Tag Archives: French crime fiction

Rider on the Rain: Sèbastien Japrisot (1992)

First: Rider on the Rain, the book was published in French in 1969 (per Goodreads), but Sèbastien Japrisot also wrote the screen play for the 1970 film which featured Charles Bronson with Jill Ireland in a supporting role. They met during filming while she was married to David McCallum. Bronson married Jill Ireland in 1968, and they were together until her death in 1990. The film showcases Bronson “at his brutal best,” and this period was the beginning of his film heyday, with the cult film, Death Wish still in his future in 1974.

So now onto the book: 25-year-old Mélancolie Mau, Mellie, lives in the dreary seaside resort town of Le Caps-des-pins. It’s the sort of place with one road in and one road out.

A peal of thunder, a grey river spattering in a downpour, a horizon blurred by autumn. And then the wheels of a bus send up great glistening sprays of water, and the river becomes a road running the length of a desolate peninsula, somewhere between Toulon and Saint-Tropez.

There’s the idea that not much happens here–at least it doesn’t until a stranger gets off the bus. Mellie sees the man, a man with a shaven head, carrying a bright red bag, get off the bus. Later, she tries on a dress in a shop owned by a friend. In the casual atmosphere, Mellie neglects to close the cubicle curtain and she catches the stranger staring at her through the shop window:

She is transfixed, as if mesmerized by his own fascination.

The stranger breaks into Mellie’s home and brutally rapes her. Mellie, who seems like a fragile young woman, calls the police but changes her mind. When she discovers the rapist in her basement, she strikes back. …. From this point, life changes for Mellie. She has discovered exactly what she is capable of, but in spite of this incredibly powerful knowledge, she chooses to sink back into her role as a wife, a rather docile wife to her macho dickhead of a husband. But then another man arrives on the scene, an American, Harry Dobbs. He’s looking for the stranger, and the bag he carried, and he knows that Mellie is hiding something. …

The dialogue is written in screenplay format, and the descriptive passages evoke images of the film. The novel is probably going to mean more to you (it did to me), if you’re a fan of the film. Harry’s relationship with Mellie, which becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse, is intriguing. It’s also fascinating that Mellie chooses to NOT tell her husband about the rape. On one level, this seems logical as her husband would go ballistic and probably start accusing her of somehow inviting the incident and ‘liking it.’ So ultimately it’s just easier not to tell him, but then also there’s the idea that Mellie keeps a certain section of herself submerged and secret. She has a “serene and well-groomed appearance” and yet “her nails are bitten to the quick.” There’s a level of protection, especially when dealing with a husband such as Tony, of withholding part of the self. He has no idea who she is–he’s constructed a version of her in his mind and then demands she conform to that. Yet Harry penetrates Mellie’s wall, her defenses. He intuitively knows that her outward fragility is a disguise, a bluff, a method of dealing with her surroundings. Ultimately: do we ever want people to know what we are capable of ?

Review copy. Translated by Linda Coverdale


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Trap for Cinderella: Sébastien Japrisot (1962)

Sèbastien Japrisot’s mystery novel starts like a fairy tale with that familiar phrase: “Once upon a time, long ago,” but this is no fairy tale. The first chapter, following the fairy tale format but with the title, I Would Have Murdered, describes the relationship between a godmother, Aunt Midola, and three little girls, Mi (Michèle), Do (Dominque) and La. Mi, the godmother’s favourite is “the prettiest, and Do is the most intelligent. La will soon be dead.” The godmother leaves and returns rich. Again that fairy tale mythos as it’s revealed that all the trappings of the story may simply be the way in which the children rationalise things in the adult world that they cannot understand. The chapter ends with a touch of reality and the information that Mi is the rich one while Do, the less favoured girl, grows up seeing pictures of Mi in “glossy magazines.”

