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French crime fiction

Vive La France!(2) Pierre Lemaitre- Three Days And A Life/ Herve Le Corre- After The War/ Antonin Varenne- Retribution Road

En l’honneur de la fête nationale, voici une sélection des thrillers Français qui ont impressionné, déplacé et ravi le Corbeau dans la même mesure.  Ou en d’autres termes, un billet de blog je pourrais simplement étiqueter, voici trois de mes livres préférés de l’année, qui ne risquent pas d’être dépassé n’importe quand bientôt. Hélas, ma collègue française serait un mauvais service à ces critiques, pardonnez-vous à l’anglais! 

Bonne lecture à tous et à toutes!*

Antoine is twelve years old. His parents are divorced and he lives with his mother in Beauval, a small, backwater town surrounded by forests, where everyone knows everyone’s business, and nothing much ever happens. But in the last days of 1999, a series of events unfolds, culminating in the shocking vanishing without trace of a young child. The adults of the town are at a loss to explain the disappearance, but for Antoine, it all begins with the violent death of his neighbour’s dog. From that one brutal act, his fate and the fate of his neighbour’s six year old son are bound forever. In the years following Rémi’s disappearance, Antoine wrestles with the role his actions played. As a seemingly inescapable net begins to tighten, breaking free from the suffocating environs of Beauval becomes a gnawing obsession. But how far does he have to run, and how long will it take before his past catches up with him again?

Being a confirmed admirer of Pierre Lemaitre’s books to date, I rather enjoyed the subtle shift of style and location that Three Days And A Life reveals. Turning his attention away from the big city to the rural backwater of Beauval, Lemaitre constructs a slower and more introspective novel than we have come to expect from him, but equally produces a more heightened, and psychologically deft portrayal of human frailty and morality…

Time after time, I become disappointed, and as you know more than a little incensed, by the unnatural narrative voice given to young protagonists. Consequently I avoid reading many books that have a pre-sixteen narrator or central character. With Antoine, the dislikeable little person that he is, Lemaitre captures beautifully his perception of the world, and his reactions to the consequences of his severe misdemeanour. Antoine is realistically imbued with a child’s thought processes, as to how to conceal and avoid punishment of his crime, and I enjoyed the authenticity of his under-developed sense of morality, which he seems to carry quite happily into his adult years too. I thought the portrayal of his mother was also excellent, and how Antoine’s childish perception of her as just his mother actually spoke volumes to the reader about her true emotional state. Equally, I loved the depiction of parochial small town jealousies, and ill-feeling, that reminded me of the observational prowess, and skewed morality that is so familiar in the works of the late Pascal Garnier. Lemaitre reveals a boiling pot of tension and envy that perfectly fits with the feel of a small community under pressure, and the distrust of their neighbours.

The latter stages of the book are hewed from Antoine’s re-visitation of childhood events from an adult perspective, and Lemaitre’s control of his narrative once again comes to the fore. With Antoine being as utterly self-absorbed as he was as a child, but perhaps with a greater perception of the fall out for others from his actions, and indeed, closer to home, there is another twist in store for the reader, and there was me beginning to worry that the king of the psychological twist would disappoint! Once again, a precise and engaging translation from Frank Wynne allows us to fully appreciate this tawdry and morally ambiguous tale of childhood mistakes, and Lemaitre has again demonstrated his flexibility and natural flair as a storyteller. Three Days And A Life is entertaining, thought-provoking, and as always highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

1950’s Bordeaux. Even now, the Second World War is never far from people’s memories, particularly in a city where the scars of collaboration and resistance are more keenly felt than ever. But another war has already begun. A war without a name, far away across the sea, in Algeria, where young men are sent to fight in a brutal conflict. Daniel knows what awaits him. He’s heard stories. Patrols, ambushes, reprisals, massacres, mutilations, all beneath a burning north African sun. He has just a month left before he leaves but, haunted by the loss of his parents and sister in the atrocities of the last war, Daniel questions why he is even going to fight in the first place. Meanwhile, past crimes are returning to haunt Albert Darlac, the godfather of Bordeaux: corrupt police chief, fascist sympathiser and one-time collaborator. Before long, a series of explosive events will set off a spiral of violence that will bring the horrific legacy of wars past and present to the streets of Bordeaux…

During the reading of After The War, I posted on social media that “This is astonishing. I have been moved, perplexed, disturbed, and enthralled in equal measure” and to be honest, in the wake of finishing it, I could simply leave it at that. Comprising of past and present timelines, the dual locations of the seedy underbelly of 1950’s Bordeaux, and the contentious French conflict in Algeria, and with one police protagonist that is evil incarnate,  Herve Le Corre has produced a truly uncompromising, multi-layered masterpiece…

