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The Sudden Arrival of Violence: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow Trilogy 3)

“You live your life with big secrets and they come to define you.”

Book 1 in the Glasgow Trilogy, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter introduced main character, the meticulous, laconic freelance gunman, Calum MacLean. In this first novel, Calum is hired by crimelord, Peter Jamieson to kill lowlevel drug dealer, Lewis Winter. Lewis has been part of the Glasgow drug scene for years, but he’s started poaching on Jamieson’s turf. His execution will be a message to Winter’s powerful new friends.

Book 2: How a Gunman Says Goodbye heralds the return of the Jamieson’s organization’s aging gunman, Frank MacLeod to the job following his convalescence in Spain for a knee surgery. Both books examine the individual within the criminal organization with a solid argument to support that a gunman is destined to have a lonely, solitary life due to the nature of his chosen profession. Both Calum and Frank’s stories of how they operate and conduct business are set against the simmering turf war between Jamieson and car dealer Shug Francis, an ambitious man who wants to seize Jamieson’s business concerns. Jamieson is a mid-level gang lord–not a particularly good place to be. It’s easy to be cannibalized by another upward moving competitor.

the sudden arrival of violenceBook 3: The Sudden Arrival of Violence begins with Calum now under the yoke of the Jamieson organization. No longer freelance, he cannot pick and choose his jobs, and the book opens with Calum completing a very unpleasant hit against a civilian. The job confirms Calum’s decision: to leave the business while he still can…

While Calum plots his escape, Jamieson is plotting to bring down Shug Francis and his operation. This involves concocting a story that will implicate Shug in a violent crime, and using key people, carefully placed, to make sure that the police swallow Jamieson’s fiction. On the outside looking in is DI Fisher, busy putting two and two together and coming up, repeatedly, thanks to corrupt coppers, with the wrong numbers. Underneath the murky surface of both Shug and Jamieson’s organization are betrayals, mixed loyalties, and double crosses, and Fisher is picking up the pieces of gingerbread which lead him right to the conclusion Jamieson wants him to make.

Writing a review of the third volume in a trilogy presents a challenge as you can’t say too much about the plot without revealing spoilers from the other books, so instead, I’ll concentrate on characters and quotes.

There are two ways of playing the situation that Calum’s in. The subtle way, and the sledgehammer way. From where Calum’s standing, the subtle way looks like a waste of time. They know he’s running and they’re making moves against him. They must know that he’ll work out what they’re up to. Playing subtle achieves nothing. Can’t trick them, when they know more than he does. So you go down the sledgehammer route. You go aggressive, confrontational, none too subtle. You let them know that they’re in a bloody great big fight. Let the bastards know that if they want to take you down, they’re going to have to work for it. Few people can play that part well. Most aren’t intimidating enough. Calum is one of the few who is. They know how dangerous he can be.

The first two books in the trilogy examine the role of the individual in the criminal organization, and that theme continues here. The organization’s success rests on brilliant strategic planning but also loyalty to the organization plays a crucial role. In these uncertain times, both Jamieson and Shug Francis must appear to be in control, for some gang members may jump ship if they sniff weakness or disaster ahead. Jamieson’s right hand man, the strategical brain of the operation, is Young, an unpopular man, but Jamieson’s trusted lieutenant. Shug Francis has a similar relationship with Fizzy–a man he’s known since his boyhood. In this novel, both Jamieson and Shug question the decisions of their right hand men–can Fizzy grow with Shug’s big new plans? Does Young make a terrible mistake when he tries to block Calum’s exit strategy? Friendships within the organization are not encouraged as loyalty to the organization comes first before any personal feelings, and in book 3, that makes a difficult choice for muscle man, George–a man who’s accompanied Calum on many a job and even took orders from Young to sabotage Calum’s relationship with a woman.

Both George and Calum, still young men, are prime examples of how you ‘can’t be a little bit criminal.’ Both men want to pick and chose their jobs, but by this third volume, they are both being sucked down into the criminal vortex of the Jamieson organization. Here’s Shug mulling over his decision to get into the drug trade:

That’s the problem with things being easy. You think it’s going to stay that way. You think that if you can put together a car-ring, then you can put together a drugs network. Control it top to bottom. You become used to that level of control when you have an untouchable operation. So you plot. You organize. You employ. You identify the weakness in others. Identify the target and the mechanisms you can use to bring it down. Take the target’s share of the market. The  move onto the next. The next one always being slightly bigger than the last. Keep working it that way until you get to the top.

