loyal secretary, Erica Martin–“always in the bufferland between Avery Bullard and his vice-presidents,” and even an elevator man who’s devoted to the company president. But while Bullard demanded total and complete loyalty from his employees, some people–usually the wives, resent Bullard and his domineering presence in their lives. Mrs Alderson, for example, dreads the idea that her husband may become executive VP as she feels that she has already ‘lost’ her husband to the company. They live in the old Bullard home, a house she hates, because, according to her husband, “Mr. Bullard thinks it’s what we should do.”

But even the house, bad as it was, had not been the worst thing that Avery Bullard had done to her. Put in its simplest terms–and all of the years of loneliness had given Edith Alderson plenty of time to reduce everything to the simplest of terms–Avery Bullard had taken her husband away from her. He had turned her life into a meaningless sham of being married to a man whose first loyalty she could not claim.

This is very much a novel about American business. In some sense, Executive Suite reminded me of John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick–the story of Joe Chapin, a lawyer who is already dead when the novel begins, but whereas Joe Chapin was ‘steered’ through mediocre life by class, Bullard, a titan of industry, definitely created his own fate.

In its depiction of ambition, back stabbing office politics, and the issue of balancing home life with career, the book is relevant today. The novel can be faulted for its depiction of the female characters, but this is inevitable since this is a book about men and their careers while the wives linger in the sidelines. At one point, Walling praises another woman, glowingly to his wife, saying that she ‘thinks like a man,’ while another wife remembers only those people who’ve come to dinner, and she can recall the menu served down to minute detail. In this novel, Hawley asks some big questions: what do men ‘get’ from their careers, is it possible to balance work and home and still be successful, and what exactly brings job satisfaction? One character discusses compartmentalizing work and home and there’s the idea that one of the reasons the divorced Bullard was so admired was because he seemed to have achieved something with his life that other men envied. Ultimately, the novel argues that emotional choices in the workplace must be overridden by rational decisions; we don’t necessarily have to ‘like’ those we pick for the job.

I read some descriptions of this book as a page-turner. I found the book slow-going and it seems best read in big chunks rather than picking it up and putting it down as there are a lot of characters to keep track of here. One final thought–books written today about career and the workplace environment seem much more cynical. We see workers, anonymous and replaceable in a large corporate setting, doing anything but work. Thinking here of Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan.

Cameron Hawley (1905-1969) also wrote the novel Cash McCall which was also made into a film.

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La Grenadiere: Balzac

La Grenadiere is a short story which given its subject matter is inevitably heavy on sentiment, but I’ll move that aside and instead concentrate on the story’s strengths–the descriptions of the house known as La Grenadiere-a “little house on the right bank of the Loire as you go downstream,” near the village of Saint-Cyr.

Balzac gives a long description of the house and its surrounding two acres of vineyards. While the house is relatively humble and crude, its isolation, picturesque views and spectacular setting make this house a rare jewel for those lucky enough to rent it from its owners.

La Grenadiere itself, halfway up the hillside, and about a hundred paces from the church, is one of those old-fashioned houses dating back some two or three hundred years, which you find in every picturesque spot in Touraine. A fissure in the rock affords convenient space for a flight of steps descending gradually to the “dike”–the local name for the embankment made at the foot of the cliffs to keep the Loire in its bed, and serve as a causeway for the highroad from Paris to Nantes. At the top of the steps a gate opens upon a narrow stony footpath between two terraces, for here the soil is banked up, and walls are built to prevent landslips. These earthworks, as it were, are crowned with trellises and espaliers, so that the steep path that lies at the foot of the upper wall is almost hidden by the trees that grown on the top of lower, upon which it lies. The view of the river widens outr before you at every step you climb to the house.

At the end you come to a second gateway, a Gothic archway covered with simple ornament, now crumbling into ruin and overgrown with wildflowers–moss and ivy, wallflowers and pellitory. Every stone wall on the hillside is decked with this ineradicable plan-life, which springs up along the cracks afresh with new wreaths for every time of year.

The worm-eaten gate gives way into a little garden, a strip of turf, a few trees, and a wilderness of flowers and rose bushes–a garden won from the rock on the highest terrace of all, with the dark, old balustrade along its edge. opposite the gateway, a wooden summer-house stands against the neighbouring wall, the posts are covered with jessamine and honeysuckle, vines and clematis.

