Tag Archives: French crime fiction

The Executioner Weeps: Frédéric Dard (1956)

“She’d sprung from the night, just for me.”

Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint continues to impress with The Executioner Weeps from Frédéric Dard. This latest Dard novel follows on the heels of Bird in a Cage, The Wicked Go to Hell, and Crush. The King of Fools is due to be released in the US in September, 2017.

In The Executioner Weeps, Daniela successful French artist is in Spain on a working holiday when late one night, on a remote lonely road, his car hits a beautiful young woman. She has no identification, no luggage–except for a now crushed violin. Daniel suspects that this young woman may possibly have thrown herself under the car. Since he’s miles from civilization and the woman’s injuries are fairly superficial, Daniel decides to take her back to Casa Patricio, a modest beachside hotel located near Barcelona, and proceed from there. When the woman wakes up, she’s suffering from amnesia.

The executioner weeps

For the first half of the book, Daniel spends time trying to discover the woman’s identity. He knows that her first name begins with M, and together they try various M names on for size. Eventually as shards of memory return, the woman settles on Marianne which she is sure is her name. Thrown together by circumstance, it isn’t long before Daniel falls in love with Marianne–even though common sense should tell him otherwise.

I was living the dream that all men have of loving a woman without a past.

He contacts the French embassy, the police, every institution he can think of, but everyone is disinterested in Marianne’s plight and Daniel’s dilemma. The consensus seems to be that someone will eventually come looking for this stunning young woman…

Daniel’s dilemma deepens when he receives a letter concerning an upcoming exhibition is America. He decides to stop waiting for something to happen and using the labels in Marianne’s clothing, he sets out to discover her past himself. Soon he wishes he hadn’t.

This is as much of the plot in this splendid, tightly written noir that I’m going to reveal. The tale begins with a central mystery–the identity of the young woman–Daniel spends half the novel trying to discover the truth and half the novel trying to evade it. The plot, with its sense of creeping dread and impending doom, raises many questions about the nature of love: idealisation, self-deceit, corruption and the love object. Is Daniel protecting Marianne or is he protecting his ideal?

Significantly Daniel decides to paint a portrait of Marianne:

What I set out to show was what I could see in her. She surrendered slowly, easing herself out of her own personality to become what I wanted her to be. I no longer separated my creation from my model. I took a human being and spread it out on a surface that had no limits. 

But when the painting is finished, Daniel is disturbed by the results:

From a painterly point of view, it was first rate. Yet I didn’t like it, because with this particular canvas something strange had happened. I had succeeded in capturing Marianne’s most unguarded expression so well that I could read her character better in my painting than in her face. Now, in the come-hither look in her eye with which she stared at me I detected a bizarre glint which quite disconcerted me. There was a sparkle in it which didn’t seem to belong with the rest of her: it encapsulated a level of sustained attentiveness which was almost disturbing in its intensity.  

The truth, when Daniel finally discovers it, is devastating, and every step he takes just draws him into a sticky web from which there is no escape. There’s a thematic connection here to Vertigo in the way the author explores just how far we will go to maintain fictional narratives that feed our desires and egos.

For  those interested, here’s my Dard order of preference so far:

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage

Crush

Review copy

Translated by David Coward

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A Climate of Fear: Fred Vargas

“You don’t just go killing people left and right, for want of anything better to do.”

In A Climate of Fear from Fred Vargas, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg returns to investigate a series of connected murders. Adamsberg is dragged into the death of an older, terminally ill woman who appears to be a suicide. It seems to be an open and shut case, but there are some niggling problems that gnaw at the edges of Adamsberg’s mind: Why was the woman so determined to post a letter shortly before her death? Who was the letter to and what did it contain? Finally what is the relevance of a sign drawn at the scene of the woman’s death? Then a helpful citizen steps forward with information about the letter, and Adamsberg goes to talk to the recipient only to find a second ‘suicide’ and the same sign left next to the dead man.

At the scene of the second ‘suicide,’ Adamsberg is told a strange, chilling story about a trip made to Iceland more than ten years earlier. The trip went horribly wrong and ended up like some frozen version of Lord of the Flies. The two ‘suicides’ were both people on the trip, and it seems that those former tourists are being bumped off one by one.

a climate of fear

While attempting to puzzle through the Iceland Tourists murders in his own inimitable way, Adamsberg begins investigating a second series of murders occurring within the secretive “Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre.” It turns out that Danglard, a walking encyclopedia, who “knows things that you won’t learn in thirty lifetimes,” is very familiar with the writings and speeches of Robespierre, and Danglard looks like a natural dressed in an elegant 18th century purple frock coat.