In common with many crime thrillers this is a story driven by, and built on vengeance, as Daniel, a young man, on the cusp of war,  becomes aware of his estranged father returning to Bordeaux to seek revenge on the man who committed the ultimate betrayal during WWII. Through the powerful narrative of Daniel’s experience fighting in Algeria, juxtaposed with Jean, his father’s, meticulous plan to heap as much misery and wrath on Albert Darlac, an immoral, violent and thoroughly odious police detective, Le Corre raises the emotional intensity, and therefore the reader’s engagement with some considerable skill. His characterisation is absolutely superb, with all three male protagonist’s exposing to the reader the very best and worst of human nature, and digging deep into the notion of how we can be morally compelled to do bad things for good reasons. In the character of Darlac, we see the ultimate realisation of the bete noire, with a man whose actions come from the darkest recesses of immorality, and whose revenge on those around him is driven by evil of the highest order. I was equally repulsed and fascinated by him throughout, and will from this day forward acquire the mantle of one of the darkest characters ever to grace the pages of crime fiction.

Le Corre’s depiction of Daniel experiencing the sheer intensity and dubious morality of men’s actions in war was my personal highlight of the book. As a regular reader of contemporary literary  war fiction, I thought that the author’s realisation and visualisation of the terrain itself was perfect in every detail, and the mundanity of a soldier’s life, interrupted with these big, bold and terrifying incidences of combat was hugely affecting on the reader. Le Corre never turns his full gaze away from this harshest of moral issues as to how the men in Daniel’s platoon react so viscerally to attack, and how they vent this rage on the enemy, contravening the rules of war. The scenes he presents are uncompromising, and yes, uncomfortable at times, but so real and necessary to underscore Daniel’s gradual realisation of the futility of that for which he fights, and in which he loses comrades. It was breath-taking in its depiction.

After The War is a behemoth of a thriller, that challenges and perplexes the reader, testing our notions of morality and empathy, and through the adept translation of Sam Taylor, a thoroughly rewarding, if emotionally troubling read. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

And last, but by no means least, and quite possibly my book of the year…

Burma, 1852. Arthur Bowman, a sergeant in the East India Company, is sent on a secret mission during the Second Anglo-Burmese War. But the expedition is foiled – his men are captured and tortured. Throughout their ordeal, a single word becomes Bowman’s mantra, a word that will stiffen their powers of endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering: “Survival”. But for all that, only a handful escape with their lives. Some years later in London, battling his ghosts through a haze of alcohol and opium, Bowman discovers a mutilated corpse in a sewer. The victim appears to have been subjected to the same torments as Bowman endured in the Burmese jungle. And the word “Survival” has been daubed in blood by the body’s side. Persuaded that the culprit is one of the men who shared his captivity, Bowman resolves to hunt him down…

I have tried and failed to write a coherent review of Retribution Road, with several attempts, as it’s impossible to do justice as an amateur reviewer to the sheer magnificence of this novel. Adopting the form of an allegoric odyssey, Antonin Varenne has produced a sprawling, magisterial novel that defies comparison to anything I have read before…

Structured as three interlinking parts, and traversing more than 700 pages, I could feel the influence of a quest serving as a plot device in mythology and fiction, with a difficult journey towards a goal, in the character of Arthur Bowman who inhabits, and influences, each stage of the novel. As he journeys from his military service in Burma, then on to Victorian London, and finally to the swathes of  unconquered territory of America in the grip of the gold rush, each section of the book is wonderfully visual, with Varenne depicting each landscape with pinpoint precision. In his use of location the ordinary is made extraordinary, and the reader’s sense of us being such a small inconsequential part of the natural world is continually brought to bear. Bowman is beautifully cast as both avenging angel and pioneer, weighted down by the brutal events in his personal history, and hence a man of changeable moods and impulses that wax and wane during the course of his mission to track down a killer.

The prose throughout is as tender and sensitive, as it is violent and vengeful, and our emotions and feelings are challenged and manipulated throughout, as Bowman navigates through both testing terrain, and human interaction. The book also poses some interesting theories on  morality and immorality, particularly as a consequence of Bowman’s actions, and those of the man he so ardently and doggedly pursues, at intense personal cost. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that this is a true magnum opus, and held me utterly in its power along the long road to redemption and justice. It was just a completely wonderful emotional rollercoaster,  suffused with historical detail, and a totally authentic evocation of place. It is a hugely complex and challenging novel, addressing themes of war, religion, revenge, human connection and emotional strife. As ever, Sam Taylor provides a perfect translation, that subtly captures the nuances of Varenne’s intensity of emotion.  I cannot praise Retribution Road enough, and would highly recommend it for fiction and crime fiction readers alike. C‘est vraiment magnifique!  

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

*In honour of Bastille Day, here are a selection of French thrillers that have awed, moved and delighted the Raven in equal measure.  Or in other words, a blog post I could simply label, here are three of my favourite books of the year, that are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. Alas my schoolgirl French would be a disservice to these reviews so forgive the English!  Happy reading!