And we haven’t even reached the house yet…

A garden, such as Balzac describes, can only be cultivated over a period of many years, and it achieves that rare state of established, almost deserted, neglected and yet abundant nature which seems to exist beyond the tending hands of man.

Balzac’s story takes place during the Restoration and concerns a mother who rents the house and takes up residence with her two sons. She calls herself Mme Willemsens but in actuality, she’s Augusta, Countess of Brandon. This short tale is the end of the story of the Countess of Brandon (she appears elsewhere in La Comédie Humaine,) but not the end for her two sons. The story is really an episode in the life of the mother and her sons, so its worth resides in picking up the lives of these characters later….

Balzac’s descriptive powers excel here in the description of the house and he manages to create an impression that the timeless qualities of the house and the garden far outlast the people who pass through its door. The result is a snapshot in the history of this marvelous house–almost as though the ghost of these memories still reside within its walls.

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Strip for Murder: Richard Prather (Shell Scott mystery ) 1956

“Never in my life had I seen so many naked broads all at once. I didn’t mind though; I’m broadminded.”

Strip for Murder (1956) is my first foray into the life of Southern California based, former Marine turned PI, Shell Scott, and after reading this well-paced, witty, action packed detective story, I know it won’t be my last. Author Richard Prather (1921-2007) wrote over 40 Shell Scott mysteries, and Open Road Media has made these great little mysteries available at a very reasonable price for the kindle. Crime and humour are not natural bed mates–and if not done with just the right touch, you can end up with a novel written in bad taste. Donald Westlake knew how to blend crime and humour, and if you enjoy Westlake’s humour, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Strip for Murder.

strip for murderAt 176 pages, there’s very little down time, so the book begins with Shell Scott, inappropriately dressed, attending a dinner party for the “Smart Set” at the home of the woman who’s just hired him, millionairess, Mrs. Redstone.

And here I was in brown slacks and a tweed jacket over a sports shirt called, according to the salesman, “Hot Hula.” At least there were no wild Balinese babes doing things on the shirt, It was just colorful.

According to Mrs Redstone, the mother of two adult daughters, Sydney and Vera, she’s convinced that Vera’s new husband, Andon Poupelle is not the Wall Street man he claims to be but is in reality a slimy fortune hunter. The last detective Mrs Redstone hired for the job has been murdered after he delivered a glowing report about Poupelle. Mrs Redstone wasn’t entirely convinced by the report but the death of the detective who wrote it led her to talk to the police who recommended the services of Shell Scott. So Shell’s job is to dig around and see if there’s any dirt on Poupelle.  While Poupelle may have convinced Vera Redstone that he’s something special, after an exchange of words, Shell knows that Poupelle is a slimy gigolo at best.

Wherever there’s big money and women starting downhill, you find slobs like Poupelle hanging around giving them a push.

The last PI on the case was found shot dead near to two significant locations: Castle Norman–a swanky gambling joint dressed up as, you’ve got it, a Norman castle complete with knights on their steeds and a murky moat. The other significant location is Fairview, a nudist colony for health nuts, and after some shady incidents involving the case occur there, Shell Scott is ‘forced‘ to go undercover as the calisthenics director at the colony. When he first arrives he has no idea about the nudist part–he thinks he’s going undercover at a health retreat. The first inkling Shell gets that something is different is when he’s greeted at the main gate by a naked woman:

She was a little dark-haired doll and nobody I knew, but you can bet it was somebody I wanted to know.

She wasn’t in any terrific hurry; nobody was chasing her. Not, I thought, dazedly, yet. She ran right up to the gate and stopped. At least she stopped running, but it was quite a spell before she stopped moving completely.”Hi,” she said.

I still had some of that tightness in my chest, but that seemed to be the least of my worries. I said, “Hello there!”

She smiled, and it seemed to me that she smiled all over. “You’re Mr Scott?”

“Yes. She-er, Don Scott. You call me Don.”

“Fine. We were expecting you.”

Wow, I thought. Maybe my reputation had preceded me. If this was what happened when I was expected, I was never going anyplace again without letting people know well in advance. Hell. I’d flood the States with posters: Scott is on his way!