Peppered with memorable, strongly drawn, vivid characters, this excellent, hard-hitting series is highly recommended for crime fans who like their crime novels bleak and dark. This third volume of this gritty, hard-driving trilogy leaves the possibility of a fourth book (removing the ‘trilogy’ from the series) wide open….

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How a Gunman Says Goodbye: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow trilogy 2)

It’s the kind of industry where you have to be shockproof. People do things that logic can’t explain.”

In Malcolm Mackay’s crime novel How a Gunman Says Goodbye, the second book in the Glasgow Trilogy, we’re immediately back on familiar territory with a familiar character, hitman Frank MacLeod. In book 1: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, Frank MacLeod, the aging hitman for the Peter Jamieson crime organization is temporarily out to pasture with a hip that needs surgery. It’s a bad time for him to be out of commission as small-time drug dealer, Lewis Winter, treading on dangerous ground, starts selling on Jamieson’s turf. Jamieson, and his right hand man, the reptilian John Young, suspect that Winter wouldn’t take this step unless he had some powerful friends, so they conclude that Lewis Winter must be killed as both a statement and damage control. Since Frank MacLeod will soon be sunning himself in Spain for the recuperation period, Jamieson and Young take Frank’s advice and hire freelance hitman Calum MacLean to kill Lewis Winter. According to Frank, Calum is “the best of the new breed,” and while Jamieson and Young consider that Frank is irreplaceable, they understand that they need to step outside of their organization for the hit and also that eventually, Frank will have to be replaced. That day hasn’t come yet…

How a gunman says goodbyeHow a Gunman Says Goodbye finds sixty-two-year-old Frank back in Glasgow with the Jamieson organization, and the turf war continues. This time the trespassers are two young men:

‘There’s a kid named Tommy Scott,’ Jamieson’s saying. ‘Wee bastard of a thing. We didn’t think much of him. He used to be a peddlar. Street stuff. Ran with a gang, sold to them–shit like that. Used to do deliveries on a bicycle. A fucking bike! I guess I underestimated the bastard. I’ve been getting complaints. The kid cutting into out market, up Springburn way. I tried sending a warning, but the little bastard’s tough. Determined, too. Got one of his gangs providing security for his peddlers. Only has three of four guys delivering for him now, but a couple of months ago he had none. He’s growing fast, and stepping on toes. I’m fed up of hearing people complain. I need my people to know I’ll protect their patch. I need Shug-bloody-Francis to know his men aren’t safe.’

Tommy Scott and his childhood mate, the hyped-up, irrational and compulsive, Clueless live together in a tower block, just one floor below the top.

Well, that’s just bloody brilliant. Very few places worse than that. Having to make an exit from a tower block is never ideal. You’re always a long way from your getaway.

Right. And a tower block, which can serve as a veritable fortress for the criminals who live there, is always a hostile environment for those who don’t belong. But Frank is confident and considers this a “soft job.” What can go wrong?

In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, the focus is the individual within the criminal organization, and that theme continues in the second book in this gritty trilogy. Whereas relative newcomer, freelancer Calum MacLean was the focus in the first book, old-timer, the legendary Frank MacLeod is the focus of How a Gunman Says Goodbye. Peter Jamieson considers Frank a friend, someone he will always trust, but Calum thinks Frank’s best days are over. For his part, Frank considers Calum, a kid who’s too slow with his contracts, “takes too long in the scouting,” a time waster who doesn’t understand the meaning of deadlines. It’s a crucial time in Jamieson’s crime organization; Jamieson must either be prepared to grow or be cannibalized by the suddenly hungry and aggressive Shug Francis. Jamieson must have a reliable gunman and he’d like to add Calum to the organization, but Calum wants the independence of freelance work.