Then the novel segues into the real story when a young girl wakes up in a hospital room. She has amnesia and is told by her doctor that she was horribly burned in a fire 3 months previously. She is told that Domenica is dead, killed by the fire in the villa that also burned her (Michèle). She is told by a woman named Jeanne that the two girls, Michèle and Domenica, grew up together with Domenica’s mother the laundress for Michèle’s mother. Right away, of course, it’s all very creepy. Imagine you recover from some prolonged drug-induced period to be told who you are, to have your character explained to you. Michèle remembers nothing and she’s ‘fed’ her past by Jeanne, the woman who claims to have cared for Michèle since she was a baby.

In spite of the gaps, I gradually formed an image of myself which did not tally with the person I had become. I was not so foolish, so vain, so violent. I had no desire to drink, to hit a stupid maid, to dance on top of a car, to fall into the arms of a Swedish runner or the first boy who came along with a pretty face. But all that might seem incomprehensible to me because of the accident; that was not what bothered me the most. Above all I could not believe myself capable of the lack of feeling that had enabled me to go out drinking the night I learned of my aunt’s death and even to miss her funeral.

Jeanne removes Michèle from the hospital; she’s taken to a house and kept in isolation with just a handful of servants in attendance. Shaking off Jeanne’s constant presence, Michèle decides to confront her past and try to understand why Jeanne is keeping her in isolation. Is it for her protection as Jeanne insists? Or is something else afoot? Trap for Cinderella is one of those mysteries that doesn’t have a simple conclusion. It would have been a perfect book for the Pushkin Vertigo line as the main character sinks into a personal hell from which there is no escape. The burn/amnesia thing is not an uncommon plot device, so there was little freshness there, but the ending, if it can be called that, was intriguing.

Review copy

Translated by Helen Weaver

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A Long Way Off: Pascal Garnier

“When exactly had he lost it? We wake up one day and all our toys which were so magical and full of life are suddenly nothing but inert, futile, useless objects …”

In Pascal Garnier’s darkly funny novel, A Long Way Off, a middle-aged man and his estranged daughter embark on an aimless road trip. Other authors might turn this into a Buddy novel–or even worse (gag) a novel of redemption with the father finally realising just what a dick he’s been while his daughter slowly comes to appreciate him and then … sob… forgives him. Hand me the hanky. But … no wait.. this is Pascal Garnier we’re talking about, so leave those sickeningly sweet platitudes at the door and embark on a nightmarish trip of madness, murder and decay.

It’s at a dinner party that Marc first shows signs of going off the rails, but then again perhaps it’s been a long time coming and no one ever noticed before. After “17 years of purgatory” Marc’s first wife absconded with an “absolutist Chilean poet.” She returned occasionally only to leave again, and Marc mainly raised their child Anne alone. But Anne:

“had in turn put him through the wringer until both women eventually left home for good, devoting themselves to dubious experiences somewhere else, where he was not. Marc had been thrown by the wayside, rusted, dented put out for recycling.”

His second wife, Chloé, an inexhaustible salvager of discarded bedside tables, seems to have renewed Marc in a similar fashion. She “picked him up after his divorce. She had stripped him down, polished him up and found a cosy place for him in her home.” There are signals that Marc, well into middle age, is disconnecting from his life, and then one day, on a whim, he adopts a decrepit cat named Boudu. Shortly after this, Marc decides to go visit Anne who now lives in a mental asylum. He decides to take her on a trip, and once he signs the necessary paperwork acknowledging the risks of taking Anne outside of the asylum, they hit the road.

Really Marc knows better than to take Anne anywhere, but there’s some horrible, magnetic force that pulls him to his fate. And let’s not forget that self-destructive streak. As he disconnects from his old life, he imagines that he has newly-gained freedom, but he rapidly succumbs to Anne’s domineering personality. It’s obvious that sexually voracious Anne, who’s very aggressive, is dangerous, and yet Marc still doesn’t wake up to the truth. Marc accedes to the force of Anne’s demands. Imagining that Chloé may have the police on their tail, Anne and Marc sell the car and buy a camper van, establishing up a bizarre domestic unit.