In between pretending to be the new calisthenics instructor at the nudist colony (and there are a lot of laughs in these scenes,) Shell navigates the dark streets of LA hitting up a series of lowlife informers, such as grifter Iggy the Wig (who wears “a rug to keep him glamorous,”) and Three Eyes (he sports a glass eye,) for information about Poupelle. Meanwhile he’s shadowed by a bunch of gangsters including Egg Foo, Folsom graduate Sardine (you’ll understand the name if you read the book) cheap thug Garlic, and a “lop-eared gunman named Strikes.” But there are some great female characters too, including burlesque dancer, Babe Le Toot, “sex cyclone,” dancer Juanita who “looked as if approximately five feet ten inches of well-stacked woman had been mashed down into five feet seven inches, the excess bulging out and overflowing in enjoyable places,” and Daphne, the secretary of a geriatric loanshark, Offenbrand:

She was wearing a dark skirt, above which was a pink sweater she might have knitted herself, getting halfway through with the job before saying the hell with it. Offie was so old I figured she was on display for the customers. I got younger every minute. She was strategically seated, so that she smacked you in the eyes when you entered, and she was strategically built so that she smacked you in both eyes. Hell, she smacked you all over.

Here’s Shell at the nudist colony looking at a guest named Peggy.

She turned sideways, leaving me enough room to get by. She really was cuter than the dickens. I thought of Laurel and looked at Peggy. Sometimes I hate myself. I went out, but as I went by Peggy I gave her a little pat on her behind. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t grab it and yank it around or anything, just gave it a friendly cuff. Nothing crude, you know.

strip for murder vintageI’ve been on a bender watching Mad Men over the past few weeks, and it’s fascinating watching history through the characters who work at a Manhattan advertising agency. Sexism is rampant, but for the most part the dominant offenders are oblivious to the way they tread on women. And that’s what’s so interesting and refreshing about Shell Scott. He celebrates the differences between the sexes rather than denigrating the females he encounters, and as a series character, he’s fascinating. He’s a lone PI, keeps a small office in downtown LA on Broadway, drinks bourbon and water, drives a Cadillac and has pet guppies for company. He also has a good relationship based on mutual respect with the local PD, and while he’s for hire, there’s a core of decency that runs right down his spine and which wrestles with his libido. While Strip for Murder may appear to be a cheap little pulp detective tale, it’s much better written than I expected, and the author is comfortable with taking some risks through memorable, over-the-top scenes. The tale begins with Shell being embarrassingly ‘underdressed’ for a swanky society party and the author keeps that theme and works it into this frothy and yet deadly serious tale. As for the “hot hula” shirt Shell wears in the first scene, even that has significance on the final page.

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Unpaid Debts: Antonio Jiménez Barca

You have no idea how hard it is in this profession to find an innocent corpse.”

How many of us find ourselves leading lives we never planned? This is certainly the case in Unpaid Debts, from Antonio Jiménez Barca, a novel in which  Madrid lawyer, Pablo, who at age 28 finds himself working a dead-end job collecting unpaid debts owed to a law firm in freefall. Since the company has no clients and no income stream, it’s imperative that Pablo persuade the debtors to pay, and after the self-named Financial Director walks out of the job, Pablo turns to debt collecting full-time. The dying firm’s unsustainable mantra is

Collect the money we’re owed, and don’t pay the money we owe. Then sit back and wait for a miracle.

The firm’s boss, “embittered failure,” Marti, is a perpetual drunk, and the only other remaining employee, secretary Isabel, stays from some sense of loyalty. Pablo continues because he’s suspended in a state of inertia. During the firm’s heyday, Marti invested all earnings in real estate, with the properties either becoming part of the law firm’s property management portfolio or being flipped for profit. Everything went south in the 1992 crisis, and since then the company has been slowly dying. While debt collection is demoralising work, for the reader, Pablo’s efforts are interesting. Here are clients who ten years earlier racked up bills, and for the most part, those clients, with one or two exceptions are now living lives of poverty. Take Juan Romero, for example, who’s a “filler” in a bingo parlor. How is he going to pay back a debt of 250,000 pesetas? Pestering debtors for bills racked up during long past glory years forces Pablo to reflect on the stagnation of his own pathetic life and the devastating reality that his long-term girlfriend just dumped him after a five-year relationship.

unpAID DEBTSWe know that something has to shake Pablo to life, and that something is an appearance of a friend called Trendy, a rival in love, who disappeared twelve years earlier. They meet, apparently by chance on the metro, and Trendy seems to want something from Pablo, but changing his mind exchanges phone numbers instead along with promises to keep in touch. But that night Trendy is stabbed and Pablo finds himself being questioned by police. Trendy, born in the barrio, in his youth ran with criminals which probably explains his acceptance of a doomed future:

He said the bullet that’ll kill him has already been fired; for a long time somebody’s been holding the knife that’ll cut him up. And in the meantime, you’ve got to duck and dive, keep out of its way and have fun while you do it.