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Vive La France! (1) Philippe Georget- Crimes Of Winter/ Frederic Dard- The King of Fools/ Emmanuel Carrere- The Adversary

En l’honneur de la Journée de la Bastille, il y a trois livres français criminellement bons pour vous ravir et vous divertir avec adultère, meurtre, femmes dangereuses et hommes stupides. Hélas, ma collègue française serait un mauvais service à ces critiques, pardonnez-vous à l’anglais! 

Bonne lecture!*

 

This winter is going to be a rough one for Inspector Gilles Sebag, for he has discovered a terrible truth: Claire has been cheating on him. Bouncing between depression, whisky, and insomnia, he buries himself in work in an attempt to forget. But his investigations lead him inexorably to bigger tragedies – a woman murdered in a hotel, a depressed man who throws himself from the roof of his building, another who threatens to blow up the neighborhood – all of them involving betrayals of some sort.  Perpignan seems to be suffering from a veritable epidemic of crimes of passion. Adultery is everywhere and each betrayal leads to another dramatic crime…

Inspired by the encouragement of other reviewers to read Philippe Georget, this is my first dip into the Inspector Gilles Sebag series of thrillers. I thought the characterisation was truly excellent both of the cuckolded Sebag, with his melancholy wistfulness, and growing dependence on the demon drink, and the surrounding cast of police characters. Sebag himself is a walking contradiction being so incredibly intuitive and effective in his job, but a mass of neuroses when dealing with the fallout of his wife’s affair, and the increasing strain placed on him by a succession of cases involving adultery.  I loved  his colleague Jacques Molina, a big bear of a man, with his bawdy humour and distinctly non-PC view of the world, and the shifty and duplicitous Francois Menard, jealous of Sebag’s innate ability to read and disseminate a crime suspect and scene so effectively. The interactions and relationships between all three both personally and professionally really held the book together, as well as the intermittent entrance of others affiliated to the police force, and the tensions or humour they brought to the story.  Although I enjoyed the various strands of the plot and its intricacies, regarding cases of murder and suicides arising from a range of adulterous behaviour, I felt that there was a little too much repetition and naval gazing afforded to Sebag as he sought to make connections between his own wife’s betrayal, and the cases he’s involved in.  I like a slow-burner as much as the next person, but sometimes it felt more like stopping than slowing, so felt the book could have been shortened slightly  to a more consistently steady pace. That aside, I did really enjoy the book overall, and will be seeking out others in the series soon. Recommended.

(With thanks to Europa Editions for the ARC)

 

From the moment he first gazes at Marjory across the roulette table in the Cote d’Azur Jean-Marie is entranced, and when their feverish holiday romance comes to an end he decides to take the biggest gamble of his life – to follow the beautiful Englishwoman back to rainy Edinburgh. But Jean-Marie’s luck runs out as soon as he arrives. His infatuation with Marjory draws him into an impenetrable mystery and soon he finds himself with blood on his hands, trapped in the grey-granite labyrinth of the city streets, and running out of time to save his sanity and his life…

The works of Frederic Dard are a constant source of delight for me, and The King of Fools is one of the best I have read to date. With its compelling blend of the suspense of Hitchcock, and the psychological claustrophobia of Simenon and Highsmith, this is a taut and tense tale of infatuation and murder played out on the Cote D’Azur, and the grim, dark streets of 1950’s Edinburgh. Jean-Marie is a wonderfully flaky man, ruled by his baser instincts, that lead him to pursue the pale, and lets be honest, quite unprepossessing Marjory from sensual France to down at heel Scotland. Dard delights in painting a dark and depressing picture of Scottish life, and its environs, that causes the reader to question further the indefatigable will of Jean-Marie to wrest the seemingly hapless Marjory from a loveless marriage. But Dard being Dard, you know that there will be dark deeds afoot, that will explode in a moment of madness, but which of our loved up pair will be caught in the crossfire? That would be telling, and I’m sure you will accrue as much pleasure from finding it out as I did. Dard once again shows his knack for ordinary people being put in extraordinary circumstances, with all the psychological darkness and violence that became his trademark. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Pushkin for the ARC)

 

 “On the Saturday morning of January 9th, 1993, while Jean Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting…” With these chilling first words, acclaimed master of psychological suspense, Emmanuel Carrère, begins his exploration of the double life of a respectable doctor, eighteen years of lies, five murders, and the extremes to which ordinary people can go.

Working for a major book retailer in the UK, we are currently promoting this as our Non- Fiction Book of the Month, and whilst some of my colleagues seem keen to foist this on our customers as a true crime book, I would say that The Adversary is so far off the scale of slasher-style true crime so as not to really resemble a true crime book in its traditional form, the notable exceptions being In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song. With a subtle and thoughtful grace, that mirrors Emmanuel Carrere’s dual style as a writer of high quality literary fiction, he presents a tale revolving around a truly Walter Mitty-esque man, whose whole identity and life is built on a tissue of lies and deceit with horrific results. Carrere stands at a distance from his subject for much of the book, although slightly peppering the tale with instances of his own life as a family man, but encourages the reader to form their own opinions, and moral judgement on Romand’s life and crimes. The writing is succinct, and at times, beautifully lyrical as The Adversary explores Romand’s twisted and, at times, inexplicable relationship with the world, leading to an original and disturbing portrait of the mind and psychosis of a killer. Recommended.