With two parallel investigations, Adamsberg’s team is stretched to the limit, and when the investigations stall, Adamsberg comes under criticism from some squad members–including the ever-faithful Danglard. Vargas shows most effectively that thought processes, which are unique to each individual (especially Adamsberg who tends to approach crime in an intuitive way,) isolate and in this case, frustrates many of Adamsberg’s fellow officers.

At 415 pages this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a tightly plotted crime novel, but I loved every page. For example, there’s a long section with Adamsberg and Danglard interviewing the woman who picked by a letter dropped by the first victim. This woman, Marie-France, has a dreamy, yet very specific thought process which Adamsberg relates to:

‘After that I thought it over, seven times, not any more.’

‘Seven times,’ Adamsberg murmured,

How could you count the number of times you thought something over?

‘Not five and not twenty. My father always said you should think something over seven times in your head, before you act, not less, because you might do something silly, but especially not more, or you’d go around and around in circles. And end up corkscrewed into the ground. Then you’re stuck. So I thought: this lady went out on her own to post this letter. So it must have been important, don’t you think?’

Vargas takes her time developing the crimes, the solutions and the dynamics of each crime milieu–in particular the Robespierre society. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: crime fiction, for its focus on the transgressive,  is a great way to infiltrate a foreign culture, and in A Climate of Fear, we are cast back into the French Revolution. I had no idea that Robespierre was such a controversial figure, and Vargas explores the nuances of Robespierre’s character and why some people worship him and why others find him an object of hate.  The psychology of historical reenactments as “an arena for people’s fantasies” is explored very well, and there are plenty of details about Robespierre, his downfall and death in this rich crime novel.

A Climate of Fear is the eighth in the Commissaire Adamsberg series (if you don’t count the graphic novel). It’s possible to jump in with this one if you feel so inclined as there’s not a great deal of information about Adamsberg’s personal life, and the relationships he has with his squad members is fairly self-explanatory. A couple of mentions are made of the past, and there are returning characters, but there’s not much that should interfere with enjoying this crime novel on its own.

Thanks to Emma for turning me onto Vargas in the first place

Translated by Siân Reynolds

Review copy

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Crush: Frédéric Dard (1959)

“And you will never know how big that green car seemed, or how deliciously it smelt of America.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues its very impressive output of unusual crime books through another venture into Frédéric Dard territory with a third title: Crush, a tale of longing, obsession, and murder. The double meaning of the title becomes horribly clear around the book’s halfway point.

crush

Bird in a Cage and The Wicked Go To Hell earlier Dard releases from Pushkin Vertigo, were both told by a male narrator. In Crush, we have a seventeen year old female narrator, Louise, who lives in Northern France in a very unpleasant town named Léopoldville. The place is ugly, dominated by a large chemical factory, “chimney stacks spewing out great clouds of smoke that seem to stretch up into the sky for ever before falling back down on the town below,” and the air stinks of cabbage. Things aren’t much better at Louise’s home; she lives with a mother she’s ashamed of and her mother’s live-in boyfriend, Arthur, in a wreck of a rented home.

In common with most of the other people in the town, Louise works in a factory. In order to glam up her dull life, Louise, who longs for escape, begins walking through the moneyed areas of Léopoldville and is entranced by glimpses of the lives of an affluent American couple, Mr and Mrs Rooland. She begins dawdling outside of their home:

At first sight, it looked like the others: two storeys, an arrowshaped weathervane sitting on top of the gable roof, with little stained glass windows and some steps leading up to a front door flanked by light-blue earthenware pots… But what set it apart was a funny sort of feeling that floated in the air around the house. How can I explain it? It seemed like it was somewhere else. Yes, it was a Léopoldville house, but it existed on a sort of desert island all of its own. A tiny, mysterious island, and one where the natives seemed to live bloody well too.

Walking by this house becomes a habit for Louise. She sees the Roolands relaxing on a swing seat sipping whisky at dusk while jazz music plays as background noise.

I can’t tell you how enchanting the atmosphere of that garden was, with the beautiful, shining car, that music, those drinks that you could tell were wonderfully chilled, and that couple, gently swinging while the seat creaked. 