He felt like a trapeze artist bouncing into the net after a failed trick, caught in a spider’s web he could no longer escape from, lumbering, ashamed, in a trap of his own making. Perhaps there was still time … He could leave some money for Anne at the hotel, jump in the car … he could-but already he knew he would not. He was lacking that one small thing that save a man from drowning, the kick of rage that lifts you up from the bottom and propels you to the surface. It was still a long, long way off. He was not there yet.

There are not many taboos left in literature but there’s one here. So be forewarned. Garnier’s The Islanders is a trip into how two seemingly normal, somewhat functional people combine and fuse into murderous, toxic, self-destructive isolation. There’s some of the same elements here: two people who suddenly partner up with bad results. Garnier’s typical humour pierces and skewers notions of family, mining images of death and decay as Marc and Anne proceed on their road trip to hell.

There were a lot of people on the beach, little blots of colour that grew bigger as you drew nearer. It made you wonder where they had come from, these people you saw nowhere else. The sun had probably just conjured them up, Their average age was quite high. “Must be open day at the cemetery.”

Translated by Emily Boyce


Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal

No Room at the Morgue: Jean-Patrick Manchette

“I was fucking sick and tired of being taken for a ride.”

Disgraced ex-cop Eugene Tarpon turned private eye has hit rock bottom. There’s no business, bills are due and Tarpon drinks to forget his woes. He’s about to pack in this latest stage of his failed life and move back home with his mother when a beautiful woman arrives asking for help. Memphis Charles, and no that’s not her real name, is covered with blood. She says her roommate Griselda has been murdered, her throat slit, and instead of calling the police, she asks Tarpon for help. But Tarpon, smelling a rat tells Memphis to leave him alone and call the cops:

If there was a murder, or suicide, or who knows what, you’ve got to call the police, that’s all there is to it. You don’t go running to a private investigator. Not in real life. And then, in real life, a private investigator deals with divorce, store security and, when he has more prestige than I do, industrial spying. Not violent death.

But Memphis, who is apparently a rather resourceful woman, knocks Tarpon unconscious and disappears…

Not a good start.

No room at the morgue

Soon Tarpon is buried up to his neck in a mess which involves Griselda, aka Louise, a murdered porn star, whose resume includes such classics as Forbidden Caresses and The Desires of the Tartars. Thrown into the investigative mix are bombs, drugs, organized crime, pissed-off policemen and even some anarchists who might as well be escapees from The Big Lebowski. As Tarpon digs deeper into Griselda’s murder and the subsequent disappearance of Memphis Charles, the case grows murkier and murkier. The cops investigating the case have no respect for Tarpon as his past doesn’t reflect well on their profession:

“There are two kinds of private detectives,” said Coccoli. “Ex-cops and ex-cons. And sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. Judging by their actions.”

No Room at the Morgue contains a dash of humour which is created by Tarpon’s attitude to life and danger. As characters insert themselves into the investigation, it becomes clear that several parties are involved in the hunt for Memphis Charles, and all of these people think that Tarpon knows more than he does. So for a great part of the novel, he’s followed, beaten up, threatened and kidnapped. Tarpon doesn’t exactly have clues but he just picks up whatever trails open up before him, and he employs recklessness as a tactic.

I heard a car start up behind me and follow me slowly. The engine was old. If that was the tail they were sticking on me, it lacked discretion. But the vehicle ended up passing me a little before Alésia and pulled over near the curb, about ten meters in front of me, and the door opened halfway. I headed straight toward it. That’s how you get killed in the movies.

Movies vs real life is a sub-theme in the book, and it’s a sub-theme accentuated by the characters who swarm over Tarpon’s life. The book’s humour makes it different from the other novels I’ve read from this author: The Mad and The Bad, Fatale, The ProneGunman, 3 To Kill. These 4 noir novels are much darker, however, all 5 are shadowed with political elements.