(With thanks to Vintage for the ARC)

 

*In honour of Bastille Day here are three criminally good French books to delight and entertain you with adultery, murder, dangerous women and foolish men… Alas my schoolgirl French would be a disservice to these reviews so forgive the English!  Happy reading!

Travels with the TBR #2- Eva Dolan- Long Way Home, Davide Longo- Bramard’s Case, Pascal Garnier- The Eskimo Solution, Frederic Dard- Crush

Somehow,  I don’t think I’m making great in-roads into the 100+ books in the TBR pile, but here’s another selection of books that had been woefully ignored. Hope you find something you like…

 

evaA man is burnt alive in a shed.
No witnesses, no fingerprints – only a positive ID of the victim as an immigrant with a long list of enemies.

Detectives Zigic and Ferreira are called in from the Hate Crimes Unit to track the killer, and are met with silence in a Fenland community ruled by slum racketeers, people-trafficking gangs and fear.
Tensions rise. The clock is ticking. But nobody wants to talk.

Although written pre-Brexit, it has taken me so long to read Dolan, that this book proves an even more powerful read in the wake of recent political tumult in the UK. What I liked so much about this one, is how Dolan so assuredly balances the stoicism and welcoming nature of some to the immigration issue, and the inflammatory and deluded beliefs of others, whilst coolly reflecting the never less than easy day to day existence of those that have sought to assimilate themselves into British society, legally or illegally. From the non-native backgrounds of her main police characters, Zigic and Ferreira, to the perpetrators and victims of the crimes committed, the book paints a vivid and realistic portrayal of the cultural melting pot that is Britain today, and the plot is well-paced, and satisfyingly twisty throughout. An intriguing and less than easy investigation leads to an excellent first of a series, and being quite taken with the two main police protagonists, this is a series that I will catch up with as soon as possible. Highly recommended.

bramardOnce a year, Corso Bramard receives a message from the man who destroyed his life.

He left the police after a serial killer he was tracking murdered his wife and daughter, but fifteen years later he is still taunted by his old adversary. Mocking letters arrive at his home outside Turin, always from a different country, always typed on the same 1972 Olivetti. But this time the killer may have gone too far. A hair left in the envelope of his latest letter provides a vital clue.

Bramard is a teacher now – no gun, no badge, just a score to settle. Isa, an academy graduate whose talent just about outweighs her attitude is assigned to fight his corner. They’re a mismatched team, but if they work together they have a chance to unmask the killer before he strikes again – and to uncover a devastating secret that will cut Corso Barmard to the bone.

A wonderfully downbeat and introspective Italian set crime novel, far more reminiscent of the style of a Raven favourite, Valerio Varesi, than the more colourful and bitingly humorous Andrea Camilleri. This is a real slow burner, so don’t expect a thrilling pace, but instead be lulled by the existential musing, and real soul searching that Bramard asks of himself throughout the book. His interaction with the keen, but less experienced Isa, works beautifully during the course of this tricky investigation, that is so laden with the echoes of dark times in Bramard’s past. Literary crime fiction infused with sadness, that I positively loved. Recommended.

41qpbyzkial-_sx321_bo1204203200_A crime writer uses the modest advance on his latest novel to rent a house on the Normandy coast. There should be little to distract him from his work besides walks on the windswept beach, but as he begins to tell the tale of forty-something Louis who, after dispatching his own mother, goes on to relieve others of their burdensome elderly relations events in his own life begin to overlap with the work of his imagination…

Regular readers of my blog know all too well my deep affection for the work of the late lamented Pascal Garnier, so it will come as no surprise that this is another winner. Cleverly, and in the space of only 159 pages, Garnier weaves together the story in real time, and the book that is being written by the crime writer, constantly shifting your attention between the two. I liked the fictional tale incorporated within the other fictional tale, if you get my drift, and was almost tempted to write another review of that one too. In his trademark style, both stories deal with sex, death, greed, passion, and murder, and dig down to the nastiest aspects of the human psyche, with black humour and mordant wit. Genius.

dard

Seventeen-year-old Louise Lacroix is desperate to escape her dreary life. So on her way home from work every evening she takes a detour past the enchanting house of Jess and Thelma Rooland – a wealthy and glamorous American couple – where the sun always seems to shine. When Louise convinces the Roolands to employ her as their maid, she thinks she’s in heaven. But soon their seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. What terrible secrets are they hiding?

A chilling and psychologically dark Fifties tale of suspense of jealousy and murder, that is trademark Frederic Dard from stsart to finish. His depiction of the naivety and gaucheness of Louise, is never less than perfectly realised, as she inveigles herself in the life of the glamorous but tormented couple, the Roolands. In a relatively short novel, Dard ratchets up both the suspense, and depth of character with some lighter vignettes featuring Louise’s awful relatives too. You know you are being led on a path of self destruction from early on, and as you view the self combustion of the characters, you almost feel guilty for watching. Wasn’t entirely convinced by the abruptness, and rather unfinished feel of the ending, but time spent with Dard is never entirely wasted, as the rest of this dark tale testifies. Recommended.

