Gilles Petel- Under The Channel

petelAnother little slice of French noir and the first of Gilles Petel’s five books to be published in English. Written whilst Petel was living in London and working as a teacher at the Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle, Under The Channel is a gripping and mysterious tale about identity, opportunity, and the clash of two cultures.

John Burny is a libertine Scottish estate agent, who in spite of his forty-five years is fit and youthfully handsome. Lieutenant Roland Desfeuileres is a French police officer, married with two children and somewhat tired of life despite the fact he is only forty. Their lives collide when Burny is murdered on the Eurostar en route to a sexual assignation in Paris, and Roland is charged with investigating the death. His investigation takes him to London, a welcome excuse to escape his failing marriage. But who was the real John Burny, and why was he murdered? Desfeuileres immerses himself in the victim’s hedonistic lifestyle, ostensibly searching for clues, and the longer he walks in the dead man’s footsteps, the more he discovers about himself.

To be honest, I would be reluctant to label Under The Channel as a crime book per se. Admittedly, the premise of the murdered Englishman is enough to hold the plot together as a criminal investigation ensues, undertaken by our hangdog French policeman, but far more interestingly, the book hinges far more on the psychological collision of our protagonists lives and the consequences of this. Desfeuileres is a marvellous character, experiencing the neurosis and midlife crisis of a man drowning in an unfulfilling marriage, despite his efforts to spice it up, and whose sojourn in England opens his eyes to a life he could have lived in different circumstances. Working against the reluctance of his police chief to invest time and effort in this cross border murder investigation, Desfeuileres adopts a stubborn stance, prolonging his stay in London to try and establish the reasons for Burny’s death. Very much in the spirit of the flaneur, Desfeuileres tramps the streets of London during the height of the financial crisis, imbibing the chasm between wealth and poverty in the bustling metropolis. The depiction of London and the searing differences in neighbourhoods, merely a few streets from one another, is well portrayed and as Desfeuileres immerses himself in the more affluent lifestyle of his victim, he realises that London could indeed be paved with streets of gold for him personally. As Desfeuileres comes into contact with Burny’s work colleagues, the sensual Kate Reed, and Burny’s male lovers, past and present, Petel cleverly manipulates Desfeuileres character and we see a man undergoing a complete change of personality, as the life of Burny begins to seep into his consciousness, and forces a change in his own life and sensibilities that is gradually revealed to the reader. It is deftly handled, and as Desfeuileres adopts this rebirth in his personality, the book holds a series of surprises. Consequently, the actual murder plot, plays second fiddle to the growth of Desfeuileres character, as this appears to be the real motivation behind the writing, so was perhaps a less fulfilling and well realised aspect of the book. I became entirely uninterested in the our poor victim’s fate, as I found the psychological and personal development of our morose French policeman altogether more interesting, and how easily a man’s moral and physical credo can be undermined and changed with the influence of another man’s life.

As an admirer of the late Pascal Garnier, I was reminded of his writing in some of the scenes played out within this compact novel. With flecks of wit, and a singularly unexpected outcome to the whole affair, there is a dark and almost sordid feel to the book. The ending will leave the reader with unanswered questions, but for my money the journey to this is more than worthwhile.

(With thanks to Gallic Books for the ARC)


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