Pablo is forced to confront his past, and that includes reconnecting with a group of friends from school–some who’ve done annoyingly well and others who are rather abysmally the same as ever. The two people missing from Pablo’s past are Trendy, who’s dead, and Pablo’s first love, Nora. The beginning of the novel is formed by long stories–Pablo’s story regarding his relationship with Trendy which is told to Police Inspector Roche,  and a second story which is told by old friend, Mosca, to Pablo. Both of these stories–the first one is overly long–serve to give a sense of just who the absent Trendy was. Following this structure, the novel blooms into a mystery–just who killed Trendy and why? Does the answer lie in Trendy’s past in the barrio? Is Trendy’s murder connected to the burglary of Pablo’s office?

The novel’s melancholy tone is emphasized by descriptions of the shifting face of Madrid, Pablo’s depression, the gloomy weather and Roche’s attitude to his job.

I’ve followed the trails left by a lot of dead bodies, just like you say, Pablo and most of them deserved to die. Or maybe they didn’t deserve it, but they were asking for it somehow. It was as if they’d been following right behind their murderer, almost as closely as I do when I take charge of the case afterward.

Towards the end of the novel, the tone shifts and the solution with its Robin Hood touch undermines, or at least removes itself, from most of the novel’s bleakness, so that the story ends with bittersweet optimism. This is a redemptive tale of unrealized potential, the disappointments of adulthood, how we cannot escape our pasts, our environments or our fate, and the way all debts to the past must be paid. Pablo, whose life has derailed, begins the novel by trying to stay afloat on the misfortunes of others, but instead he must learn from the mistakes of old friends. Not a perfect novel, but solidly rooted in Madrid, this is an entertaining tale in spite of its flaws.

This is one of the titles from Hispa Books–a Madrid-based publisher “specializing in contemporary Spanish fiction in English-language translation.” Definitely a publisher to watch….

Antonio Jiménez Barca

Review copy. Translated by Ben Rowdon

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Best of 2015

December again, and it’s time to compile my best of 2015 reading list.

Best Classic Russian:

Notes From a Dead House: Dostoevsky

Want to know what life was like in a Siberian prison camp? … read this. Human nature at its best and its worst. Sentencing to a Siberian prison camp must have come as a terrible blow to Dostoevsky, but this book–a gift to the world–is the result.

Best Non Fiction:

This House of Grief: Helen Garner. This emotionally wrenching non-fiction book gives the reader an insider look at the Farquharson case in which a divorced man was accused of murdering his three sons. While this is the story of the trial, Helen Garner gives us so much more than this–an eyewitness account but also the torturous cost of the trial on those involved. Again–the best and worst of human nature. I want to read Joe Cinque’s Consolation, but after reading This House of Grief, I think it’s best to put some distance between the two books.

Best New American Crime Fiction:

Canary: Duane Swierczynski

I enjoyed Swierczynski’s fantastic Charlie Hardie trilogy, so I was eager to see what he’d achieved with Canary the story of how a college student gets in over her head when she’s roped in by the police as a ‘confidential informer.’ This is a topical subject and with his usual wizardry Swierczynski creates a formidable, unforgettable heroine in a tale which has many surprises.

Best Classic American Crime Fiction:

The Big Heat: by William McGivern

This moody, hard-hitting tale of corruption involves a lone cop who goes rogue while following a violent path for revenge. Read the book. See the film. Gloria Grahame…. enough said.

The big heat

Best New American Fiction:

Eileen : Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen was one of the most interesting fiction books I read this year. Not sure what I expected with this one, but someone did a great job with the cover design which drew me to the book in the first place. This is the story of a strange, disconnected young woman who works at a local prison as an office worker. With a horrible home life and no social life whatsoever, something has to give for Eileen, and just what sets her free is the substance of this marvelous, dark tale.

eileen

Best Australian Fiction:

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop: Amy Witting. A sequel to I for Isobel, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop is set in a TB sanitorium, and Isobel, ill, stuck in bed, is forced to interact with people she likes as well as those she dislikes. This is a heroine we cheer for as she finds a place for herself in an institution, and receives more kindness from strangers than she ever received from her family. People who’ve never been given love, aren’t sure how to receive it, and Witting knows just how to create this on paper. Read both novels.