(With thanks to Maclehose, Pushkin and Gallic Press for the ARCs. I bought a copy of Long Way Home)

July 2016 Round-Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Aside from losing my internet access for 12 long, long days, July has really been quite productive and mostly enjoyable. A week off work, a birthday, and lots of terrific books read too! Had another heart-breaking book cull, which I imagine to be akin to asking a parent which is their favourite child, waving goodbye to 500+ books to my local charity shop, but still have a few hundred in reserve- hurrah!  And still on the positive,  I have at last made a slight in-road into my 20 Books of Summer Challenge- post coming soon. So, onward to the books…

Books read and reviewed:

Clare Carson- The Salt Marsh

Simon Booker- Without Trace

Anna Mazzola- The Unseeing

Frederic Dard- The Wicked Go To Hell

Frederic Dard-Bird In A Cage

Jonathan Ames- You Were Never Really Here

Massimo Carlotto- For All The Gold In The World

Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding

Malcolm Mackay- For Those Who Know The Ending

Elizabeth Haynes- Never Alone

wilberI also dipped my toe back into non-fiction crime and read Del Quentin Wilber- A Good Month For Murder– which I would put very much on a par with David Simon’s Homicide or Mile Corwin’s The Killing Season. Wilber, an award winning reporter at The Washington Post, gives us a truly compelling behind the scenes look at the police officers and investigative cases of  a homicide squad. By following the progress of several cases and the dedicated officers who approach their task with a mixture of dedication, doggedness, and world weary cynicism, Wilber shines a light on the day-to-day frustrations and danger that this noble band of men and women grapple with, to go about their remit to protect and serve. Incredibly readable, well-researched and thought provoking throughout. Recommended.

Raven’s Book of the Month

No. I can’t do it. This has been an absolutely stellar month for reading with some real stand-out reads along the way. They are all so completely different and wonderful in their own way, so this is the fairest decision I can come to…

Extremely honourable mentions to Clare Carson- The Salt Marsh , Massimo Carlotto- For All The Gold In The World and Anna Mazzola- The Unseeing Seek these out immediately.

Carson_02_THE%20SALT%20MARSH            cover_9781609453367_661_600        unseeing

And down to the wire, the twisted genius of Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding and the seedy,  gritty Glasgow gangland world of Malcolm Mackay- For Those Who Know The Ending proved impossible to choose between. Joint winners chaps and thoroughly deserved.

blood                   malcolm

 

Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding

blood

Sophie Duguet is losing her grip. Haunted by visions from her past, of her loving husband, who committed suicide after a car accident.

One morning she wakes to find Leo, the child in her care, strangled in his bed by Sophie’s own shoelaces. She can remember nothing of the night before. Could she really have killed him? She flees in panic, but this only cements her guilt in the eyes of the law.

Not long afterwards it happens again – she wakes with blood on her hands, with no memory of the murder committed. Just what is it that comes over Sophie when she sleeps? And what else might she be capable of?

Wanted by the police, and desperate to change her identity, Sophie decides to find a man to marry. To have and to hold. For better or for worse. Till death do them part . . .

Having been blown away by Lemaitre’s Brigade Criminelle trilogy, Irene, Alex and Camille featuring diminutive detective Camille Verhoeven, we now have the compelling standalone Blood Wedding, which further serves to demonstrate the sheer brilliance of Monsieur Lemaitre.

Once again, Lemaitre has produced a book that proves troublesome to review in terms of potential plot spoilers. Reducing the story to a linear description, Blood Wedding focuses on a young woman, Sophie who finds herself implicated in two murders, and going on the run, seeks to conceal her identity further by entering into a marriage with a man she meets online, giving her the security to explore the reasons for her attributed guilt, and come to terms with her tangled past. But this is Lemaitre, known for slips and tricks which play with the reader’s perception, and as the plot twists and turns, turns and twists, we are consistently wrong-footed and deceived. In the best tradition of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock, Lemaitre slowly reveals the plight of a woman in a confused psychological state, seeking to make meaning of the situation she finds herself in, whilst having possibly having been manipulated by person or persons unknown. Consequently, as each previously unknown detail of Sophie’s plight is revealed, with pinpoint precision timing, I would challenge you all to resist the impetus to keep reading, and reading, and reading…