Tarpon is a character we want to hang with; he’s cynical yet that darkness is alleviated by a wry humour. He’s done bad things, he’s made terrible mistakes, and he’s “broken by alcohol and regrets.” This first Tarpon novel introduces a character who is salvageable–a man whose principles and recklessness make him an anchor for the cases he has in his grubby future. Let’s hope that the publication of this book means that NYRB will publish more.

Great title, great cover.

Review copy

Translated by Alyson Waters


Filed under Fiction, Manchette Jean-Patrick

The Godmother: Hannelore Cayre

“I’m not ashamed to admit I was a difficult mother, not at all the nurturing type.”

Hannelore Cayre’s novel The Godmother features Patience Portefeux, a 53 year-old Paris-based Arabic translator. Patience, mother of two, and a widow whose husband died years earlier, has utilized her Arabic, becoming a court reporter. Patience doesn’t glam herself up, or try to defy her age; her hair is long, and white, she’s overweight and while she’s “well-groomed” she only wears “monochrome suites–grey, black, or anthracite.” I read somewhere that the middle-aged woman is the most invisible person in society, and that definitely seems to be true of Patience. Yes she’s middle-aged, overweight, probably nothing that noticeable if you work with her…. but take away those labels and underneath her bland disguise, beats the heart of a transgressive personality who submerges into criminalism when presented with an opportunity. 

The godmother

Patience’s criminal expertise didn’t materialize from thin air. It’s in her blood. She tells her life story–how she grew up in the biz, with immigrant parents and countless bodies buried on their land. 

My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money. For them it wasn’t an inert substance stashed away in a suitcase or held in some account. No, they loved it as a living, intelligent being that can create and destroy, that possesses the gift of reproduction. Something mighty that forges destinies, that separates beauty from ugliness, winners from losers. Money is Everything; the distillation of all that can be bought in a world where everything is for sale. It is the answer to every question. 

Early marriage to a man who also had shady business deals ended with Patience a young widow left with two daughters. They were soon stripped of everything, and this led to a sojourn in a loony bin. Patience clawed her way back and landed the interpreter gig, but Patience realizing that “the interpreter was simply a tool to accelerate the act of repression,” begins translating “phone taps for the drug and organized crime squads.”  

Despite my disillusion, I made dazzling progress on the career front. My colleagues will say I must have slept with a lot of people. The cruder version that made it back to me : There must have been kilometers of cops’ dicks involved, etc., etc. 

One thing leads to another and before you know it, Patience, dealing with her aged mother who is kicked out of a care home, is deep in the drug industry, and she’s working both ends–moving massive amounts of drugs, sleeping with her cop boyfriend and monitoring phone taps of her rivals. 

Prudence is a wonderful, fascinating peppery character: all the labels attached to her by society are just that: underneath simmers her true nature, and the novel excels in showing how we judge people by these labels. I could have done with less wire tap conversations and more about Prudence as she negotiates society. 

Damn, you’re quite the paradox, aren’t you. You always lower our eyes whenever anybody speaks to you, like you’re shy, but at the same time you’re giving off this feeling of kick-ass confidence–like the very worst scum bags in fact.

Stories, true or fiction, often portray straight-arrow people becoming corrupted when opportunity presents itself, but The Godmother plays with the tantalizing idea that corruption occurs, yes when opportunity presents itself, but also as a laying-in-wait and ambushing the ‘system’ variety.

Translated by Stephanie Smee.

A contribution for the cancelled Quai de Polar 2020. Now I want to read a book about Griselda Blanco. 