In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, author Malcolm Mackay shows the benefits and the drawbacks of being part of a criminal organization, and again those issues have relevance in this second book in the series. Being part of an organization gives you protection if you ever need assistance, and in theory, you should have more value, but there again, if you’re freelance, you can walk away any time you feel like it. Gunmen Calum and Frank are on opposite ends of their respective careers–Calum is gearing up to be the best hitman in Glasgow while Frank’s career is winding down. Looking at a lonely ‘retirement,’ Frank suddenly realizes that he has no life outside of the organization–no wife, no family, no friends, no hobbies:

You spend decades as a gunman, which few do, and you think of the world from a different angle. It’s all about secrecy and self-preservation. A lifetime of hiding the things you do. It changes you. It must have changed Frank, too. … He’s a gunman, and that’s all he’ll ever be. You spend so long teaching yourself to be that, you simply can’t become any other kind of person. You become so tied to your work it dominates your life. Destroys it.

On the other end of the spectrum is D.I Michael Fisher–a devoted, hardworking copper who’s trying to fit together all of the puzzle pieces of the Shug Francis-Peter Jamieson war. Fisher is a lonely man who’s every bit as isolated as Frank MacLeod:

He has to take action or see this all fall through his fingers. He’s not going to let another chance go. You spend years getting good results, doing your job the right way. You have a couple of failures, and people start to point the finger. They think you don’t have it anymore. He’s been guilty of that himself in he past. He knows how it works. A cop getting older–you start to question their ability to close a case. Are they still in touch with modern crime and policing techniques? Did they still have the hunger? Some do lose it. They’ve done their bit, now they’re looking towards the end. He’s not that kind of cop. His ending will be forced on him, he knows it. The hunger’s still there, but nothing is falling his way.

Mackay builds an argument for the similarities between two parallel organizations: the criminals and the police, and then, of course, there are those snitches and bad cops, spurred on by desperation, cynicism or compromising need, who traverse between both organizations.  D.I. Fisher feels the pressure to produce and feels himself near the brink of a career move–one that could make or break him, and both Frank and Calum’s careers are also on the brink of change. Mackay doesn’t belabor the comparisons between hit men Frank and Calum, one on the way up and one on the way down, but the connections are there, and in this novel both men face tough personal and professional choices. Told in a terse, unemotional style, again the emphasis is on the individual within the criminal organization with issues such as loyalty, friendship, and trust challenging the vital security of the Jamieson empire. While we see the ‘human’ side of our protagonists, Calum and Frank, Malcolm Mackay never allows sentimentality to intrude on the narrative.

Those who’ve read the first novel in the trilogy will not be disappointed by the second book in the series. Tense, dark and with a merciless gritty reality, Calum’s story continues. …

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The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow Trilogy 1)

Never hit a target you don’t need to hit. Ever. One murder gets the police interested, two gets them excited.”

In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, freelance hitman Calum MacLean takes a job from crime lord Peter Jamieson to kill a fairly lowlevel drug dealer who is poaching on Jamieson’s turf. Jamieson would normally order a hit from within his own organization, but with his star, aging hit man, Frank Macleod, out of commission, Jamieson is forced to turn to freelance.

According to Frank, Calum is “the best of the new breed,” quiet & methodical. Jamieson and his right-hand man, John Young, are scoping out, and ready to recruit, an eventual replacement for Frank, so hiring a freelance outsider is not only a necessity but may also be a way of building a permanent business arrangement. Jamieson’s “instinct for the nasty work was unrivalled,” which explains his success, and while he’s the brains, Young brings his tactical ability to the organization. “Separately they were talented; together they were lucrative.”

the necessary death of lewis winterWhen Jamieson hires Calum for the Lewis Winter hit, he considers Calum, who paces his jobs carefully, “not too hot, not too cold, but just right. A Goldilocks employee.” Calum, who prefers the freedom of freelance work, takes the one-off job with no reservations and applies his usual precautions. On the surface the job seems simple, but what he doesn’t know is that he’s stepping into a turf war between Jamieson and a challenger. Small-time Lewis Winter, under pressure from his much-younger, high maintenance girlfriend Zara Cope, has made a deal with another organization to move into Jamieson owned territory, and while this move brings a death sentence, it also ignites a series of fall out events.