Another real strength of Lemaitre’s work to date, is the depth and realism that he consistently instils in his female protagonists, and I’m always mightily impressed by male writers who achieve this so convincingly. Without a shadow of a doubt, Sophie is seen to run through the whole gamut of human emotion from her initial bewilderment, self-questioning and threat of incarceration, to her own critical analysis of her situation, and a growing steadfast resolve and path of clear-thinking to extricate herself from her now under threat personal freedom. Into the mix comes Frantz, her unwitting potential husband, who possesses a degree of self-knowledge that maybe Sophie is not so enamoured with their match as he is, but resolves to make the best of it regardless, seemingly to bring a degree of solidity to his own troubled past. I will delve no deeper into their attendant character traits at this point, but suffice to say there are more revelations afoot. This combination of extremely well-developed characters, and the reliance of the two of them to drive forward the intricate and exceptionally well plotted story arc, shows a clear degree of authorial skill and deftness of touch that eludes many other writers. As a crime reader, precise plotting, the control of suspense, and believable characterisation lay at the core of my reading pleasure, and Lemaitre achieves this beautifully throughout. The plot twists are in no way reliant on the suspension of disbelief, or clumsily wrought, leading to a genuinely intriguing, and utterly enthralling, example of psychological suspense. The novel is once again beautifully translated by Lemaitre regular, Frank Wynne, which captures all the nuances, and linguistic tone of the original French, further adding to the reader’s enjoyment.

There is little left to say regarding Blood Wedding, as my admiration for Lemaitre has surely been noticed already, but drawing on a well worn adage, I would simply say, if you only read one thriller this summer, do make sure it’s this one. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the ARC)

Bijou Crime- Frederic Dard- The Wicked Go To Hell/Bird In A Cage- Jonathan Ames- You Were Never Really Here

I will confess that I am quite the fan of the Pushkin Vertigo series that is bringing to my attention a whole host of European crime authors previously unknown to me. With the titles to date being generally compact and slim novellas, for this post I will give you a brief overview of my best discoveries to date…

dardBeing such a confirmed fan of Georges Simenon, I could not believe my utter ignorance of the work of Frederic Dard, whose output in terms of number and quality is widely lauded as the equal of Simenon himself. I thought The Wicked Go To Hell in particular was absolutely outstanding, opening with an unnamed and deniable police officer being instructed to go undercover into gaol to initiate a prison break with a recently confined criminal to infiltrate the organisation the prisoner is affiliated with. Not until the final bloody denouement is the reader in possession of the knowledge as to which character is which when the undercover operation begins, being named merely as Hal and Frank. From the claustrophobic intensity of their initial confinement until their attempted escape and beyond, Dard inveigles us in a bizarre guessing game as to which morally dubious man is which, as each tries to deceive and expose the true identity of the other. From the inherent violence of the institution at the hands of sadistic guards, to their quest for freedom, Dard keeps up this emotionally bleak, and sinister tone, which serves to unsettle the reader consistently throughout. I was quite frankly mesmerised from start to finish, despite the darkness and sense of base evil that the book consistently exhibits, and I loved the aspect of reader participation that Dard so skilfully wove into the tale as we seek to discover the true identity of each man, and the descent into immorality we are all capable of.

 

dardEqually, Bird In A Cage was imbued with a tantalising mix of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock, as a man returns to Paris at Christmas to mourn, and settle the affairs, of his late mother. He encounters a beguiling woman with her young child, whilst dining out one night who inflames his curiosity, being both attractive and the added mystery of appearing to have bloodstains on her sleeve. When he is enticed to return to her apartment, he becomes embroiled in a sinister and dangerous conspiracy which seeks to unravel his life completely. The emotional intensity of this plot is in evidence from the outset, with the title referring to an innocuous Christmas gift for the child, and the psychological impasse that Albert finds himself in, Dard has constructed a claustrophobic existentialist drama that toys with the reader’s perception, and provides an additional deconstruction of male and female psychological impulses. This is a slim dark tale that is engaging enough, but did slightly lack the psychological edge, and bleak immorality of The Wicked Go To Hell, but is worth seeking out as an initial entry point into Dard’s not inconsiderable back catalogue.

 

img_0707In a change of pace and authorial style, I also read You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames, a novella that runs to 87 pages and soon to be a feature film starring Joaquin Phoenix. Joe, a former FBI agent and U. S. Marine, harbouring the memories of an abusive childhood, and the violent events of his recent careers, now has largely dropped out from society, earning a living tracking down and rescuing young girls from the grip of the sex trade. Now he has been hired to save the daughter of a New York senator, held captive in a Manhattan brothel, but finds himself ensnared in a dangerous web of conspiracy and violence. Described as a toxic shock of a thriller, this bijou slice of American noir, delivers a real punch to the reader, and I was mightily impressed how much well defined characterisation, and breadth of action, Ames crams into such a minimal page count. Quickly your sympathies for Joe is heightened and from the beginning you are rooting for him, your empathy well and truly put into overdrive as the mental and physical damage he has experienced is put sharply into focus, and there is a real strength to Ames’ writing in passages where Joe indulges in some critical self-examination of his own psyche. The degree of manipulation he experiences in the course of this mission is well wrought, and the violence throughout is swift and uncompromising, making this a real read-in- one-sitting thriller. My only slight bugbear is the slight cynicism of the ending which too obviously paves the way for a potential sequel, and left me a little unsatisfied, but with a cover price of less than a vacuous throwaway magazine there’s still plenty here for your fiver. Recommended.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARCs)

