#BlogTour- Dov Alfon- A Long Night In Paris

When an Israeli tech entrepreneur disappears from Charles de Gaulle airport with a woman in red, logic dictates youthful indiscretion. But Israel is on a state of high alert nonetheless. Colonel Zeev Abadi, the new head of Unit 8200’s autonomous Special Section, who just happens to be in Paris, also just happens to have arrived on the same flight. For Commissaire Léger of the Paris Police coincidences have their reasons, and most are suspect. When a second young Israeli is kidnapped soon after arriving on the same flight, this time at gunpoint from his hotel room, his suspicions are confirmed – and a diplomatic incident looms.

Back in Tel Aviv, Lieutenant Oriana Talmor, Abadi’s deputy, is his only ally, applying her sharp wits to the race to identify the victims and the reasons behind their abduction. In Paris a covert Chinese commando team listens to the investigation unfurl and watches from the rooftops. While by the hour the morgue receives more bodies from the river and the city’s arrondissements.

The clock has been set. And this could be a long night in the City of Lights.

Right, confession time. Having read and struggled to review John Le Carre’s convoluted and uber-ponderous The Little Drummer Girl (and then been bored witless by the equally uber-ponderous TV adaptation) last year, I was understandably nervous about a thriller that, on the face of it, may tread slightly similar ground. Thankfully my fears were quickly dispelled- hallelujah, I hear you cry- and this turned out to be a really rather clever, and absorbing thriller indeed, with an undeniable literary quality in its writing and execution…

Opening with the baffling kidnap of a, it has to be said, quite annoying Israeli tourist from Charles de Gaulles airport in Paris, Dov Alfon constructs a intense and absorbing thriller which brings to the fore the global problem of not only the secrecy and power games within national security agencies, but their inexplicable need to withhold and conceal information from each other. Few are better placed than Alfon, as a former Israeli Intelligence officer himself, to expose to some degree the daily frustrations and power struggles that lay behind these most secret of organisations, and through the power of fiction serve it up to us in its startling reality. I think this was the single most notable factor of this book for me, that all this, for want of a better word, childish squabbling, and some pretty damn deep-seated corruption (that could not all be entirely fictional) frustrates and confuses the investigation, and those charged to carry it out. It was fascinating to bear witness to this and with Alfon’s personal experiences undoubtedly woven into the story, it added an extra level of enjoyment to the book itself. Admittedly at first it was a little confusing to grasp which particular branch of security was which, but as the main players began to be more fully fleshed out, it was easier to decipher who was working with who, and against who for whatever nefarious reason.

I thought the characterisation was superb from the beleaguered and world weary Commissaire Leger in Paris, finding himself involved in a difficult position liaising with the secretive and highly intuitive Colonel Zeev Abadi of the Israeli Intelligence Unit 8200. Abadi is a flawed but incredibly interesting character, whose unique style of investigation and distillation of information received, frustrates not only Leger but others within the disparate branches of Israeli Intelligence. Taken in tandem with the experiences of Abadi’s deputy, the feisty, and at times, wonderfully insubordinate Lieutenant Oriana Talmor, Alfon has succeeded in not only crafting a gripping thriller, but populating this with a cast of entirely credible and absorbing characters. As all their inherent frustrations come to the surface during the course of the investigation, and the external forces that seek to thwart them tighten their grip, Alfon puts his characters under pressure to an alarming degree, but not without its entertainment for the reader. Abadi is a mesmeric character in the way that brooding, loner men always are, and thankfully Talmor has more than enough grit about her to hold her own in the misogynistic institutions that try to suppress her more instinctive methods, and use her steely determination to overcome her recent professional disappointments.

Despite my slightly disparaging comments on Le Carre’s book at the beginning I am a lover of his work, and in terms of the plot construction, Alfon weaves a similar spell, in this dark tale of subterfuge and diplomatic difficulties. Focussing not only on the world of espionage, Alfon also incorporates Israeli- Palestinian relations, embezzlement, a Chinese hit squad and more, using the backdrop of Paris both in its grandeur and grinding poverty to great effect. This is an intelligent but not too complex thriller, less high octane and more measured than some, but nonetheless a fascinating and highly enjoyable read, which kept me hooked. Recommended.