And this is how this explosive hard-boiled crime novel opens:

It starts with a telephone call. Casual, chatty, friendly, no business. You arrange to meet, neutral venue, preferably public. You have to be careful, regardless of the caller. Regardless of the meeting place. Every eventuality planned for, nothing taken for granted. Tempting to begin to trust, tempting, but wrong. A person could be your friend and confidant for twenty years and then turn away from you in an instant. It happened, Anyone with sense remembers that bitter reality; those without sense will learn it.

This gripping tale is essentially a character study of a hitman. Calum is an unemotional, precision killer–a loner, an avid reader who prefers to keep his independence rather than trading it in for the “suffocating” security of working within an organization. As an independent, he can take or refuse jobs, and keep his criminal associations to a minimum, and so far, in spite of an already well-established reputation, he’s completely off the police radar. Calum understands that if he ever stops being freelance and takes a permanent job, “settling down,” as Jamieson calls it, he’ll be forced to take more risks, make more hits and will inevitably have a high profile with the police.  It seems to be a consensus between Frank, Jamieson and Young that as hitmen age, most of them seek the security of working within a firm. Calum isn’t at that point yet:

Does he want something long-term and lucrative?

Small flat, small car, small savings, but always enough. He works for need, not luxury. Long-term means risk, and risk is to be avoided. There are gamblers in the business, but they all lose eventually, and the cost is final. So don’t gamble. You don’t need to. There are two reasons why people do: one acceptable, and one not, The unacceptable reason is greed, the prospect of more money, which they don’t actually need. The other reason is the thrill, and that’s different.

While this is a character study of a hitman as the story unfolds against the backdrop of the contract on Lewis Winter, the novel’s other characters are well-drawn. Author Malcolm Mackay paints a cohesive, disturbing portrait of Glasgow’s impenetrable, violent criminal underworld with its trashy clubs, nervous snitches, lowlife drug runners, sleazy drug dealers, skilled drivers, bottom feeder loan sharks, and brutal muscle men. It’s in this world that grasping Zara Cope “a slut, but a smart one,” passes from one criminal to another and realizing that her shelf life is short, she grabs the malleable, pathetic Lewis Winter as her permanent meal ticket. Lewis “is small-time, always has been. He is a man cursed. Every success was swiftly followed by a crushing failure,” but with Zara pushing for more, Lewis is ready to make some risky moves for his new powerful friends. Zara’s greed, when combined with Lewis’s desire to impress her and keep her, is the catalyst for explosive violence.

With corrupt cops and fragmented flashes of criminal organizations, we see that the mantra isn’t so much crime solution or even crime prevention as much as it is “crime management.” Through carefully crafted scenes, Mackay shows us multiple sides of various complex characters as they move through the hierarchy of the criminal world in which taking orders is imperative, initiative may or may not be rewarded with a bullet, and the most important element in a crisis is having associates you can call for back-up. In this world, contract hits aren’t killings–they’re statements of power. While many novels focus on the individual within society, the focus here is the individual within the criminal organization.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, written in a hard-boiled style that paradoxically welds an intimate knowledge of the criminal mind with an objective, factual distance is gritty, explosive and riveting, and it’s highly recommended for readers who prefer to read crime novels from the criminal perspective, but be aware that this is the first of a trilogy and after you turn the last page, you’ll want to continue the story in book 2: How a Gunman Says Goodbye.

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The Mad and The Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Eccentric, wealthy businessman, former architect Michel Hartog arrives at a swanky country asylum to collect Julie Ballanger, a young woman who’s lived there, voluntarily, for 5 years. She’s leaving to be employed as a nanny for Hartog’s young nephew, Peter aka “the snotty brat.” Hartog inherited his wealth unexpectedly when his brother and sister-in law died in a plane crash, and their deaths left him in charge of the family fortune and the well-being of his nephew, the heir. Now Hartog has hired a former mental patient as a nanny. What’s wrong with this picture?

If you listen to Hartog’s driver, Hartog has a reputation as a philanthropist for hiring people who have physical or mental problems. Hartog’s home is a “house of defectives.”

Julie nodded. The driver handed her the drink. He had poured himself a Ricard. He drank half of it and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“Physically, you are better built than Old Polio.”

“Old Polio?”