Best New British Fiction:

A Pleasure and a Calling: Phil Hogan. Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for unreliable narrators. Phil Hogan’s novel is told by a middle-aged, successful estate agent– trustworthy, respectable, reliable…  but is he?… cross this man and your life will suddenly take a turn for the worse. Wickedly funny and dark, this book is nothing less than creepily delightful.

a pleasure and a callling

Best Reprinted British Fiction:

A View of the Harbour: Elizabeth Taylor

I read two Elizabeth Taylor novels this year, both from NYRBs–A Game of Hide and Seek and A View of the Harbour. A View of the Harbour, IMO, was the better novel. Perhaps the seaside setting helped, but overall, I found the characters in A View of the Harbour much more interesting.

Best new Crime Series: Glasgow Underworld Trilogy by Malcolm Mackay

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

How a Gunman Says Goodbye

The Sudden Arrival of Violence

A punchy trilogy… but wait… Now there’s Every Night I dream of Hell which includes some of the same characters. Will we see this series extended?

Best Irish Crime Fiction:

Gun Street Girl: Adrian McKinty. Sean Duffy struggles with an open-and-shut case which reeks of a staged crime.

Best Scottish Fiction:

For the Love of Willie: Agnes Owens

I’m a long-term fan of the criminally under-appreciated Scottish author Agnes Owens; she hasn’t written a great deal but if you pick a book by Owen, you can’t go wrong.   For the Love of Willie is narrated by a woman who lives in a mental hospital, and regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for this type of setting. Draw your own conclusions.

for the love of willie

Bext French Crime Fiction:

Vertigo: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narejac. This two writers, working as a collaborative team, wrote crime with the idea that the ‘nightmare would never end’ for the protagonist. Most of us have seen the Hitchcok film made from the book, but there are many differences, so crime fans shouldn’t miss this. This is one of the titles in the very impressive, new Pushkin Press Vertigo line.

Funniest Book:

Crane Mansions: Gert Loveday

I don’t normally go for books featuring children, but I’ll read anything Gert Loveday writes. This mischievous tale involves a child who ends up at Crane Mansions, Regulatory School for the Indigent. If you think this sounds like a horrible place, you’d be right, but this very funny tale subverts all reader expectations.

crane mansions

Best reread:

Birds of the Air: Alice Thomas Ellis. I never tire of this book. A wonderful story of grief, secrets and family relationships.

A novel I meant to read for a long time:

Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand: Franz Werfel. The story of a successful bureaucrat who is forced to revisit the sins of his past.

Pale Blue Ink

Best Short Story Collection:

Marseille Noir . Crime stories which give the flavor of this city. I moved from watching the French-Belgian film The Connection to reading about crime in Marseille. Review to follow.

marseille noir

 

 

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Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction, Garner Helen, Hogan Phil, Loveday Gert, Mackay Malcolm, McGivern William P, McKinty Adrian, Moshfegh Eileen, Owens Agnes, Swierczynski Duane, Taylor, Elizabeth, Werfel Franz, Witting Amy

Silent Nights: Martin Edwards ed.

“Not a nice murder. Not at all a nice murder.”

Silent Nights, another entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, is a compilation of short stories–all with the common factor that the action takes place over Christmas. Police agencies and even the FBI warn that crime increases during the holiday season. Is it all the late night shopping, the carrying of cash? In other words, is the increase due to increased opportunities or are the statistics driven more by the need of the criminal to provide extra for their families? After reading Silent Nights, if there’s a connective theme, it’s how the Christmas season creates opportunities for criminals, and in some instances the season even creates such tempting opportunities that normally honest people turn to crime.