One day, after being slapped by Arthur, Louise gathers the courage to approach the Roolands and she asks them if they want a maid, a rare commodity in Léopoldville, as factory work pays better than domestic service. The Roolands employ Louise, but the dream life Louise saw from the outside doesn’t really exist. The house is a disorganized mess, and Mrs Rooland has a drinking problem. …

Louise, our somewhat unreliable narrator, tells the story in retrospect, in an intimate, near confessional style. As she digs into the Rooland household, managing to live-in and proving through her hard work that she’s indispensable, the spectre of the Roolands returning to America clouds any future fantasies.  Dard includes some foreshadowing, some intense, dramatic scenes of violent weather that match the narrative, and rather ironically, IMO, the American car (s) play a huge role in this tale of betrayal and revenge. To say more would spoil the tale for the next reader, but fans of the Pushkin Vertigo line should enjoy this. Of the three Dard novels released to date, The Wicked Go To Hell is my favourite.

Review copy

Translated by Daniel Seton

(original French title: Les Scélérats)

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The A-26: Pascal Garnier

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of Pascal Garnier. With A-26, I’ve now read 8 of his novels, and sad to say, I finally found one I disliked. Of course, I was forewarned by Max’s review. A-26 was, unfortunately, Max’s first Garnier, and if it had been my first Garnier, it might well have been my last…

A-26 is the story of two siblings: Bernard and his insane sister Yolande. Wait a minute … I’ve made it sound as though Bernard is sane. He’s employed, takes care of Yolande (in a very loosely defined way) and even has a relationship with a former girlfriend, the resentful Jacqueline (now unhappily married to some other sucker). But Bernard isn’t normal at all … he’s a serial killer, and a sick one at that.

A26

A-26 had some of the hallmark signs of the other Garnier novels I’ve read (and loved)–the idea that when you kill someone you are doing them a favour by sparing them more time in this horrible world, a sparse yet descriptive style and the continual motif of death and decay. Yolande (otherwise known rather appropriately as Yoyo) is a hoarder who has refused to step outside of her home since her head was shaved for sleeping with a German during WWII. As far as Yoyo’s concerned WWII still rages outside her door and while Bernard may say he’s going off to work, he’s really part the Resistance. Yoyo’s only contact with the outside world is through a hole drilled for her benefit in the shutter.

Depending on her mood, she called it the ‘bellybutton’ or the ‘world’s arsehole.’

Yolande and Bernard’s world spins to its end stage when Bernard is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He isn’t afraid to die, and neither is he particularly sorry to leave the world behind. Living with his insane sister who spends her days concocting the most appalling meals, death will be a release for Bernard. Meanwhile Yoyo’s big concern is where to find the space for his body:

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up for it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blacked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

For this reader, while the themes of A-26 certainly fit with the other Garnier novels I’ve read, the black humour, so characteristic in his novels, couldn’t wash away the bad taste of several scenes: the death of victims and the cruelty to animals. While I often feel as though I don’t care what happens to Garnier’s despicable characters, I am, at least, interested in their destructive and self-destructive journeys as the novels careen towards the grand finales. In the case of A-26, I couldn’t care less.

Both Moon in a Dead Eye and Too Close to the Edge concern people who make disastrous retirement decisions, and as it turns out life in a gated community and in the bucolic countryside (respectively) is far more dangerous than living in the big city. While bad things happen to people, there’s the nagging feeling that they’ve brought it upon themselves–at least partly. How’s the Pain? is the story of a dying hit man who hooks up with a rather guileless young man. The juxtaposition of these two characters–dark and light–brings balance to the tale. In The Front Seat Passenger, the main character deserves what he gets. The Islanders concerns another whacko set of siblings, and while the novel takes a turn towards madness, plied with disgusting details, these characters, for the most part, turn on each other. The Panda Theory pushed my acceptance in a couple of scenes, but IMO A-26 went over the edge in its descriptions. Yoyo’s madness is intriguing, but the scenes involving animals left me with no room to care about these people who are a waste of oxygen. I get that Bernard and Yoyo’s life is threatened by the imminent arrival of a motorway, but A-26 for this reader was just unpleasant.

I delayed reading A-26 as I’d read Max’s negative review and had no new Garnier novels in sight. I didn’t want the last one I read to leave a bad memory, but The Eskimo Solution is due to be released 9/16.

So for anyone interested, here’s an order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Panda Theory

A-26

translated by Melanie Florence.

