Friday, July 11, 2014

New French noir: Antonin Varenne's Bed of Nails

Antonin Varenne's Bed of Nails, newly translated by Siân Reynolds for Maclehose Press, is a dark, strange book. At first, it seems like a cross between Fred Vargas's Commissaire Adamsberg series and the Department Q novels by Jussi Adler-Olsen, but the story keeps going in a downward spiral darker than either of those.

The setting is the Paris police's suicide squad, an assignment given to a detective that the powers-that-be want to get rid of, Guérin. The novel opens with his assistant, Lambert, showing a surveillance video of a man committing suicide by running naked along the peripheral highway outside the city--the group of cops gathered around the screen as if watching a porn video.

Guérin's downfall, as well as his strength, is that he sees connections everywhere, leading him to conspiracy theories that bring all the evidence together. As Guérin and Lambert investigate the naked runner and other cases, including a fakir, a performer who dies while suspending himself from hooks onstage in a seedy cabaret, another thread of the story proceeds to draw "the American," a hermit- or hippy-like character and an archer living in the woods in rural France, Nichols. (the quirkiness of the cast of characters should suggest why I thought of Fred Vargas when I started reading the story). The dead fakir turns out to be an old friend of Nichols, who is asked to come to Paris to identify the body.

From there, almost anything I could say about the plot would be a spoiler. There are intertwining conspiracy theories that tie Guérin into knots, sending him to the brink of insanity and also threatening to engulf Lambert and Nichols in the maestrom of what might be actual conspiracies. The denouement is a twisted parody of the Simenon or Christie pattern of bringing all the suspects together to extract a confession, but in this case the result is something much darker and more violent. The results derive directly from character traits that have been evident all along, on the part of Guérin as well as Lambert, and the conclusion is rather more bleak than neat.

There have been several newly translated French crime writers published recently, including classics like Jean-Patrick Manchette and newer writers like Pierre Lemaitre, revealing to American readers new aspects of French noir: Varenne's novel is among the best, but also among the strangest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glenn, you have remind me I've have this book on my TBR pile and I've moved it right to the top.