Filed under Cayre Hannelore, Fiction

Summer of Reckoning: Marion Brunet

Marion Brunet’s novel, The Summer of Reckoning, explores the near impossibility of escaping the cycle of poverty.  Sisters 16-year-old Céline and 15-year-old Johanna (Jo) should be on the brink of their lives, but poverty and now Céline’s pregnancy have combined to squash their futures. Since age 14, Céline, the more attractive of the sisters, had the curse of early sexuality, so all the local boys compete for her attention, while Jo, with two different coloured eyes, is prickly and considered strange.

the summer of reckoning

The sisters live with their father Manuel and mother Séverine in the Luberon, and while the family is poor, Manuel works on the villas that belong to the wealthy, often absent owners. This creates a surreal contrast, a sharp divide between the rich and the poor, with Céline and Jo trespassing onto the extensive grounds of magnificent deserted villas–enjoying the luxuries that the owners seem to have forgotten about.

Céline and Jo’s home life is rocky and tenuous, their social life almost non-existent, but when Manuel learns that his eldest daughter is pregnant, his deep rage encompasses his own failures as a man, a husband and a father. With Céline, refusing to identify the father, the scene is set for disaster. …

Everyone in the area hates Arabs, and a likely suspect seems to be Saïd, a friend of the family, a young man who hangs around the girls and who has some shady business dealings with builder Manuel.

The novel’s strengths lie in Manuel and Séverine’s bitterness which floats to the surface with the news of Céline’s pregnancy. It’s history repeating itself. Manuel stews on the knowledge that he wasn’t, and still isn’t, considered good enough for Séverine by her land-owning parents. Séverine, who is now going to be a grandmother at age 34, recalls she “did have her moment of glory, twenty years ago-twenty!” She dwells on how she became pregnant with Céline, and how marriage to Manuel seemed the only option at the time. Now roll on 17 years and here she is seeing the same thing happen to her eldest daughter … but this time there’s no question of marriage because Céline refuses to name the father.

There’s a dull simmering rage that runs throughout the story, and these characterizations feel real, bitterly, sadly real. With the exception of Jo, who wants more from life, none of these characters are appealing. Jo rations herself, subconsciously, refusing to meet the expectations of the local boys who have suddenly stopped panting after Céline now that she’s pregnant.

Jo is looking for ways out. She must be patient, but she has neither the age nor the temperament for patience. What she dreams of is explosions, magnificent events, nuclear wars. She is all pernicious expectation and anxiety. Céline’s pregnancy doesn’t actually change anything, and it’s again about her sister, the centre of attention. But there’s something hatching, buzzing in the thick atmosphere, in the family silences. She can feel it, like that sharp taste when biting into a green grape, on alert.

(Readers: there’s a scene of kittens being drowned. I get the addition of this scene: unwanted kittens can be drowned while life moves on (not the same for humans) plus the casual cheap brutality that permeates the tale.  Still the scene is there.)

Review copy

Translated by Katherine Gregor

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UV: Serge Joncour

Members of the wealthy Chassagne family are gathered together at their palatial estate for the annual Bastille celebration. The patriarch presides over the household in his absent-minded detached autocratic fashion. His wife seems a little scatter brained and then there are their two daughters, Julie and Vanessa. Vanessa rather conveniently married André Pierre. I say “conveniently” as the marriage kept a lot of messy domestic details swept under the rug. André-Pierre, who as family fixer “protecting the family,” “keeping secrets,” aware of “sordid goings-on,” has risen in the company, and now Andre-Pierre and Vanessa have two children together. The only family member missing is Philip also known as “the Pyro.” So when a stranger arrives at the Chassagne estate and announces that he’s a friend of Philip’s from boarding school, everyone accepts his presence. Well everyone except André-Pierre, but then André-Pierre knows a few things about Philip that the others don’t.


It’s a beautiful, peaceful summer day; Vanessa and Julie are sunbathing topless when the stranger begins his invasion.

It must have been the white that reassured them .

When a stranger pushes open the gates to your property like that, when he is dressed in white from head to foot, and when that white is so absolutely spotless, you don’t even think about it being suspicious.

