The year is 1918, the war on the Western Front all but over. An ambitious officer, Lieutenant Henry D'Aulnay-Pradelle, sends two soldiers over the top and then surreptitiously shoots them in the back to incite his men to attack the German lines.
Set in France in the aftermath of the First World War, THE GREAT SWINDLE is loosely a crime novel, owing to the fraud perpetrated as part of the ongoing action. What it really is, is an exploration of the treatment of returned servicemen, the damage - physical and mental - that war leaves in it's wake, and the similar damage societal pressure causes.
In what turned out to be a massive book (I was reading an ebook version of it and didn't twig to the size until well into the story), Lemaitre introduces the reader to the three main characters on the battlefront - in an apt and very discomforting series of scenes, set amongst an engineered charge against the Germans. One man desperately injured still finds it within himself to try to save a second. In the short, sharp and violent journey to that point, both have been betrayed. Lieutenant d'Aulnay Pradelle is determined to use the war to cement his place in a world that he resents. Engineering a charge by committing battlefield murder, Albert Maillard is the soldier who discovers Pradelle's deception, coming up against Pradelle's determination in a way that should have ended his life. Except for Edouard Pericourt, fellow soldier, talented artist, from a wealthy family, who despite his own horrendous injuries comes to the aid of the dying Maillard.
Maillard and Pericourt thereafter have a bond that cannot be broken, despite so many difficulties. Pericourt's injuries are so severe, and so shattering that Maillard becomes his carer, his champion and protector. He engineers Pericourt's change of identity and keeps the truth of his survival from his wealthy father and sister. Meanwhile Pradelle devotes himself to his ruthless attempts to save his own family name and fortune, and rise in society as he believes is his due. Needless to say circumstance is not done with these three.
Lemaitre choreographs an intricate dance for his main characters. The awfulness of war gives way rapidly to an awfulness of returning home. Maillard and Pericourt have the added complication of Pericourt's appalling injuries to deal with - but their situation is made even worse by the disregard of the society that they return to. There is no ongoing support or help, and Maillard must struggle to work, care for his charge, maintain the deception of his death from a grief stricken family, and combat the machinations of Pradelle - who frankly - is dangerous and manipulative. Add to that Pericourt's addiction to expensive pain killers which Maillard battles to source and pay for, and THE GREAT SWINDLE paints a picture of desperate times, and grand schemes to escape them.
The pace of this novel is interesting. It goes from rapid fire to almost languid. It shifts from the truly horrific to surprisingly mundane, and it deals with much that is grand and wide-ranging, and much that is domestic and trivial. It pulls people and circumstances into the orbit of the three main characters, deals with their impact and then sometimes moves on, and sometimes draws them closer. It moves quickly between the hardship and the friendship, between regret and regard. It also doesn't shy away from the nastier aspects of some people, and the despair and loneliness of others. It draws stark differences between the people who have money and power, but not necessarily peace, and those that have nothing and are equally unhappy.
Needless to say THE GREAT SWINDLE is a fascinating book. It's not universally uplifting and it's not overbearingly depressing. It is, however, unerringly clever.
Review - Blood Wedding, Pierre Lamaitre
The slippage is a gradual process for Sophie Duget. Small incidents like forgetting where she has parked her car, returning books to the library unread, mislaying her purchases. Not too much too worry about on their own but put together, and happening more often, these little incidents depict a life unravelling. Sophie once led an ordered life once but if she is honest, it was coming part well before her husband passed away. What propels her forward into a life on the run is the murder of a small child in her care.
There is much of the before in this novel, and there is also much of the after. Sophie can’t run from herself but as she struggles to make sense of her new present, it becomes a delirious ride where the reader needs to establish what events are the direct result of Sophie’s own actions or those of another. Sophie’s struggles to make sense of all that is happening to her are quite moving and the righteous anger does build up when you realize the depth of her predicament and the depth of resourcefulness she is going to need in order to survive.
Translated from French to English, some of the language in this ebook is a little mechanical but the economies of that narrative style serve well to punctuate how Sophie’s situation is growing more desperate. BLOOD WEDDING gives itself away fairly early in the piece as to the “who” but the “why is always pretty muddy. The motive, surprisingly, is not that important and the reader fascination lies with how on earth Sophie is going to safely extricate herself from the labyrinth of lies and imagined truths.
There is also a sense of familiar uneasiness with some of the earlier experiences of Sophie’s; those occasions where you question your own memory and wonder whether the odd lapses are all just part of normal behaviour. As they escalate in seriousness with Sophie, it becomes a tense and unstoppable read to a dramatic but fitting conclusion.