 

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Bird in a Cage: Frédéric Dard (1961)

Last year, Pushkin Press launched their new Vertigo line with some impressive titles: Vertigo (naturally), The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, and She Who was No More All three novels can be categorized as crime–no argument there, but each one was unusual in some unique way. The Pushkin Vertigo foreword, with the tantalizing sentence, “Whose dark or troubled mind will you set into next?” promised an emphasis on the psychological, and these three titles certainly fit the bill. I then read The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of the Three Roses which were police procedurals and much more standard novels… I began to wonder if Pushkin Press could continue with the early promise of the unique Vertigo line–were there enough previously ‘undiscovered’ (read untranslated into English) crime novels to feed this imprint? And then I read Frédéric Dard’s  Bird in a Cage. This is a noir novel in which the main character, the narrator, Albert, finds himself embroiled in a disorienting crime, the details of which initially make no sense. Maneuvered by the fickle hand of fate, he becomes a pawn in the perfect crime.

bird in a cage

Our narrator, Albert, returns home to Levallois after an absence of six years. It’s a dreary, depressing homecoming to the grim little flat his mother lived and died in.

I sat down in the old armchair next to the window where she always did the darning and looked around at the silence, the smell and all the old things that had lain waiting for me. The silence and the smells had greater reality for me than the damp-streaked wallpaper.

Albert’s mother died 4 years before, but her mattress is still rolled up on the bed, and there’s a “glass for the holy water and the sprig of blessed palm.” Albert mentions that he only heard about his mother’s death when he received her funeral notice. Why didn’t he return home? Where has he spent the last six years? The answers to those questions are revealed later in the novel and are integral to the plot, so no reveal here…

So a depressing homecoming for Albert. There’s no one to welcome him; his only relative, his mother is dead, and to top off the sense of heavy loss, it’s Christmas Eve. Albert has returned at the height of the holiday season. Outside, the streets are noisy and full of life, and Albert decides to join the holiday makers, but being surrounded by joy makes him feel worse:

The narrow streets of Levallois were full of happy people. They were knocking off work bearing Christmas supplies and thronged around open-air stalls where fishmongers shucked bucket-loads of oysters under wreaths of coloured lights.

The delis and cake shops were packed. A limping paperhawker zigzagged from one pavement to the other calling out the news, but nobody gave a damn.

Acting on an impulse which Albert later identifies as a desire to recapture his childhood, he stops at a small shop and buys a Christmas decoration–“a small silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust.” Inside the cage is a bird made of velvet. For some reason Albert can’t identify, the purchase lifts his spirits and then later, he wanders into a restaurant where he catches the eye of a very attractive woman who’s there with her daughter. …

That’s as much of the plot that I’m going to discuss. This evening, which begins with loneliness, blends into bittersweet memories and ends in murder. Albert finds himself neck-deep in a web of intrigue and deceit, embroiled in the outcome of a bitterly unhappy marriage. The Christmas decoration which Albert bought on a whim is integral to the mystery, and this tiny object marks a turning point in the tale. While the decoration is a very literal object, it also symbolizes Albert, and that significance becomes poignantly obvious when the tale ends. As with The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, the ending is left to the reader’s discretion–the nightmare hasn’t ended, and some mysteries do not have a definitive ending.

I was delighted to discover the prolific  Frédéric Dard, and even more delighted to learn that Vertigo will be releasing several other titles by this author: The Wicked Go to Hell, Crush, and The Executioner Weeps. Bird in a Cage is highly recommended for those who like crime/noir novels from an unusual view with an emphasis on the psychological.

Review copy

Translated by David Bellos (original title: Le Monte-Charge). The book is also apparently titled The Switch.

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Too Close to the Edge: Pascal Garnier

Too Close to the Edge  is classic Pascal Garnier; it’s dark, it’s nasty, full of bitter ironies and the plot takes aim at some very specific societal taboos.

too close to the edge

Widow Éliette has finally, after a year of mourning for Charles, her husband of forty years, arrived at a place of some contentment. They’d bought a former silk farm thirty years earlier and spent “every spare moment” fixing it up while planning to retire to this imagined peaceful, bucolic life. “They had already started packing for their move from the Parisian suburbs to this Saint-Vincent house in the Ardèche, where life was supposed to be a never ending holiday” when cancer hit, and Charles died just two months before his retirement. Éliette, against the advice of her children, Sylvie and Marc, went ahead with the retirement plans and now lives alone. They think she’s courting disaster; she can’t drive and the nearest village is 8 kilometres away.

