Monday, October 05, 2015

A new French crime novel (sort of)

Under the Channel, by Gilles Pétel, joins a number of recently translated French crime novels with a decidedly quirky tone and structure, by writers such as Jean-Patrick Manchette and Pascal Garnier. But Pétel's story is a police procedural that has little interest in the police or procedure. Under the Channel starts with a murder and moves quickly to a police investigation, but it's really about something else.

Lieutenant Roland Desfeuilleres is the officer in charge, after the bungled discovery of a body on the Channel-Tunnel train from London to Paris. The reader has witnessed the victim's progress through his last day in London and the first part of his train journey in the first chapter. An English couple upon discovering the corpse in a first-class seat sets off a comedy of errors among train staff and police at the Paris station, a situation that Roland must confront along with the disastrous dissolution of his marriage. Seemingly to escape Paris and his wife, he travels to London to pick up the murder investigation there. But once in London, his attention to the murder is less than intense.

Instead, he hovers around the sites and people related to the dead man's daily life, from gay bars to his real estate office (and an attractive female coworker there) to the abandoned apartment (a very attractive one, near the Pimlico office of the deceased). His police contact in London is at Interpol (which seems kind of strange--wouldn't he "liaise" with Scotland Yard instead?), but is not very helpful. What follows is an existential journey for Roland, with the solution to the crime provided eventually as a final quirk of the odd story, rather than a resolution.

Roland's last days in Paris with his wife are quite funny, in a painful way, but his stay in London is more sober (not counting the numerous pints he drinks in the same pub frequented by the victim), following a transformation of the cop's identity that is interesting if (to me) not quite plausible. Pétel, though, isn't after plausibility: this is a philosophical tale, and an amusing one, rather than a straightforward detective story. The author has four previous untranslated novels: I'd be curious about the quality (and the genre) of those books.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Brazilian noir

Patrícia Melo took the title of her recent book The Body Snatcher from Robert Louis Stevenson, but the plot is more like Jim Thompson. It sounds like pure noir: the narrator comes upon a crashed plane in the Paraguay River, with a kilo of cocaine and the pilot's body in it. He takes the coke and the pilot's watch, and from there the story set in a remote small town develops with a dark inevitability. He takes a job as a driver with the dead man's family and schemes to reveal the body's whereabouts to them (for a ransom), finds a distributor for the drugs, gets involved with his brother's girlfriend as well as a woman who works in the police morgue, and so on. Through it all, his voice is mostly matter-of-fact (except for some radio signals from his conscience). The book is short and fast, moving from one body to another, to threats from police and the dead pilot's family, and on to a conclusion that is distinctively inconclusive. Melo's take on noir is more philosophical than Thompson, though her narrator's voice is not that different from one of Thompson's first person characters. In Melo's work the crime story is less heated, even in its hottest moments, sharing a calm, somewhat distanced tone that she shares with some of the best European crime fiction (Jean-Pierre Manchette, for example). The inherent melodrama of classic noir is muted (unlike recent neo-noir such as the novels of Alan Guthrie, for example), as if at some level the narrator is reflecting upon the story rather than immersed in its violence. One approach isn't better than the other, but Melo's world, dark as it is, has a melancholy but almost optimistic tone quite different from the darkest and most pessimistic end of "hard-boiled" writing. Here characters, having suffered and struggled, have a final, tentative peace, something like the garden at the end of Candide, but with full knowledge of the violent world just beyond.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Timely South African thriller

Deon Meyer returns once again to his Alcoholic Afrikaans cop Benny Griessel in Icarus, which has a timely theme. A body is discovered in the dunes, and is discovered to be that of the CEO of a website called My Alibi, which provides not only verbal alibis but also documentation for affairs and liaisons (not quite the same as Ashley Madison, and so far that scandal has only produced the end of a CEO's career, rather than something more permanent).

Griessel has fallen seriously off the wagon, and his personal struggle leaves space for his partner, detective Vaughn Cupido, to step into the spotlight (continuing Meyer's promotion of secondary characters into more prominent roles). While Griessel sinks into alcohol-fueled depression and Cupido gains new self confidence, the son of a wine-producing family sits in a Cape Town attorney's office making a long confession involving his family history and the story of winemaking in South Africa, linked to the murder, obviously, though the reader will not know just how for quite some time.

The result is a less frenetic story than some of Meyer's recent books, but still a very involving one, and with a great glimpse of the very particular wine tradition in the country. The emphasis here is on character and narrative rather than pacing, an interesting shift and evidence that Meyer isn't settling into any pattern, not even his own previously succesful one.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Lisa Brackmann 101

Review of latest Lisa Brackmann novel now at The Life Sentence.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

3 by

My review of the first three Camille Verhoeven books by Pierre Lemaitre is now live at

Monday, June 29, 2015


My new review of Heda Margolius Kovály’s distinctive Czech crime novel Innocence is now live at The

Friday, June 19, 2015

An Irish book and a Swedish movie

Ken Bruen's Green Hell seems at first to be a series finale, but by the end it leaves open the possibility of future entries focused on his melancholy former Garda Jack Taylor. There's a lot of metafiction in it: an American student becomes fascinated with Jack and abandons his research on Becket to write a biography of the Galway private detective, and a good part of the first half of Green Hell is his research on the project. Bruen himself makes an appearance as a customer/drinker in a bar, and Iain Glen, who plays Taylor in the TV series based on these books, also makes a cameo appearance. There is a crime plot, but it mostly takes place offstage. There are some interesting characters, including Ridge, the female cop who's a running character who has survived (many haven't) and a new Goth who seems a bit modeled on the dragon-tattoo-girl (that seems to be the source of the U.S. cover art fro the book). And as usual there are a lot of references to and quotes from crime fiction and crime TV series.

But all of the above is finally subsumed in the same pattern as has appeared in all the Taylor books. The evocative writing serves to set up Taylor's rise from the gutter and his ultimate descent thereto. A regular reader will know immediately upon the entry of a new companion (canine) what the animal's fate is likely to be. I've read most, but not all, of the Taylor books, but I find myself reading them rather rapidly (they're short books, but also easy to cruise through at high reading speed), and growing impatient with the persistent pattern. If this is indeed not the last of the Taylor series, it may still be the last for me.

Johan Theorin's Echoes from the Dead is an impressive crime story set on the Swedish island of Öland that gives a reader a lot in the way of interesting and rounded characters, plus echoes of a larger frame of reference that is mythic or nonrational (without ever abandoning realism). The movie recently made from it maintains the emphasis on character but doesn't manage to convey the fairy tale or mythic quality of the book (maybe that sort of thing is difficult in a film format, unless you go all the way into horror of fairy tale territory). The story develops slowly in both formats, following a double story of a post-World-War II crime and its consequences in subsequent decades. There's a final twist that would seem to upend the life of the cenral character, a woman who lost her child decades earlier and must now return to Öland to help her father (whom she has always blamed for her child wandering away) close up his house after he has moved into a retirement home. But a code gives some consolation, so that the story doesn't end without a note of grace.

All in all, Echoes from the Dead makes a good movie, though a little less distinctive and involving than the book on which it's based.