“The nursemaid before you. Completely off her rocker. Fifty if she was a day. And an idiot. What about you? What’s your thing?”

“I don’t understand at all,” said Julie. “My thing? What do you mean?”

“The thing that’s screwy with you.”

“I’m cured,” Julie stated.

“The hell you are!” exclaimed the driver. “The boss’s way of doing good is over the top. He only hires retards. He sets up factories for cripples to work in, can you figure that?”

“Not really.”

“Those guys who go around in little motorized wheelchairs? He’s got them working on a production line! In this house it’s the same baloney. The cook is epileptic. The gardener has only one arm, pretty handy for using the shears. His private secretary is blind. His valet suffers from locomotor ataxia–no wonder his meals arrive cold! The snotty brat’s old nanny–well I told you about her. As for you, you must know yourself.”

Hartog is certainly very odd, but his first scene at the asylum shows us that he’s not a nice man, so does he hire Julie from some sort of philanthropy or contrariness or is there something deeper at play?…..

the mad and the badJulie’s introduction to Hartog’s nephew is not reassuring; Peter is a difficult child, and Hartog, who encourages Julie to drink, is strangely repellent, with a smile which “resembled the coin slot of a parking meter.” Julie is not the only one who hits the booze hard in Hartog’s house; it’s “a drinker’s paradise,” and even the valet downs Guinness with his breakfast omelet. Hartog runs his home in a paradoxical fashion. On one hand, he whimsically expects his employees to be available whenever he pleases, sharply dressed and ready to perform their duties, but on the other hand, he indulges certain vices.  Thrust into this new stressful environment, Julie washes down tranquilizers with alcohol.

Although we never get the whole story of Julie’s past life, some information is revealed in fragmented hints, but these crimes are only the external projections of something much deeper. Julie who claims to be “allergic” to the police is politically alienated from bourgeois society. Hartog plucks her from an insane asylum, hands her a job, a wardrobe full of clothing and a regular paycheck. He expects her to be impressed and grateful:

“What do you think of me?” Hartog asked. “What do you know about me? Do you get the feeling you are in a fairy tale?”

“I don’t believe in fairy tales.”

Okay. But what then?”

“You are a soap, oil, and detergent magnate. You are rich and you are a philanthropist.”

“Let’s not exaggerate.”

“You do Good. You are probably trying to compensate for the feeling of being a usurper. Because your wealth is not the fruit of your own labor. Only the death of your brother and his wife made you the owner of it. You must have developed a strong sense of guilt, even if you had no wish for them to die. Anyway, one always wishes for the death of one’s brother at some level.”

“Congratulations!” said Hartog in a toneless voice. “Is that what they teach at the asylum?”

“It’s not an asylum. It’s an open establishment. I could have left any time I wanted.”

“But you stayed there for five years. Why?”

“You’ve seen my records. You know why.” 

While this is a crime story, The Mad and the Bad also contains a socio-political undercurrent. Hartog expects gratitude from Julie for offering her ‘another chance,’ but he also wants to see awe–awe for his wealth and his accomplishments. But Julie is unimpressed. She sees Hartog as an unexceptional human being with the advantage of controlling a fortune:

“Quite the little rebel,” he observed. “I know all about you. Pickpocket. Arsonist. Congratulations.”

“Of course you do,” replied Julie. “It’s all in my file.”

“You, all you poor people, are just too stupid. You go about things in the dumbest way.”

“Everyone can’t inherit money.”

Hartog shrugged.

“For my part I do something with my inheritance. You people wouldn’t know what to do with one.”

I’m not going to reveal much of the plot–the back cover of the book reveals more than I intend to address here. But since this is a crime novel, a hit man and his sloppy henchmen enter the scene, and Julie’s brief re-entrance into society comes to a screaming halt. Suddenly, she finds herself back in a life on the run, and all of her old survival skills return. Julie describes herself as looking like a “post-op transsexual,” but this is just a reflection that Julie eschews bourgeois society’s signifiers of the feminine ideal; in reality she’s fit, attractive, handy with weaponry and adept at survival. As the book continues, there’s a parallel metamorphosis that takes place as both Julie and Thompson, the hitman with a nagging ulcer, return to primal behaviour.