Part of the reason that Éliette decides to move to the country is to establish a life for herself and not just be ‘the mother’ or ‘the grandmother’ to her children and their offspring. In fact relationships with her family have become an obligation, an annoyance more than anything else. She’s dreading an upcoming visit which she knows will be as tedious to her as it is so her children. She even makes excuses to get off the phone:

Of course she loved her children and her children’s children just as she might love the sky, the trees, the mountains, life in general–but after two days in their company she could no longer stand the sight of them.

Éliette relies on her neighbours, the Jauberts who own a farm 2 kilometres away. They see themselves as Éliette’s “protectors,” and in time the relationship has become “burdensome” to Éliette who finds the forced socialization boring.  Shapeless Rose Jaubert wears “disgusting” nylon overalls every day because they’re so easy to hose off, and Paul Jaubert is a veteran of the Algerian war who harbours, as it turns out, violent homophobic behaviour.

It’s due to the dependence on the Jauberts that Éliette finally decides to buy an Aixam (I had to look this up,) which gives her independence and “changed her life.” In a novel full of black ironies, this “microcar” is the factor that opens the floodgates to the hellish events that occur for the rest of the book.

At 64, Éliette is still an attractive woman–slim “as though time had polished her with beeswax,” and she’s feeling a little frisky in the supermarket in Montélimar “convinced that every man in the shop was staring at her.”

In the vegetable aisle, she blushed as it dawned on her she had filled her trolley with courgettes, aubergines, carrots, cucumbers and even an enormous long white turnip weighing nearly 300 grams, which she struggled to make herself see in a culinary light. It was stronger than she was; a kind of inflammation of her mind was slowly turning the supermarket into a sex shop.

After buying some sexy underwear, she’s driving home when the Aixam has a puncture. There she is stuck on a country road in a rainstorm, miles from anywhere when an attractive middle-aged man in a three-piece suit, carrying a briefcase trudges up the road:

It was like a scene out of a Western: beneath a low sky, a stranger walks calmly towards his widescreen destiny.

Is the stranger going to be the man of Éliette’s dreams, or is his arrival the beginning of a nightmare? For those of you familiar with Garnier’s work, that’s a rhetorical question. I particularly liked this Garnier novel because it reminded me of Simenon’s Romans Durs (although much darker and much more perverse) for the way we see a main character who takes very little encouragement to go off the rails. I’m always fascinated by this sort of behaviour as it generates so many questions about human motivations.

Too Close to the Edge will probably make my best-of-year list. This is not a novel that would ever get the Booker, but if you’re at all familiar with Garnier, you know what to expect. I’ve read several Garnier novels so far, and here they are listed in order of preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain?

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Panda Theory.

Garnier is merciless with his characters, and in Too Close to the Edge, the sheltered Éliette, with her gardening plans and her new recipes, is the character who’s about to receive some painful lessons in life. Garnier seems to delight in stripping away bourgeois conventions and morality as he brings on the ‘true’ realities of his dark, amoral world: murder, greed, lust, and violence.  After now reading 7 Garnier novels, it’s a good time to make some generalized comments about his themes.

  1. Don’t retire to the countryside
  2. Don’t pick up strangers
  3. Don’t wish for anything, because you’ll get it and wish you hadn’t.

Review copy.

Translated by Emily Boyce

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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

Review copy

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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.

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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

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The Islanders: Pascal Garnier

“This was not real life in the everyday world where you could come and go as you pleased; Olivier knew what a massive step he was taking. This was not a matter of chance. What it was a matter of, he did not know. He had set foot on a slippery slope and he was sliding, yes, sliding.”

I’ve read a few novels by Pascal Garnier, and I thought, of the translations available, I only had A-26 left to read. Then a couple of other titles appeared: The Islanders and Boxes. I’d delayed reading A-26 as I didn’t want to get to the end of the road with Garnier, but then Max’s review caused me to wonder if I’d saved the weakest Garnier for last. So here we are with The Islanders–a strange title, I thought, for Garnier, but then after concluding this slim novel (144 pages) the title made sense in a horrible, sickening sort of way. While the title evokes certain images: sea, sand, and palm trees, forget all of those wonderful thoughts because you’ll find none of those here. The Islanders, for Garnier at least, is a state of mind: madness, murder, and how two personality types, when they meet, bind together in isolation and become dangerously obsessive and murderous.

Garnier’s bleak, darkly funny story begins with introducing its handful of sad, wrecked characters:

  •  Now dry, alcoholic Olivier, a man who runs a perfume shop with his wife, Odile, travels to Versailles on December 21st to wrap up his mother’s paltry estate and see her buried.
  •   Homeless Roland, whose life went “tits up the day he was born,” loses his job the very first day as Santa Claus after horrifying children by fighting with a rival santa “like two hookers fighting for turf.
  •  Schoolteacher Jeanne who lives with her obese blind brother Rodolphe.