Here’s a breakdown of the stories:

  • The Blue Carbuncle: Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Parlour Tricks: Ralph Plummer
  • A Happy Solution: Raymund Allen
  • The Flying Stars: G. K. Chesterton
  • Stuffing: Edgar Wallace
  • The Unknown Murderer: H.C. Bailey
  • The Absconding Treasurer: J. Jefferson Farjeon
  • The Necklace of Pearls: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Case is Altered: Margery Allingham
  • Waxworks: Ethel Lina White
  • Cambric Tea: Marjorie Bowen
  • The Chinese Apple: Joseph Shearing
  • A Problem in White: Nicholas Blake
  • The Name on the Window: Edmund Crispin
  • Beef for Christmas: Leo Bruce

Short story collections are a great way to discover new names, and in  Silent Nights, there are some very famous names and others I’d never heard of. This collection begins with an intro by Martin Edwards and each story is prefaced with short biographical content.

silent nightsSome of the stories are very traditional ‘who-dun-its,’ so in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Blue Carbuncle, the mystery concerns a lost top hat and a stolen diamond with Holmes managing to deduce a great deal from the hat that has seen better days while Watson stands on the sidelines wondering just how Holmes manages to make such brilliantly accurate conclusions.  Other stories, such as Dorothy Sayers’ The Necklace of Pearls and Edgar Wallace’s Stuffing take place at Christmas country gatherings. Some stories are very deadly serious detective stories which concern murder while other stories are light and humorous in tone.

“A radical does not mean a man who lives on radishes,” remarked Crook, with some impatience; “and a Conservative does not mean a man who preserves jam. Neither, I assure you, does a Socialist mean a man who desires a social evening with the chimney-sweep. A Socialist means a man who wants all the chimneys swept and all the chimney-sweeps paid for it.”

“But who won’t allow you,” put in the priest in a low voice,” to own your own soot.”

That’s an excerpt from the witty G.K Chesterton story, The Flying Stars.

Of the collection, and there’s a very nice range of stories here, I have to say that I was much more attracted to the unusual stories: The Unknown Murderer: H. C Bailey, Waxworks: Ethel Lina White, Cambric Tea: Marjorie Bowen, and The Chinese Apple: Joseph Shearing.

The Unknown Murderer from H. C Bailey is the story of a serial killer, and the story’s powerful sense of evil set this tale rather disturbingly apart from the others. Waxworks from Ethel Lina White concerns an intrepid young female reporter who opts to spend the night in a waxworks museum to investigate the truth behind the mysterious deaths that have taken place there. In Cambric Tea, a young doctor sacrifices  his Christmas holiday in order to attend to a cantankerous old man who insists he’s being poisoned by his wife. In The Chinese Apple, a woman reluctantly travels to England from Florence in order to take over the care of a niece she’s never met.

Ethel Lina White also wrote the novel Some Must Watch which was made into the film The Spiral Staircase. Joseph Shearing is one of the male pen names used by Marjorie Bowen, so in other words, she ( author’s real name, Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long)  made my short list twice. The biographical intro to the story from Martin Edwards mentions that ‘Joseph Shearing’ wrote For Her to See (made into the film So Evil My Love) which was inspired by the real Charles Bravo murder case. Film fans may be interested to know that Marjorie Bowen, as Joseph Shearing  also wrote Blanche Fury and Moss Rose. Three out of four of my favourite stories, Waxworks, Cambric Tea and The Chinese Apple were very cinematic stories, and perhaps that’s no coincidence.

Review copy

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Filed under Allingham Margery, Chesterton G.K., Farjeon J. Jefferson, Fiction

The Birds of the Air: Alice Thomas Ellis

“Christmas was like a storm washing people to and fro to end up unwanted in each other’s homes.”

Christmas arrives regularly whether we are ready for it or not, and in The Birds of the Air from Alice Thomas Ellis, the celebration comes at an awkward time.  The novel covers a few days in December as three generations of one family converge on the home of the maternal grandmother, Mrs Marsh, a chirpy efficient woman who believes that ‘life must go on’ regardless of family tragedy, and as a widow she’s living proof of her fussy ability to cope.

Unfortunately, Mrs Marsh’s daughter, Mary, isn’t as resilient, and after the death of Mary’s son, Robin, “when it became clear that Mary could no longer live alone,” her mother insists that Mary should move in and be taken care of. While Mary “burned, as remote as a salamander in a blazing exaltation of grief, seeming to draw energy from what had devoured her,” Mrs Marsh’s mourning for her husband is relegated to one specific time of day:

she permitted herself to weep a little each morning in the bathroom before she put on her eyeshadow, but she knew and accepted what apparently Mary did not–that life had to go on. Mary had gone far, but had been wounded and forced to return; and her mother felt the ever so slightly spiteful vindication of the keeper of the cage. The bird had come back, if only to die.