Manchette’s Fatale- Adapted by Max Cabanes and Doug Headline

AAAAAimée is a beautiful young widow she s also a killer. Driven by a deep-rooted desire for revenge, she sets about uncovering the secrets of the inhabitants of the sleepy rural town of Bleville, before ruthlessly murdering them. Faced with corruption of a kind she had scarcely imagined, she discovers a deeply moral core under her murderous instincts…

Okay, I’ll put my hands up from the start and say that I never read graphic novels. Well, actually I did manage half of From Hell by Alan Moore some years ago, but never finished as I probably got distracted by something else. Having idly flicked through graphic novels at work- whilst scratching my head over where, and in what series I should shelve them- my general impression of them is that they are mostly populated by a cast of grotesques, and semi-clad women with unfeasibly pert breasts. But I digress. Grasping the bull by the horns, so to speak, and putting my preconceptions aside I embarked on this one with more than a whiff of curiosity…

Adapting the seminal French thriller Fatale by world-renowned noir crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette into graphic novel form, I imagine, was no mean feat. There is so much darkness, betrayal and violence in the original slim read, underscored by the dispassionate and spare prose of one of the finest noir writers who ever lived, that the reader themselves need to really home in on what is not said by Manchette as much as what he offers up to us with veiled references and the air of burgeoning menace throughout. I was more than a little hesitant, as a staunch reader of fiction where your own imagination comes into play, that my perception of these characters would be undone by reading such a visual representation, and leaving me less for my own imagination to construct for itself. However, my anxieties were largely assuaged, because as much as this book does contain a cast of grotesques and a saucily semi-clad/nude Aimee (with unfeasibly pert breasts) the absolute adherence to Manchette’s novel by Doug Headline, and the darkness that Max Cabanes insinuates into the artwork captures the mood and feel of the original book perfectly with each frame remaining true to the original text. The liberal use of midnight blue and pared down colour, the visual representations of some of the central cast, and the completely no-holds barred depiction of the swift and brutal violence of the book were well-executed throughout. However, on balance, I did find the actual experience of reading this a little unsatisfying, maybe because I was too familiar with the story to begin with, and there wasn’t enough to stimulate my own imagination, but I definitely appreciated the quality of the artwork overall. All in all an interesting digression for the Raven, but probably unlikely to be a regular genre for me.

(With thanks to Titan for the ARC)

 

Anna Jaquiery- Death In The Rainy Season

deathAlways a tense time to be reviewing a second book from an author whose debut you absolutely loved. Anna Jaquiery’s haunting debut The Lying Down Room was a joy to read and review, so much so that it was second in my Top Read of 2014, and is one of the books that I most consistently recommend in my day job as a bookseller, when people are looking for a new slice of Euro crime.

Death In The Rainy Season is the next book to feature Jaquiery’s charismatic and thoughtful French detective Commandant Serge Morel, and marks a change of location from France to the hot climes and unique atmosphere of Cambodia, where the modern socio-economic problems of this country are counterbalanced by its spiritual core. Morel is taking a well-earned sojourn after the vents of the previous book, a welcome break from caring for his father who has been diagnosed with Alzheimers, and a chance to further come to terms with a failed relationship. He finds himself unwillingly drawn into a local murder investigation, when the son of a prominent French minister is found murdered in a down-at-heel hotel room. The victim, Hugo Quercy, oversees a local NGO providing charitable support to street children, and is generally a well-regarded figure in the local community, and  respected by his colleagues. However, as Morel under pressure from his boss back home, joins forces with local Police Chief Chey Sarit, also enlisting the help of grumpy local medical examiner Sok Pran, it quickly becomes clear that Quercy is not quite the man everyone had perceived him to be, and that the conspiracy behind his murder reaches further than Morel and his cohorts could possibly imagine…

Perhaps my first point of reference for my enjoyment of this book should be an appreciation of Jaquiery’s style of writing. Throughout the novel the sense of serene simplicity that her narrative style evokes in the reader is beautifully evinced not only in her evocation of location, but also through the character of her police protagonist Morel. The multi-dimensional facets of the Cambodian setting are sublimely juxtaposed, as Jaquiery carefully balances not only the deep spiritual core of this intriguing country, with the social ramifications of political corruption and misguided economic policies on the Cambodian populace. Where some authors blatantly crowbar in the depth of their research at the expense of the needs of the plot to keep the reader’s interest, Jaquiery intertwines her social detail simply, adding to the richness of the strong central plot, and I learnt much from the quality of this research.