The Mad and the Bad is a deeply subversive novel and contains the same sharply observed criticisms of bourgeois society that are found in Fatale. As the novel continues, Julie’s ‘madness’ becomes questionable, and as her violent history morphs into her violent present, she is removed farther from society’s norms and sinks deeper into self-preservation. Her past insanity is seen mal-adjustment–a reaction to the hypocrisy of a decadent, materialistic society and a drive to anti-social behaviours; she simply opted to no longer live in the world and voluntarily retired to the asylum where, drugged and removed from aggravation, she was “cured.” Her re-entry into society has turned into a nightmare, and those same anti-social behaviours that sent her into the asylum in the first place, now allow her to survive. Another character, Fuentès, a failed idealist, has also rejected society, and in his case, he’s not locked up in an asylum, but chooses to isolate himself in a bizarrely constructed building whose labyrinth design grants security and is a testament to his individualism. Is Fuentès, another fringe dweller, also mad, or is his abandonment of society a signifier of sanity?

There are moments when Julie seems aware of her delusions, but there are other times when she can’t control herself. One scene in which a preacher emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between religion, the government and the police seems to awaken something in Julie:

She had to get rid of all these bastards who were out to destroy her. This was no time to lose her head. She would have loved to open fire with a machine gun and create a bloodbath.

It’s no coincidence that one of the book’s destructive, brilliantly explosive scenes takes place in a large department store–a temple to consumerism. Violence detonates with a darkly humorous edge as Julie is pushed to extremes in order to shock the customers and shop assistants out of their stupor. Yes, Julie uses the location for her purposes, but as the tranquilizers wear off and she blazes across France, Julie comes alive, all those old skills ignite, and we cheer her on. 

Manchette shows that while the ‘bad’ are predictable, the ‘mad’–those who reject society–are not. This is the fourth Manchette novel I’ve read, and my favourite to date. For its irony, its unexpected twists, and for the marvelous character of Julie, The Mad and the Bad will make my best-of-year list. For those interested, here are reviews of Fatale, The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill

Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith & with an introduction from James Sallis.

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How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier

Reviews of Pascal Garnier’s novel The Panda Theory claimed the book was funny. I thought it was bleak, but humour is a very unpredictable thing, so when the same thing was written about How’s the Pain? I didn’t expect the novel to be funny at all–but it is. I’ll qualify that by saying that the book isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s full of morbid humour with a central motif of death and decay. This is how the book begins:

The sound coming from somewhere in the darkness was barely audible, but it was enough to shatter his sleep. The drone of the moped grew louder until it was directly beneath his window, grating on his nerves like a dentist’s drill boring into a decayed tooth. Then it faded into the distance, leaving nothing behind but a long rip through the fabric of this sleeping city. He hadn’t opened his eyes or moved except to twitch his mouth in annoyance at the buzzing mechanical insect. Lying flat on his back with his hands crossed over his chest, Simon could have been a recumbent tomb effigy. One at a time he opened his heavy eyelids, gummed together like the rusty shutters of an old shop. He groped for his glasses on the bedside table, but could barely see any better once he had them on.

So this is Simon, a middle-aged man, who’s travelling on business. While staying in Vals-de-Bains, he meets a young man named Bernard who, after losing two fingers from his left hand in a factory incident(while drunk), is staying with his alcoholic mother temporarily. Simon meets Bernard when both men are in a park watching a wedding and the photographer who “had no qualms about destroying the flowerbeds or tyrannizing his models to ensure that this would truly be the most beautiful day of their lives.”  Bernard strikes up a conversation with the stranger, and their exchanges reveal the central cores of their personalities. Simon is a pessimist who sees the worst in everyone, and Bernard, an optimist and a perennial loser, lives lightly. Even though Simon is a loner and avoids people, there’s something about Bernard that he finds appealing. Perhaps it’s his complete guilelessness, or perhaps Bernard reminds Simon of his younger, directionless self. The two men strike up a relationship, and Simon who claims to be an exterminator who owns a pest control business employs Bernard as his driver for two days….