BLOOD WEDDING is a great novel to take with you on your next long journey or to indulge in over one or two sittings. The time will fly!
Review - Black Water Lilies, Michel Bussi
Giverny. During the day, tourists flock to the former home of the famous artist Claude Monet and the gardens where he painted his Water Lilies. But when silence returns, there is a darker side to the peaceful French village.
This is the story of thirteen days that begin with one murder and end with another. Jérôme Morval, a man whose passion for art was matched only by his passion for women, has been found dead in the stream that runs through the gardens. In his pocket is a postcard of Monet's Water Lilies with the words: Eleven years old. Happy Birthday.
Michel Bussi is a renowned crime fiction writer and winner of many awards in his native France, BLACK WATER LILIES being the second of his books translated into English. It would appear from both of them (the first was AFTER THE CRASH) he is particularly good at unusual, absolutely enthralling scenarios.
Start reading BLACK WATER LILIES and you could be forgiven for double-checking the classification of this book. It doesn't read at all like a crime novel, but then it's not immediately clear where this is heading at all. You're introduced to three female characters - the young girl, the beautiful older woman and the all-seeing old, wise woman. There's also a feeling of overwhelming doom associated with each of these characters, disconcerting when it's so easy to become immediately engaged with these women, more so as the narrative progresses. From the young, artistically gifted girl, through to the slightly more shadowy older woman, trapped in a loveless marriage, onto the strongest and most prevalent voice - the old woman invisible in her community, at the centre of everything. The context immediately becomes unclear - at points it feels like it might be heading into family saga territory, but there's something "other" about it as well - mystical or supernatural. But there's also a murder and it's obvious somebody knows a lot about that, and there are secrets everywhere.
The setting, Monet's home village of Giverny, is gloriously depicted. From the gardens and the water sources from his paintings, to the narrow winding streets this small village sits in the middle of farmland which also weaves its way into the story, as it did Monet's paintings. There is the beautiful and mysterious mill; the hotels and the bars and cafes; and the village school with its lovely and popular young teacher. Into this scenario a couple of policemen step when the body of a local man is found in the river in the town. The local cop, with his pregnant wife and bbq collection, the younger and more senior in the force, from another part of France - an outsider whose job it is to get inside the heads of the locals.
BLACK WATER LILIES weaves an hypnotic tale around these three women, the town, Monet's work, murder and the tourism that threatens to overwhelm this small place. It pulls in threads from the art world, and the obsession with collection and ownership that great artworks engender in people. It balances the competing priorities of place and circumstances with strong, clever and believable characters. It subtly draws the readers eye to the biases and perceptions that can be built up about people - young girls with single mothers, old women who disappear into the background, loveless marriages, convenience, and those secrets. Always at the bottom of everything in BLACK WATER LILIES there are secrets. Along with manipulation and self-interest.
But BLACK WATER LILIES's greatest strength is in the homage to all things impressionistic. Just like the great paintings of that school, different viewpoints reveal different aspects, and what is seen in close up is very different to that from some distance. Just like with those paintings, for a large part of this novel, shapes swirl and patterns move across the eye. Just as the reader feels that everything is falling into place, a step back, and the story solidifies into something unexpected. It's cleverly done, elegantly presented, a case of pitch-perfect show don't tell, ensuring that the reader is unlikely to come away feeling manipulated or cheated. Emotional and a bit like you've been put through a wringer sure, but not manipulated.
Review - VERTIGO, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
"Do you think it's possible to live again, Monsieur? ... I mean ... is it possible to die and then ... live again in someone else?"
Being a huge Hitchock fan this book particularly intrigued, but even if you’ve never seen a single Hitchcock film in your life, VERTIGO is an engaging, fascinating, and frequently beautiful book. If you are also a fan of the film, then there is greater nuance here than the film, and plenty to conjecture about for the reader.
Set at the start of World War II, the central character of Flavières is troubled by many things, not just the need at one point to flee the war’s encroachment. He seems, on the face of it, a man who was destined to be obsessed with the wife of his friend. Her behaviour whilst mysterious, is mesmerising and her beauty in the eyes of Flavières incomparable. His obsession and the moral dilemmas presented to him by her husband’s insistence that he continue the friendship are understated, yet beautifully illustrated.
The reasons posited for her behaviour are unexpected and yet oddly believable, but nothing is ever that straight-forward and VERTIGO delivers some twists and turns and stings in the tail that make it end up sitting somewhere between a mystery and a morality play.
Beautifully translated with nary a bump to be detected in the language, VERTIGO is complicated, clever and another of those wonderful, one sitting reading experiences.