As Morel becomes immersed in the pulsating and bustling atmosphere of Phnom Penh after his initial calm retreat in Siem Reap with its ancient temples and traditional way of life, the sights and sounds of the city form a vital backdrop to his investigation. Likewise, the change of location impacts on Morel himself, as he wanders deeper into the underbelly of the city, and the pressure of the investigation and the demands of home, begin to unsettle his formerly peaceful equilibrium. He is a mesmerising character throughout and one cannot fail to find him empathetic, morally strong and entirely likeable. As he deals with the wife, friends, and colleagues of the victim, whilst slowly establishing a close working relationship with his Cambodian counterpart Sarit, the strength of his character always stands front and centre. Sarit too was instrumental in my enjoyment of the book, as his initial reticence and secrecy at the beginning of the investigation is slowly broken down by his interaction with Morel, and brings instead a sense of understanding and respect between the two men. We share in their frustrations as the investigation progresses, and I loved the slow reveal of the various dynamics of Quercy’s relationships with the possible suspects, and the gradual unfolding of Quercy’s true character as the man behind the myth.

I really cannot fault Death In The Rainy Season in any way, as it contains so many aspects of human interest, emotion, and intrigue along the way. Not only is it a intelligent and compelling tale of murder and corruption, but the quality of the writing and the evocation of its setting and characters make it a rich, multi-layered and totally rewarding piece of crime fiction. I am singularly impressed once again, as I was with The Lying Down Room, and have no hesitation in wholly recommending this one too.

(With thanks to Mantle for the ARC)

Karim Miske- Arab Jazz

 

arab1Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Paris is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where multicultural citizens live, love and worship alongside one another. This peace is shattered when Ahmed Taroudant’s melancholy daydreams are interrupted by the blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour’s brutally mutilated corpse.

The violent murder of Laura Vignole, and the pork joint placed next to her, set imaginations ablaze across the neighborhood, and Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect. However detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and the fiery extremist preachers that jostle in the streets for attention? And what is the mysterious new pill that is taking the district by storm?

Sometimes, when reviewing books regularly there is an almost fixed template in your mind to construct your thoughts and feelings about a book. You provide an overview of the waxing and waning of a plot, the strength of the characterisation, the use of location and so on to formulate your critique. However, occasionally you are confronted with a book where you cannot resort to this more simplistic template, and even begin to question your own ability to find the words to describe your reading experience of the book in question. This is the dilemma I faced with Arab Jazz. So I will bumble on in my own sweet way- bear with me reader…

I read this book a few weeks ago immediately in the aftermath of the horrific events in Paris which stunned and shocked us all. Perhaps reading this book at such an apposite time provided me with a more visceral reaction to the book, but in hindsight, the strong messages that Miske conveys throughout the book regarding religious tolerance and intolerance are entirely in tune with the contemporary social tensions raised by religious difference. Casting its light on three secular groups, comprising of Muslims, Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Miske provides a balanced and objective study of all three, impartially conveying to the reader the best and worst aspects of all and the protagonists linked to each. Instead, he succinctly reveals the human failings and frailties of each, the black shadow of fundamentalism, and the propensity for greed and violence no matter what faith or race defines you. The melting pot of characters, and the differing natures of their personal interactions form the very heart of this novel, across faiths, class, occupations and even continents (as the action pivots out to America) , thus transcending this book above any conventional tag of a ‘crime novel’, and leading us to the beating heart of a multicultural, multi-faith contemporary European city. In some ways this feels like a love letter to Miske’s adopted city, powerfully illustrating the frustrations inherent in modern society, but by the same token, replete with a sense of the author’s love for this complicated and multi-faceted city. It works beautifully when combined with the socio-political issues of the book, and our own newly formed perceptions of Parisian society.

The central crime of the novel is the hook to add all of Miske’s weightier issues on to, and works well with this in mind. With his two disparate police protagonists- both strong and engaging characters- the plot unfolds at a good pace, slowly inveigling the separate groups of characters that Miske introduces us to, with their singular ways of life and beliefs. The opening murder also gives the author the added scope to introduce a most tentative and heartfelt, albeit slightly stumbling, love affairs that I have ever read, that carries all the simplistic honesty of those great love affairs from classic fiction, and adds a residual warmth to the more weighty issues that Miske addresses.

This is an intelligent, multi-layered and objective novel, that will make you think and increase your awareness of the differences that lay at the heart of any modern society. Aside from a few less fluid passages- perhaps slightly lost in translation- the book consistently flows in pace and plot. You will feel emotionally invested in the character’s lives, and most importantly of all feel that you have read a book that deserves to be read. And if this one doesn’t feature in my books of the year, I will eat my own foot. Possibly.

Born in 1964 in Abidjan to a Mauritanian father and a French mother, Karim Miské grew up in Paris before leaving to study journalism in Dakar. He now lives in France, and is making documentary films on a wide range of subjects including deafness, for which he learned sign language, and the common roots between the Jewish and Islamic religions. He runs a Senegalese restaurant in the 11th arrondissement and has started writing TV scripts. Arab Jazz is the author’s first novel. Visit the author’s website here

Follow this link to hear an upcoming BBC Radio 3 programme (11/2/15) featuring Karim Miske and Aatish Taseer talking about contemporary France.

(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the reading copy)

 

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