How's the painAs the two men travel to their destination, thanks to Bernard’s generous heart, an ad-hoc family coalesces around Simon–whether he wants it or not. And the drive, and perhaps even the friendship with Bernard bring back some troubling memories to Simon–how he was a directionless young man until he joined the army, his formative years in Algeria, his love affair with a woman named Safia, and his last act of friendship towards an army comrade.

That’s as much of the plot I’m going to give away, but I have to mention Bernard’s hopeless, alcoholic mother, Madame Ferrand; there’s a whole chapter devoted to describing the trajectory of her life and her pathetic career as a serial failed shopkeeper. At age 35, she dumped her 2 year-old fatherless son, Bernard with her parents and moved to Vals-de-Bains where, with her “meagre savings,” she opened a millinery shop called Chez Anais. Over the years, the shop transformed into various manifestations, all of them failures, and it’s through her life that we see the living example of Simon’s beliefs: life is awful–and most people should be put out of their misery. Of course, though, we have the ‘right’ to put ourselves through the misery of our choosing, and in this case, Madame Ferrand’s misery is alcohol soaked.

She leant against the doorframe for a moment, her cartoonish kohl-lined eyes judging the distance between herself and Simon and sizing up any obstacles to avoid on the way. Then, like a bull charging the matador, she puffed out through her nose and lunged forward with her hand held out, her face split by a smile reminiscent of a gash made by a machete in a watermelon.

‘Enchantée, cher monsieur, enchantée! You’re most welcome.’

Simon caught her just in time to stop her tripping over a fold in the rug and smoothly kissed her hand. The patchouli oil she had splashed all over herself could not disguise the lingering smell of rum.

While this is a crime novel, it’s also inherently philosophical. It’s through his relationship with Bernard that Simon’s views about life are at once endorsed and paradoxically challenged. Bernard is kind, but naïve, hopeless and a magnet for all sorts of trouble, but at the same time, Bernard’s buoyancy, careless optimism and sheer gullibility open him up to life–like a wound exposed to further attack, and yet, at the end of the day, who would you rather be? Financially successful Simon, whose negativity has led to isolation, or loser Bernard, a man who lives lightly and shrugs off worries?

There’s a wonderful scene when Simon is waiting at an aquarium for a business meeting and he watches a shark in a glass tank.

The shark was drowning its sorrows inside its glass cage. It turned this way and that for no apparent reason, taking no notice of the opaline jellyfish and shoals of multicolored fish swimming out from clumps of soft seaweed. There was not much to choose between aquatic and life on earth; either could be equally boring. The proof was in the amphibians which had dithered between the two for thousands of years without ever making their minds up, or the valium-drugged crocodiles whose sleepy eyes peeked above the surface of muddy pools. Like Simon, who stood watching them, all these creatures seemed to be on standby, waiting for something that was always just out of reach. Over-excited kids pressed their noses against the glass, ganging their horrid chubby little hands against the walls of the tanks. Their shrieks ruined the silence of this other world. From the looks on the faces of their harassed parents, it was clear many would gladly throw their offspring to the piranhas. The world might well end in the same murky green waters that spawned humanity.

I liked The Panda Theory enough to explore more of Pascal Garnier’s work, and I’m glad I did because How’s The Pain? is superb. At 163 pages (my copy) this entertaining, highly-recommended, lean tale should appeal to fans of Jean-Patrick Manchette–not for its tone, but for its style. This is a frame story, and I’d recommend going back and re-reading the opening chapter again after finishing the book. Review copy/own a copy. Translated by Emily Boyce.

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Malavita by Tonino Benacquista

How much is one man worth? What price a human life? To know what one is worth is like knowing the date of one’s death. I’m worth twenty million dollars. It’s a lot. But much less than I thought. I must be one of the most expensive men in the world. To be so valuable and to live a life as shitty as mine–that’s the worst misery. If I had that twenty million dollars, I know what I’d do with it. I’d give the whole thing away in exchange for going back to my previous life, before I was worth that much. The man who blows my head off, what will he do with the money? He’ll put it in property and go off to hang out in Barbados for the rest of his life. They all do that. 