Review - UNRAVELLING OLIVER, Liz Nugent
Oliver Ryan is a handsome and charismatic success story. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, Alice, who illustrates his award-winning children's books and gives him her unstinting devotion. Their life together is one of enviable privilege and ease - enviable until, one evening after supper, Oliver attacks Alice and beats her into a coma.
If you ever need to sum up UNRAVELLING OLIVER by Liz Nugent in one word then mesmerising is it. It starts out with the serious assault of Alice by her husband Oliver Ryan and then steps back through the previous five decades, charting the events in Oliver’s life leading up to the assault. The narrative switches from Oliver to other people he has spent time with over the years, and it carefully and very cleverly builds a story of the real Oliver and why he is who he is, why he did what he did. There is also geographical variation with many of the pivotal events in their lives happening in France, whereas day to day life, and the crime occur in Ireland.
There’s a claustrophobic, intense feeling to this style of narrative, as Oliver’s facade is laid bare, carefully and forensically. In a style that’s almost deceptively gentle, there’s a deliberation to the way that friends and family all step up to tell their part of this man’s sorry story each in turn, each twisting the knife a further turn.
Not that Oliver does not deserve skewering. His assault on his wife, as described in the opening pages of the book is shocking, vicious and seemingly utterly without regret. The mesmerising manner in which Liz Nugent does that cannot be understated. The assured narrative, the way that the cast of characters become so real in such short sharp chapters, the sense that you’re being given an opportunity to understand that great question of crime fiction - why, in such detail, all combine to create something extremely satisfying in UNRAVELLING OLIVER.
Review - AFTER THE CRASH, Michel Bussi
On the night of 22 December 1980, a plane crashes on the Franco-Swiss border and is engulfed in flames. 168 out of 169 passengers are killed instantly. The miraculous sole survivor is a three-month-old baby girl. Two families, one rich, the other poor, step forward to claim her, sparking an investigation that will last for almost two decades. Is she Lyse-Rose or Emilie?
AFTER THE CRASH opens with private eye Credule Grand-Duc preparing to take his own life after spending nearly eighteen years failing to discover the truth behind the miracle of the baby who survived a plane crash. Preparing his papers for handover, and setting the scene for his dramatic final act, he contemplates once more the front page from the local newspaper the day that the crash happened. And suddenly realises he finally knows the answer.
Occurring at a time well before the advent of DNA testing, any chance of establishing the parentage of the baby at the time was limited to potential physical evidence - of which the type of clothes she was wearing, the lack or existence of jewellery and the location where she was found are the only possible pointers that the court, and initially Grand-Duc have to work with. The two families have had to resort to court action to settle their claims for the baby girl, one of two on the list of passengers on that ill-fated plane. The hard-fought court case eventually hangs on the slightest of evidence, and enough doubt to lead the court to decide in favour of one family. Accepting the decision, but quietly hiring Grand-Duc on a yearly retainer up until the girl turns 18, the other family clings to the idea that the baby may still prove to be their granddaughter, hence the dilemma that he finds himself in at the eleventh hour.
This is such an intriguing, and utterly believable story told in multiple narratives, switching from the baby girl's brother Mark, and voice of Grand-Duc via his case notes. Along the way there are telling observations around the events of the crash and the aftermath. The fickle attention span of the media, the nature of familial love and connection, and the love of a brother and sister which always seems to have another aspect to it. It's also not a single-threaded story, there are plenty of complications in both of these families, and each set of grandparents are left with one living grandchild into the bargain as well as their own complicated and realistic personal stories. In both these cases the families are always part of the focus, frequently part of the problem, or struggling with many unexpected complications.
Bussi is a master at the art of dropping clues into the narrative that don't become clear until much later, and of frequently leading the reader into a solution which raises more and more questions. Using the case notes of Grand-Duc as the guiding narrative for much of the action also brings in the potential of a highly unreliable narrator, especially as both he, Mark and the second possible sibling seem to be rushing to precipitate a resolution against each other. Of course you could be forgiven for wondering why it is that Mark doesn't simply flick straight to the end of Grand-Duc's notes, but that realisation might only happen with the benefit of hindsight. The quest in this case constantly seems more important than the resolution in the end. Particularly as it becomes clear that the matriarchs of both families have known the truth for much longer than anybody could possibly realise.
The pacing of this thriller is particularly interesting, somehow achieving massive leaps forward in what otherwise feels rather languid, almost rhythmic style. Even for those readers that pick many of the twists and turns coming there is more than enough unknowns to keep most people guessing right until the end of AFTER THE CRASH. Certainly this reader was intrigued, and surprised by the resolution, having got to the point where it felt like just about everybody was stepping up for the position of chief unreliable narrator.