The stranger’s name is Boris. He very quickly takes over the household and he’s one of those shape shifters who knows what people want, and then he morphs to feed that need. At first, Vanessa and Julie seem to dominant, but that’s only because Boris’s arrival sparks sisterly competition. Soon the entire household is beguiled by Boris. He flirts with both sisters and listens to the father’s stories, but after he saves the father from drowning, Boris’s place as an honoured guest seems assured.

There’s the occasional glimpse into Boris’s thinking, and it’s clear that he’s a predator:

To him his family configuration was the ultimate exoticism: this arrangement in which people are at their most docile, their most vulnerable too, ripe for the picking.

The big questions are: what does Boris want? What will happen when Philip returns?

This is a tale of dominance and control. There’s the dominance of money, sex, power, class, cruelty, and violence. The Chassagne family live in a gilded environment in which money, lots of money, is thrown at problems and then those problems simply go away. Boris, however, shakes up the established order. By various means, he soon controls the household. He entertains the parents, flirts and gropes the sisters and even whisks off the children into danger. Boris keeps pushing the boundaries and he keeps getting away with it. André-Pierre is the only one outside of the circle of enchantment but then he’s dominated by a healthy fear of Boris.

There’s something fascinating about this sort of story and how a complete stranger, with sheer dominance, can bewitch a group of people out of their comfort zone. Especially when you think that privileged people like the Chassagnes would never ordinarily run into someone like Boris. They are not nice people at all, but they are still no match for Boris and his cunning. Of course, in these situations, you’ve never sure how far things will go.

I liked UV but found the characters held at arm’s length. The tale skimmed the surface and it could have been much more engaging if events had been explored. There’s a red herring which seemed annoying rather than anything else.

Here’s Emma’s review and it seems to match mine.

Translated by Adriana Hunter


Filed under Fiction, Joncour Serge

Article 353: Tanguy Viel

Tanguy Viel’s Article 353 explores a murder through the narrator/murderer’s ex-facto explanation of the crime. A definition of exactly what Article 353 is can be found at the end of the book. After watching 6 seasons of the French series Spiral, I can’t say that I understand the French legal system, but I have grasped that it is very different to America (and Britain). I’m glad I had the Spiral experience in order to understand a little of the French legal process.

Article 353

Article 353 is set in a dying seaside town on the Brittany coast. It’s the 90s, and middle-aged divorced, Kermeur, is expecting a 400,000 franc layoff payout. Thanks to the town’s mayor, Le Goff, Kermeur at least has a roof over his head for himself and his young son. They live in a gatehouse of what is rather grandly termed the local chateau. Kermeur maintains the grounds.

As always in these sorts of towns, places with beautiful scenic views but no industry, there’s always talk of Big Money coming in and making a splash. In this case it’s Lazenec, a middle-aged man who arrives one day at the chateau along with the mayor, Le Goff. Lazenac is new to the region but suddenly he’s everywhere in his fancy car and his fancy yacht. He buys the Chateau and the land and plans to build a resort on the land. It’s an investment opportunity:

What I should’ve thought that evening, and what I’ve learned to think since, is that it’s never a good sign to run into twice in the same day a guy you didn’t know the day before. 

I’m not revealing spoilers to say that Kermeur is arrested for the murder of Lazenac: for tossing him off of his yacht 5 miles off the coast to be exact. The novel is Kermeur’s side of things as told to the judge.

Imagine that, I told the judge, a seaside resort here on Brest Bay! And I continued reading the article line by line, with its big sentences like all the region lacked was the faith and courage to face the future, there was undeveloped potential here, it said, for generations we’ve been sitting on a gold mine covered by cabbages and artichokes, a new era of tourism and development was dawning, it was time to prepare to enter the new millennium

I was part way through the book when I looked up the currency exchange rates for 400,000 Francs in 1990. At that time, it was about 69,000 dollars and change. Now Kermeur is a man in a tenuous position: he doesn’t own a home, has a marginal job and  may lose that plus the home he lives in as a result of these swanky resort homes. Kermeur is seduced by the idea of success & wealth, and he acts foolishly. When a slick developer goes knocking on doors looking for investors, that means he DOESN’T have the money himself: he wants yours.  He’s not doing you any favours, he’s helping himself. Whether or not you think Kermeur is justified in his subsequent actions is going to be a personal decision.