Olivier isn’t exactly racked with grief over his mother’s death; he thinks that he’ll wrap up the funeral and go home, but things become more complicated. He can’t just oversee the burial and run; the ground is frozen:

The burial could not take place before the 27th; the undertaker had just told him so. The dead just kept coming and the ground was rock-hard.

‘What if we had her cremated?’

‘Monsieur! We must respect the deceased’s last wishes. Your mother had planned for everything.’

‘Except dying at Christmas. So there’s nothing we can do?’

That’s typical Garnier. There are no taboos here, and just as we have a scene of fighting Santas with blood soaked beards, we also have an indifferent son who can’t wait to get his mother 6 feet under. So Olivier finds himself stuck in Versailles, but things change for the worst when he bumps into his mother’s neighbor, Jeanne, the first love of his life, a girl he never forgot. It’s as though when these two re-connect, that all the years they spent apart collapse, and they pick right back up where they left off–each one the other half of a dark puzzle. Suddenly, “it really was as if they had only spent a day apart.” At first we don’t understand the bonds and secrets Jeanne and Olivier share, and those aspects of the plot are gradually revealed over the course of the story.

The IslandersNot a lot of the plot can be discussed without ruining the story, but here’s a great quote involving Rodolphe who plays a favourite sick, twisted game by dragging some poor soul into conversation at a museum.

‘Excuse me, Madame. Do you speak French?’

‘Yes’

“Oh good. Would you mind telling me about the painting there, in front of us?’

‘The Raft of the Medusa?’

‘That’s the one.!’

‘But … what do you want me to tell you.’

‘I’m visually impaired and …’

‘Oh! I’m sorry, I hadn’t noticed. You don’t often come across blin-, visually impaired people in art galleries.’

‘I appreciate why you might be surprised, Madame, but I’m waiting for my sister to come and pick me up. I can still enjoy something of the art through other people’s eyes. as long as I’m not bothering you?’

‘No, not at all! So … it’s a picture of a raft … with people on it, far out at sea.’

‘Ah.’

‘Just a minute, I’ve got a guide … Gériacault, Géricault … Ah, here we are. The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, acquired in 1824—‘

‘No, I’m not interested in that. I want to what you can see.’

‘What I can see?’

‘Yes. How many people are on this raft? Is it day or night? Colours, everything!’

‘Right, right. Hang on, I’m counting them … The thing is, some of them are dead and some alive.’

‘Count the bodies, just the bodies!’

“I’d say about fifteen but I can’t be sure, they’re all piled up …’

‘Is it disgusting?’

And so the scene continues and you can tell where it’s going–although the innocent bystander, an unwitting participant in Rodolphe’s game, is still unaware that she’s a plaything for his amusement. So here’s Garnier assaulting another taboo as he shows a disabled character who’s exploiting his disability to disarm another person–someone who’s been duped into engaging in conversation with a perfect stranger simply because the disabled stranger seems to need help. After reading a handful of Garnier novels, some common threads are floating to the surface, and one of those themes is that life is so awful, if you kill someone, you are doing them a favour. This idea is threaded into the story through its many ghastly images: a kitchen that “glowed yellowish like the colour of nicotine-stained teeth,” a telephone receiver that “smelt of dried spit,” “monstrous turds of white pudding [that] came spewing out of butchers,” and a main character, Olivier, who is “an indifferent passenger through life.”

There’s always an aspect of horrified fascination when it comes to reading Garnier. This horrified fascination can bump into amusement (Moon in a Dead Eye) dangerous obsession (The Front Seat Passenger) or magnetic disgust (The Panda Theory), and towards the end of The Islanders, the disgust factors pile on. Garnier doesn’t allow his readers to maintain any distance from the more repellent aspects of this story, and so while we get an incredible first row seat to a psychotic relationship, we also get some of the more skin-crawling details of the descent into madness. Garnier is convincing in his portrayal of how two seemingly-normal, somewhat functional people combine and fuse into murderous, toxic, self-destructive isolation.

Here’s my order of preference so far:

Moon in a Dead Eye

How’s the Pain?

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

The Panda Theory

Review copy/own a copy

Translated by Emily Boyce

French title: Les Insulaires

Finally there’s a statement on the cover: “The true heir to Simenon: John Banville.” Personally, I don’t see it.

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