***Author Spotlight*** Anna Jaquiery

I thought the time was right to highlight one of the best French crime authors you may not have read, so very pleased to introduce you to Anna Jaquiery. I had the pleasure of reviewing her previous two books featuring Commandant Serge Morel, The Lying Down Room and Death In A Rainy Season (reviews below) and with the release of the third in the series Wasteland, wanted you all to experience this writer for yourselves.

Wasteland once again features Commandant Serge Morel of the brigade criminelle, a philosophical, sensitive and hugely empathetic detective, investigating two murders of young boys within Villeneuve a sprawling, deprived multi-cultural estate in Paris. “If you grew up in a place like Villeneuve, where you knew there was a pretty high chance you wouldn’t get a job when you left school, where it was hard to stay on a straight path and achieve anything, the only way to be heard was to get really pissed off, and loud, and break things. Otherwise, no one heard. No one was listening”  The racism and poverty that Morel uncovers in the course of his investigation underpins the whole story, and as Morel gets closer to the unmasking of a killer, we are totally absorbed into this melting pot environment.

Once again, Jaquiery writes with a stark clarity, that by its at times dispassionate air serves only to immerse the reader more. She focusses particularly on the younger sister, Aisha of one of the victims, Samir, and through her eyes and perception, far in advance of her teenage years, we see the hopelessness and disparity of life for those within Villeneuve. Aisha is both intelligent and street smart, suffering at the hands of schoolyard bullies, but who has a fierce affection for her late brother and a steely determination that his killer will not go unpunished. As Morel becomes more embroiled in the case, we see his natural empathy to and protectiveness of Aisha develop, that puts both himself and her in the crossfire. With police confrontation and gangs a normal facet of life on this estate the stage is set for a violent conclusion, and Morel and his team are right in the centre of the crossfire.

As the book progresses, we also see more of Morel’s difficult home life, and the growing stress that his father’s mental degeneration places on him, which Jaquiery handles in a clear-eyed and sensitive way. Morel remains philosophical in the face of this additional pressure in his life, and it is these passages relating to him and his father that are both poignant and emotional. I love the way that this author balances these slices of his home life so effectively with the particular stresses ands strains of Morel’s murder investigations, and these only serve to flesh out more what is already a very compelling character. From his interactions with his colleagues, to his natural empathy for the murder victims and their kin, Morel is genuinely one of my favourite police characters, and this series one of the best I have read. I love the sensitivity of Jaquiery’s writing and the way she injects a more philosophical edge to her books through the character of Morel himself.  I would definitely recommend that you seek out this series as soon as you are able. Think you may enjoy them…

Discover the Commandant Morel series: HERE

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The Lying Down Room introduces us to the charismatic and dedicated Chief Inspector Serge Morel. The story opens in Paris in the stifling August heat, and Morel is called to examine a disturbing crime scene. An elderly woman has been brutally murdered to the soundtrack of Faure’s Requiem, and her body grotesquely displayed. The reasons for this murder and the choice of victim baffle Morel and his team.

But our detective has problems of his own. His father, such an influence in his life, is descending into the grip of senility. If that weren’t enough for him, Morel is having an affair with a friend’s wife, but has become unsettled by the reappearance of his lost love, Mathilde. Like so many other fictional detectives, Morel has a quirky interest to relieve his angst and focus his mind. In his case it’s origami.

As the investigation continues, and further murders happen, his fingers fold faster and faster. He makes a connection between the victims and two individuals – a middle aged man and a young boy – who distribute religious pamphlets in the suburbs. Soon his inquiries take him back into the past, away from Paris into the French countryside, and eventually to the heart of Soviet Russia. A tragic story begins to unfold.

In terms of characterisation, The Lying Down Room contains all the key ingredients needed to herald the arrival of a new detective in the crime fiction genre. Morel is a very carefully constructed and wonderfully realised character. He combines natural charm and humour that immediately resonate. His interactions in both his professional and personal lives allow the many different facets of his character to shine – like the focused and dedicated police officer, and the man thwarted in love. There are some intensely moving scenes between him and his father. This relationship is filled with pathos, adding poignancy to Morel’s situation. Morel is a man of contradictions with his character being all the more emotionally interesting for it, and consequently the scene is set for further exploration of this detective.

The narrative is particularly impressive, with nice, clean delineation between the various strands that come into play within the plot. Not only is the central murder storyline well paced and realistic, but as Jaquiery expands the story to encompass the personal narratives of the perpetrators themselves, she weaves together various locations and timelines. What emerges is an incredibly human tale of lost opportunities and wicked twists of fate that can put an individual on the path towards murder. Cleverly, this aspect of the novel invokes natural sympathy in the reader as we bear witness to the incredibly sad events in our antagonists’ pasts, evinced in the stark portrayal of life in Soviet Russia, and the mental and physical wounds this produces. At times, Jaquiery handles the sheer emotional heartache of some of these scenes more in the vein of literary fiction rather than a genre crime novel.

There is little to fault in this debut, combining as it does a superbly plotted and emotive criminal investigation with the introduction of a police protagonist more than imbued with enough charm and interest to carry the weight of a series. Anna Jaquiery demonstrates all the natural flair and quirks of French crime fiction that fans of Vargas, Lemaitre, et al, will relish reading. More than proud to proclaim this as my debut of the year.

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Always 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.

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