I liked the book’s premise; I enjoy books that centre on people’s relationship with money. We spend our whole lives working for money, spending money, thinking about money, and not understanding money. Many of us lived through the last crazy housing boom and saw people assuming insane amounts of debt. We all read about the suicides, the marriage break-ups, the moonlight flits. People seemed to want to climb out of their established status, and use the boom to move on up the ladder–flipping houses and perhaps even becoming landlords in the process. I knew many people who were ruined and will never recoup. So who made all the money? Makes me think of Marx and The Wages of Labour. … 

I found the book’s bias … is that the right word ? … or should I say, decided moral direction, uninteresting. Someone is swindled. His life is ruined. Is murder justified? Unfortunately, the book’s structure leads the reader down a certain prescribed path of judgement. A different structural narrative (say events as they occur) would have allowed for a wider scope of issues such as morality, wishful thinking, etc. As is, we know what happened. Kermeur finally understands why he did what he did: Why he gambled with the largest amount of cash he would ever get his hands on in one lifetime–money he could not afford to lose. I felt as though I was being at best guided, at worst, told, the moral judgement I should feel about this ‘case.’

review copy

Translated by William Rodarmor


Filed under Fiction, Viel Tanguy

Gallic Noir Volume 1: Pascal Garnier

Gallic noir

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a Pascal Garnier fan. His dark, bleak humour fits my mood and world view so I’ve loved (most) of his books. Gallic Books has compiled three titles into one volume, so if you’ve been waiting to check out Garnier, this may be a great choice for you. Volume 1 includes:

The A-26

How’s the Pain?

The Panda Theory. 

Here’s a list of my reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Low Heights


The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory


The A-26 is the story of brother and sister Bernard and Yolande. Yolande, “Yo-Yo” (an apt name since she’s bat-shit crazy) live together in disharmony with Bernard ‘caring’ for Yo-Yo, but this insane world spins out-of-control when Bernard, a serial killer, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. This is my least favourite Garnier. It contains Garnier’s signature motifs of death and decay, but I felt as though I needed a shower after reading it.

Onto How’s The Pain? which I rated much higher. I really liked this one. This is the story of an aging hitman, posing as an ‘exterminator’ who picks up a directionless young man as his driver. This book contains a depth absent in A-26, and the description of Bernard’s hopeless mother is extraordinary, painful, and hilarious all at the same time.

The Panda Theory concerns a stranger who turns up in small town in Brittany. Again the central motifs of death and decay are present. This wasn’t the easiest read for me for its rather constant references to meat, but this is a cleverly written book that doesn’t veer from its imagery.

There are three volumes of Garnier’s Gallic noir available

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal

Smoking Kills: Antoine Laurain

“It’s never a good idea for an evil bastard to imprint himself on the retina of a murderer. I don’t advise it: it might lead to an idea for a spot of entertainment on an idle afternoon.”

Antoine Laurain’s wickedly funny novel, Smoking Kills, examines the extent, drive, and unexpected consequences of addiction through the acts of a man who seeks the high of “the good fairy Nictoine.”  Middle-aged Parisian headhunter Fabrice Valantine, an avid smoker for years, isn’t ready for the smoking ban which threatens to ruin his life by depriving him of one of his greatest pleasures. The threat against his smoking addiction finds little sympathy with his non-smoking, art curator wife. Plus then there’s the little matter of Fabrice leaving the unfortunate comment “makes me want to vomit,” in a guest book following the show of “Inflammatory Art” from pretentious “artist” Damon Bricker. Bricker, nicknamed “the pigeon roaster” by Fabrice:

Cheerfully chargrilled his animal subjects, using his blowtorch like other artists use their brushes. His installation of a life-sized chicken house, complete with hens cockerels and a fox, had caused a sensation at the previous years’s FIAC art fair in Paris.