Review - THE GRAND CRU HEIST, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen
In another Epicurean journey in France, renowned wine critic Benjamin Cooker’s world gets turned upside down one night in Paris. He retreats to the region around Tours to recover. There a flamboyant British dandy, a spectacular blue-eyed blond, a zealous concierge and touchy local police disturb his well-deserved rest. From the Loire Valley to Bordeaux, in between a glass of Vouvray and a bottle of Saint-Émilion, the Winemaker Detective and his assistant Virgile turn PI to solve two murders and very particular heist.
It's hard not to become increasingly enamoured of this wonderful series of books (of which there are now 8 translated), based in the gloriously described wine regions of France, featuring the curmudgeonly, slightly arrogant, ever vigilant Benjamin Cooker, his assistant Virgile and wife Elisabeth. In THE GRAND CRU HEIST, sadly Elisabeth who is missing in action for much of the novel.
This story starts out with our renowned wine critic being bashed and robbed one night in Paris. Bad enough that the young, violent villains pinched his beloved Mercedes, but it contained his briefcase, which contained his tasting notes. A disaster of monumental proportions, outweighing the distress of his physical injuries. To recover, of course, Cooker heads to a wonderful Chateau hotel in the Tours region for rest, recuperation and wine.
Needless to say, his path quickly crosses with that of a murderer, when two people - the companion of a flamboyant British wine lover, and the concierge of his hotel both end up dead in quick succession. This leads to much conjecture on the possible connections between the victims. Cooker and Virgile, however, soon reunited with the missing Mercedes, are heading to Cooker's dear friend, Huber de Boüard, of Château Angélus fame, who has been the victim of a series of baffling wine burglaries followed by cryptic messages from the thieves.
The matter of murder is undoubtedly important, but the theft of valued wine stocks is also a national catastrophe as far as Cooker is concerned. But the resolution of both of these threads must be pursued in the correct manner, and the tasting and enjoying of various wine varieties along the way is of vital importance. It seems that Cooker thinks best when seated at a tasting table, or that of a much loved local eatery.
Cooker is wonderfully ambiguous - an insufferable know it all, astute observer and solver of many problems, there's a gentle side to him in THE GRAND CRU HEIST which is most touching. His poor assistant Virgile is very often put upon, and the commentary on food, other people, surroundings and everyone else is frequently hilarious, all very much part of the fun of these books. This series has proven to be enormously entertaining, and THE GRAND CRU HEIST, a very short novel, is up there with the rest of the series. Not just because, I hasten to clarify, it's impossible to read them without a glass of something (slightly more local) in your hand.
Review - NIGHTMARE IN BURGUNDY, Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen,
The Winemaker Detective leaves his native Bordeaux to go to Burgundy for a dream wine tasting trip to France's other key wine-making region. Between Beaune, Dijon and Nuits-Saint-Georges, it urns into a troubling nightmare when he stumbles upon a mystery revolving around messages from another era. What do they mean? What dark secrets from the deep past are haunting the Clos de Vougeot? Does blood need to be shed to sharpen people's memory? A made-for-TV series.
The third in the Winemaker Detective series, NIGHTMARE IN BURGUNDY takes our hero Benjamin Cooker away from his native Bordeaux to Burgundy, where he is being named Chevalier du Tastevin by the Knights of the order that are proud of their slogan 'Never whine, always wine!'.
Which will probably give you a little bit of an indication of the tone of this charming series, set deep in the world of French wine, and the intrigues that seem to pile up alongside it. In NIGHTMARE IN BURGUNDY this intrigue revolves mostly around a series of extremely erudite graffiti attacks which start to show up around the small town that Cooker is visiting. In Latin, ultimately identified as quotations from one of the more sobering Psalms, our graffiti writer doesn't seem to be any ordinary teenager, despite the locals taking matters somewhat precipitously into their own hands.
This series is one of those perfect little morsels for fans of all sorts of crime fiction. For the cosy fans this is a perfect way to immerse yourself in a beautiful place and a very different background industry. There are deaths, but they are almost off-screen, the puzzle of the Psalm and what the graffiti is trying to tell its readers is the point of the story. For fans of the darker side, there's enough plot here to keep the reader occupied, and whilst the style is a little on the arch, vaguely amused with itself side, it's not going to result in an overdose of the cutes.
It also doesn't hurt that the books come with a wonderful sense of place. Some of the descriptive elements are positively glorious. Then there's a sprinkling of wine education, a bit of local history, and even a brush up of your Latin.
As is this reader's usual wont, I've gotten out of sequence, and have now read the first and the third books, although I'm definitely going to catch up with the second at some point. NIGHTMARE IN BURGUNDY is an unusual setting for crime and an unusual plot into the bargain, but it is done well, with a central character who is definitely on the eccentric side. Which suits him very well.