The complacent living sometimes resent prolonged mourning, and that is certainly the case in the Marsh home, and here are the Christmas holidays which are supposed to be a time for celebrating:

she couldn’t suppress a feeling of annoyance with Mary’s Robin for being dead. The event had upset her daughter out of all proportion. Of course it was a dreadful thing to lose your loved ones, but life had to go on. What would happen if everyone collapsed?

Mary, apathetic and depressed, is in a strange twilight zone. She’s still in the world of the living but she longs to join Robin in death; she eats when she’s told to, but mostly she looks out at the garden and watches the birds, alone with her thoughts.

The sky had darkened when Mrs Marsh came back with lunch. She pushed the door with her bottom, balancing a tray covered with two cloths, one under and one over the food, lest germs should leap on it in the few feet between the kitchen and her child.

‘Why don’t you turn the light on?’ she asked, though if it had been on she would have asked why Mary hadn’t called her to do it, or remarked that too much light was bad for the eyes. Life had so treated her in recent years that she couldn’t trust it to itself for a second. A solitary magpie–vain, god-cursed bird, clad in eternal half-mourning-flew forever across her mind’s eye and had to be propitiated or cunningly foiled with constant changing and rearranging. By questioning and vigilance fate might be deflected.

Mrs Marsh is an admirable woman but lacking in the compassion department, and while The Birds of the Air is concerned with mourning, this is also a novel of manners, so complications ensue when Mrs. Marsh’s younger daughter, Barbara, her insufferable professor husband, Sebastian and their two children , Sam and Kate descend on the Marsh household. Sam, an awkward teenager, has just discovered that his father is engaged in a long-standing affair with ‘the Thrush,’ the wife of another professor. Much to Sam’s shame, his father and his mistress are a common long-standing joke amongst his father’s students. Barbara, on tranquilizers, a woman hardwired to cope rather like her mother, also discovers the affair during a Christmas party she is forced to host, but like her mother, she carries on and the family travel to the matriarchal home for Christmas.

the birds of the airWith birds and survival in nature as a central motif, Alice Thomas Ellis follows a few days in the lives of her characters. In the  human world, once we are fed and housed, our greatest challenges are emotional, and here we have a family headed by a woman who’s determined to put a cheery face on things despite glaring evidence to the opposite. The author wisely creates moments of sympathy for Mrs Marsh in the way she realizes she dislikes her son-in-law and the “faint weasel gleam of his smile.”

He made her think of hard roads under a film of rain, shallow and dangerous; of slugs and Nazis and the minister she sometimes met in the terminal ward of the cancer hospital when she was arranging the flowers ….

Mrs Marsh’s seeming lack of empathy is revealed as a fear of emotion and its assault on the respectable middle class security with which she surrounds herself. The perfect family Christmas is exposed as a torturous event with insufferable child, Kate, who obviously inherits her father’s genes, determined to be the ‘good child,’ so when she’s not showing up her rebellious brother, she’s spouting poetry. Meanwhile tensions between Sebastian and Barbara erupt as Mrs Marsh tries desperately to cover up all bad behaviour in front of her neighbours.

In spite of a theme of grief, this is an amazing, beautiful novel replete with sublime observations concerning Mary who manages to somehow, in her ethereal position, remain above some of the worst behaviour of Mrs Marsh’s guests. There are some very funny moments as Mrs Marsh struggles to conceal some of the uglier aspects of life as unexpected guests arrive. This is the fourth rereading of The Birds of the Air, and that should tell you how much I love this book.

She retired to the back room and opened the window. Dry flakes of snow drifted in, as ready and accustomed as doves returning to their familiar cote. She left the window slightly ajar to feel the cold after the heat of the front room, and told herself that alive or dead she wouldn’t undergo another Christmas. The year’s accumulated ill-will seemed always to find expression at this time. Relations who throughout most of the year had the sense to stay apart confined themselves in small spaces to eat and drink too much. And not content with this they felt it necessary to invite people who were lonely because they were unpleasant or boring and no one liked them. They had to be made to participate since it was felt that no one should be alone on this of all days.

For more Alice Thomas Ellis:

The Summer House (made into a film)

The Inn at the Edge of the World

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The 6:41 to Paris: Jean-Philippe Blondel

“It’s crazy how once people turn forty friendships seem to disintegrate. They get transferred, they’re busy with their kids, you no longer share the same opinions–everything alienates you from people you thought would be close to you all your life. All that’s left are laconic email messages. Phone calls punctuated with long silences. Sporadic meetings.”