After an embarrassing incident at an art show, however, Fabrice is encouraged by his non-smoking wife, Sidonie, to seek hypnosis therapy to help him stop smoking. The hypnosis is successful, and yet … Fabrice discovers that life without a “nicotine fix,” is lacking zest. He begins smoking again, only to discover that the pleasure factor has been removed, and by a strange set of circumstances, Fabrice discovers that nicotine can once again be pleasurable under certain circumstances….

Laurain sets up his main character into a set of devilishly clever circumstances: While Sidonie flies to New York to attend an art show, Fabrice’s situation at work changes for the worse. Exiled to a windowless basement office, he’s then required to attend a pool party with the young, fit, boss. What a brilliant humiliation from the author, to place middle-aged out-of-shape office workers awkwardly into swimsuits which reveal cellulite, body hair and flab.

The sight of the entire office staff in swimsuits was certainly strange. Bizarrely immodest. Some people looked taller or smaller than usual. The women had bigger or smaller chests than one might have thought. I wondered what my colleagues thought about me. They, too, would be thinking: “Goodness, Valantine isn’t hairy at all, and he’s musclier than I thought.” Or perhaps the opposite.

The new boss has created a situation of dominance:

He was standing on the diving board, microphone in hand. His athletic musculature gleamed, but not with pool water: he must have slathered himself in oil, like a bodybuilder. He delivered a short speech about the Piscine Pontoise, a gem of thirties architecture, with its thirty-three metre pool, and about how we would all get to know each other better through the joy of sport, and other nonsense. He looked like an Aryan SS officer, glamorised in a film by Leni Riefenstahl. With his short blond slightly swept-back hair, a black and white photograph of him would easily pass for an old piece of Nazi propaganda.

I’ve read three Laurain novels to date:

The President’s Hat

The Portrait

And now Smoking Kills which is my favourite so far. How delightful that Laurain seems to be getting darker and darker. The President’s Hat was a touch whimsical while The Portrait examined the life of man who loses his sense of identity and sinks into madness. Smoking Kills is the story of  a man who, in order to recreate a nicotine high, turns to murder.  Pushed to his limits. Fabrice uncovers a talent for murder and revenge. I’m not a smoker, but I’ve known smokers so determined that even a diagnosis of lung cancer and the removal of one lung has not dimmed their enthusiasm for cigarettes.

Smoking Kills is very funny in a twisted dark way, but apart from that, it’s full of Laurain observations and wisdom:

Sidonie inhabited her world, and I mine. My world was the more real: people came with a price; they were hired for a given time, for their skills, and paid handsomely in exchange. The whole system made the world go round, and created jobs for other people, drawing on their skills in turn. My world was logical. Sidonie’s was irrational. Serious, highly serious, but irrational. Artworks were worth more than the men who had created them, often achieving colossal sums of money at sale. A single picture could be worth as much as a small business; one museum’s holdings could equate to the GDP of an African state. The galleries played the role of the big financial groups, everything was quoted on a kind of invisible stock exchange, and the dead were worth more than the living.  

An I’m ending on this poignant quote:

Fathers are unwitting objects of fascination for their daughters, and the interlude of their childhood leaves a bittersweet taste: never again, for anyone else, will we be domestic demi-gods, greeted like long-awaited saviours when we come home for dinner at the end of the working day. The years go by and their joy becomes less and less palpable, until one day they fail to greet us at all. This time is past and the countdown reaches zero. We had known it would happen, we just hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly.

Review copy

Translated by Louise Rogers-Lalaurie


Filed under Fiction, Laurain Antoine