DEAD LINE - Chris Ewan
What do you do if your fiancée goes missing, presumed taken?
If you're Daniel Trent, a highly-trained specialist in hostage negotiation, the answer is simple: You find out who took her and you make them talk.
But matters are complicated when Daniel's chief suspect is kidnapped. How does he get him back quickly - and alive?
Daniel Trent is a hostage negotiator, working alongside fiancée Aimee, but he could not have expected Aimee to go missing, or his chief suspect to be kidnapped as well. All of which is setup with breathtaking speed in DEAD LINE, dragging the reader into the story from the very first page, and not letting up until the end. Every now and again I did find myself rechecking the opening pages though - the sense of pace, the tension and the sheer wild ride of DEAD LINE didn't seem like THE DEAD THIEF'S GUIDE series at all. And I really liked those books from this author.
There's something deeply satisfying about Trent's single-minded pursuit of Aimee. Anybody who gets in his road, anything that prevents him from finding where she is, who has her, swept aside with extreme prejudice. He's thinking all the time and whilst the reader might not always be in on the innermost logic of what he's up to, there's never a moment of doubt about his commitment to the cause.
What's really interesting is that there's a sneaking suspicion of an unreliable narrator as well. Trent obviously has a plan, and even the suspect's family aren't going to be allowed to get in the road, but just sometimes, there was the disquieting feeling that nobody is exactly who they seem to be - even Trent. At one point I was even starting to wonder what on earth Aimee's story was. Cleverly done, the reader can both like and not be sure about Trent at the same time as not really know who to trust.
Charging headfirst to a cliff hanger of an ending that really works in this context, DEAD LINE is a book that made this reader pay attention.
THE PARIS LAWYER - Sylvie Granotier
As a child, Catherine Monsigny was the only witness to her mother's death. 20 years later as an ambitious attorney in contemporary Paris, she catches a professional break when her boss assigns her to major felony case in rural France. An immigrant stands accused of poisoning her husband, but her secrets are not the only ones hidden in the scenic rolling hills of Creuse. While preparing the defence, Catherine is reunited with images of own past and a high-intensity search for two murderers ensues. Who can she believe? And what will Catherine do with her past should she discover it?
It is always a pleasure to come across publishers who are bringing works from different cultures to the English-reading world, particularly when there is such a strong sense of place in the books I've been lucky enough to read from Le French Book (http://lefrenchbook.com/). THE PARIS LAWYER has a particular French sensibility, combined with a clever take on lawyer based crime fiction.
The Parisian Lawyer is Catherine Monsigny, a young lawyer whose earliest memories are fleeting glimpses of the day that her mother was murdered. Her debut criminal trial involves an enigmatic immigrant, accused of murder, a defence harder to build because this person seems to have come from nowhere. Called out of Paris to assist her client, the case triggers Monsigny to confront her own history. Along the way she develops a relationship with a strange man who may have an ulterior motive for his pursuit of her.
One of the most interesting aspects of THE PARIS LAWYER is how what starts of as a slightly meandering, low key sort of a story, builds into something that becomes extremely involving. It's almost sneaky how the combination of an isolated location, a man with a secret and a central character with a confronting past, all combine as Monsigny's investigation into her own background and the defence of the murder accused, twist and turn together. The story deftly balances the idea of a lawyer, trial based book; with many of the aspects of a psychological thriller.
Whilst much of the standard formula of a psychological thriller is twisted on its head early in the book, and Monsigny's reveals her insecurity, there is a further twist that may or may not work for many readers. At some point in the search for the murderer of her mother, Monsigny becomes even more preoccupied with what the mother she never had a chance to know was really like, and hence who she is herself. At that point the book becomes increasingly less about the who and more about the why. What is driving many of the central characters, why they do what they do, and who they really are. For this reader it added an extra layer, and there was absolutely no reason not to follow where the author was leading.
The only other problem is likely to be in the way that many of the plot elements are left unresolved at the end of the book. Not necessarily a bad thing, unless that lack has no apparent reason. Be it to allow the reader some thinking material, or because everything in life is not automatically wrapped up neatly, unresolved elements aren't automatically an issue as far as this reader is concerned. Unfortunately here, some of the elements left hanging at the end of THE PARIS LAWYER didn't leave a question to consider, instead they contributed to the feeling of a bit of a mad scramble to the end.
Fortunately these minor problems did not lessen any enjoyment of THE PARIS LAWYER at all. It is a refreshing, different, challenging approach to some standard and not so standard crime fiction norms.