These are the thoughts running through the head of former top mafia figure, hitman turned informer for the government, Giovanni Manzoni, now Frederick Blake living with his wife Maggie (Livia) and two children 17-year-old Belle and 14-year-old Warren. Under the watchful eyes of the Witness Protection Programme, they’ve been living in France for 5 years. They’ve had several moves and now they’ve washed up in Normandy, along with their dog Malavita, in the small town of Cholong-sur Avre. The family must integrate and not draw too much attention to themselves–after all Giovanni was a top government witness in a case that busted the Mafia wide open and generated long prison sentences for some very pissed off men. The FBI team members who babysit the family know that the Mafia back in New Jersey have not forgotten Giovanni, and if he’s ever found, he’s a dead man.

malavitaThe attempts to blend in with the locals by the four family members are really very funny, and the best part of the book. There’s Frederick, who’s become depressed since the trial, and who spends his days unshaven and “trailing around in his slippers all day,”  feeling useless. After finding an old typewriter, “obsessed with the idea of telling his version of the truth,”  he decides to write his memoirs–something of course the FBI isn’t too happy about, and his new profession as a writer, gives him the perfect excuse to lounge around on the balcony all day and reminisce about the good old days. Meanwhile Maggie/Livia also think of the good old days when she was a top Mafia wife, “dizzy” with power and feeling like “the First lady of the whole area,”  a woman who could get whatever she wanted with a snap of her fingers. Now she’s decided to do penance by throwing herself into charity and volunteer work.

As for the children, well they speak excellent French. Belle has grown into a beautiful young girl who’s not as vulnerable and naïve as some of her schoolmates think, and Warren’s ambition is to become the godfather of his school–a lofty goal he achieves within days of arriving. An admirer and student of Capone and Lucky Luciano, Warren’s motto is “Give them what they need the most.”

It was just a question of time and organization. In order to achieve synergy and increase complementarity, all he needed to do was to know how to listen, discover each person’s limits, spot the gaps in their lives, and decide how much to charge for filling them. The more solid the base he could build up, the quicker he would rise to power. The pyramid would build itself and raise him to the stars.

Some of the book’s humour comes from the culture clash generated from Americans living in France, but of course, these are not ordinary Americans–this is a crass, violent and dangerous Mafia family who don’t take ill-treatment and insults well. One incident occurs when Maggie asks for peanut butter in the local shop and then overhears the shop owner bitching about Americans to some locals:

I’ve got nothing against them, but they certainly make themselves at home wherever they are.”

“Of course, there were the landings. But we’ve been invaded ever since!”

“In our day, and for our generation, it was nylon stockings and chewing gum, but what about our children?”

“Mine dresses like them. Enjoys the same things, listens to the same music.”

“The worst thing is the food they eat. I cook something they like, and all they can think of is to leave the table as quick as they can and rush off to McDonalds.”

Maggie is “hurt” by the exchange, but what happens next illustrates how the family won’t take insults lightly. We see each family member attempting to integrate with mixed results: an opportunistic plumber finds that his usual sales pitch doesn’t work, and a BBQ (in which the typical American menu of steak, steak or steak is discussed) for some of the locals almost ends in violence. The emphasis is on humour–with the locals oblivious about exactly what they’re dealing with, and Giovanni/Frederick using all his willpower not to exact vengeance against those who insult his BBQ skills. These scenes are all very funny, but some of the other humour, when stone-cold killer Fred, who’s slotted into the life of a harmless writer, imagines his past crimes grates uncomfortably with the humour.

I’d been meaning to read Malavita (aka Badfellas) for some time, and the knowledge that the book’s been made into the Luc Besson  film The Family made picking up the book mandatory. After reading the book, however, I’m not sure that the film will ‘work’ quite as well as the book, but I’ll try it anyway. The book’s alternate title: Badfellas refers to the film Goodfellas, and there’s one wonderful scene in the book when Frederick attends a film night and provides commentary on Goodfellas.

Fred knew the film almost by heart, and he hated it for a thousand reasons. In it gangsters were reduced to what they really were: scum, whose only aim in life was to park in forbidden places, give the biggest fur coat to their wife and, above all, never have to live the lives of those millions of idiots who get up each morning to earn a miserable crust, instead of sleeping in a gold-plated bed. That was all a Mafioso was, and Goodfellas told it like it was. Without the myth, all that was left was stupidity and cruelty.

Review copy

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Filed under Benacquista Tonino, Fiction