A few years ago, someone told me that if he’d known he’d live to age fifty, he’d have taken better care of himself. I thought the speaker was being funny–that is, until I looked over at his face and saw that he was dead serious. Anyway, that man, that comment came to mind as I read Jean-Philippe Blondel’s  short novel, The 6:41 to Paris. This story of middle-aged regrets, responsibilities  and disappointments is set on a train and told in a split narrative which unfolds over the course of the journey.

Chance brings Cécile, a successful 47 -year old business owner to take an early train back to Paris after spending the weekend with her aging parents. Cécile owns a chain of shops specializing in natural beauty products and she’s on the brink of expanding her chain even further. She’s trim, smartly dressed and has aged well. She’s sitting in the second class compartment when a faded middle-aged man sits next to her. At first she doesn’t recognise him–but then she realises that the man in the next seat is Philippe Leduc–her first love and the man who cruelly dumped her years earlier.

641 to parisIt’s not too surprising that Cécile doesn’t immediately recognize the man in the next seat. The Philippe of her youth was confident, good-looking and able to get any girl he wanted. While time has been kind to Cécile, Philippe has aged badly; he’s out of shape and seems defeated.  What happened? What went wrong in his life?

The interior voices of these two characters go back and forth as they recognize each other in horror and in Philippe’s case, in shame. Should they acknowledge their old relationship? Should they open up a past that neither of them wants to remember? As the train continues on its journey and Cécile and Philippe’s thoughts reveal fragments of their story, we see how pivotal their relationship was in forming the people that they’ve become.

While Cécile is admirable & a success, she’s not particularly likeable. There’s something rather cold and brittle about her, and while she moves efficiently through the world, there’s the sense that if you prick her carefully groomed surface, she’ll shatter into a million pieces. Sitting on the train she’s annoyed that she “wasted” a weekend with her parents, and she’s not sure if she’ll care much when they eventually die. Emotional disconnectedness is one of the things that first attracted her to her husband Luc, who now in middle age is “one of those aging, interchangeable, middle management executives–for a stationery company that is locating by the hour.” As for Philippe, he works in a superstore selling TVs and stereos, is divorced and has two children. His thoughts gradually reveal his emotional life, and the relationship he’s forged with actor Mathieu.

A great deal is made of Mathieu, the third main, yet absent character in this novel. Both Cécile and Philippe knew Mathieu in their youth, and they’re both (in their separate thoughts) surprised that this rather uninteresting, average young man became a famous actor. Here’s Philippe thinking about Mathieu:

I was only too aware of how our paths in life were heading in different directions. We had met at a time when he was merely a rough draft of the person he would later become, while I was at my zenith. He would keep rising, whereas I had begun to sink gradually. Every time I caught his face in a magazine, those were my thoughts. About failure. About destiny slipping out of your grasp.

And that’s what I enjoyed the most about this quiet introspective novel–how the choices we make forge the people we become. Some choices, as in the case of Cécile, are deliberate and life altering, whereas Philippe’s choices, although every bit as life changing, have occurred without him even noticing.

No one ever warned us that life would be long. Those easy slogans that make your heart beat faster, like “carpe diem” or “die young”–all that stuff was just nonsense.

No one told us, either, that the hardest thing would not be breaking up, but decay. The disintegration of relationships, people, tastes, bodies, desire. Until you reach a sort of morass where you no longer know what it is you love. Or hate. And it’s not as unpleasant a condition as you might think. It’s just lifelessness. With scatter spots of light.

As readers, we know that this seemingly simple novel must end with the train journey, but the author opts to leave the possibility of an unknown narrative arc stretching ahead. Both Cécile and Philippe have another choice to make. There’s Cécile ignoring Philippe and Philippe agonizing about whether or not to speak, so both characters face yet another life changing moment. The novel’s fascinating premise–two people reconnecting decades after a poisonous event–explores how incidents shape us in ways we don’t realize. In this instance, after fate threw them in each other’s path, both Philippe and Cécile are in control of the decision about how to handle this meeting. It’s not exactly a second chance, but it’s close. In some ways this aspect of the novel reminded me of Vertigo–a crime novel in which a character obsessed with a woman is given a second chance at love. Love isn’t in the cards for Cécile and Philippe but acceptance, forgiveness and closure are all possibilities.

Gert’s review

Review copy. Translated by Alison Anderson

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Filed under Blondel Jean-Philippe, Fiction