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Buy a copy of A Long Night In Paris here  and catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

(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)

Kevin Wignall- A Death In Sweden

oRDkfvQySUDan Hendricks is a man in need of a lifeline. A former CIA operative, he is now an agent for hire by foreign powers on the hunt for dangerous fugitives. It’s a lethal world at the best of times, and Dan knows his number is almost up. His next job could be his last—and his next job is his biggest yet.

The target sounds trackable enough: Jacques Fillon, who gave up his life trying to save a fellow passenger following a bus crash in northern Sweden. But the man was something of an enigma in this rural community, and his death exposes his greatest secret: Jacques Fillon never existed at all.

Dan is tasked with uncovering Fillon’s true identity—but can he do so before his own past catches up with him?

I have the ‘dubious’ pleasure of knowing Mr Wignall, so as he thrust a copy of this into my hand with an entirely understated personal dedication…

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how could I refuse to read and review it? And I did indeed ‘quite like it’.

Oh.

That’s not enough really is it?

You want to know more?

Okay.

With its intriguing opening centring on a bus crash in Sweden, Wignall then envelops us in a tale of a deniable CIA operative on the run, with a truly international feel as the story effortlessly pivots across different locations,  and many moments of betrayal and mortal peril. There is a tightness and simplicity to the writing that will utterly suck you in, the evidence of this being that I pretty much read this in one sitting, completely hooked on the pace and plot twists that come at you with an alarming rate. Wignall always demonstrates a heightened sense of the visual in his books, and there is a real screenwriter’s feel to the book throughout, which proves priceless to engaging the reader’s attention. I also liked the host of contradictions that lay within the character of Dan Hendricks himself, a man shaped by the less savoury activities of his professional life as a CIA operative with particularly dark abilities, but who when seeing former associates systematically eliminated to protect some dangerous secrets, exhibits a degree of nobility seemingly at odds with his dispassionate attitude to life and death. This raises some interesting questions on the issue of morality, and thus enables Wignall to raise the book above the normal narrative of a conspiracy thriller. The dialogue is sharp and punchy throughout (again adding to the overall pace of the book) and there’s a more than satisfying quotient of violence as the plot progresses, and the extent of the conspiracy against Hendricks unveils itself.

I quite liked it. Think you will too.

(With thanks to the author for the review copy)

 

 

 

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)

 

Raven’s Crime Debut of 2014

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Well, what an incredibly close-fought competition this was and having read so many debuts this year, a mammoth task to select one clear winner! So, in the spirit of fairness, I will give some very honourable mentions to the following before revealing my winner…

 

neelyNeely Tucker- Ways of The Dead: I had a sneaky eye on this one from the minute it arrived into the bookstore where I work, due to the dual temptations of a cover recommendation from Michael Connelly, and a Washington setting promising echoes of George Pelecanos. To be honest, I could not have been any more delighted with this book, as it not only delivered in spades from this starting point, but also imbued all the social critique and wry humour of The Wire too. I know. You’re intrigued now too aren’t you?

Read my review  here

fewNadia Dalbuono- The Few: A singularly impressive Italian set crime debut that I cannot recommend highly enough. The story focuses on Detective Leone Scamarcio, the son of a once powerful mafia figure. Scamarcio has turned his back on the family business and is on the Rome police force. He is handed a file containing compromising photographs of the Italian foreign secretary with male prostitutes, and soon after that embroiled in the disappearance of a young American girl on holiday with her family. With the possible links between both cases revealing themselves to our suave detective, Dalbuono conjurs up a thriller that is dark, compelling and totally unputdownable.

Read my review here

springCilla & Rolf Bjorlind- Spring Tide: Opening with the unsettling murder of a young pregnant woman at the time of the spring tide, twenty-four years previously and now designated as a cold case: a case which a young police trainee, Olivia Ronning, is designated as a summer project. The plot unfolds in a number of directions, bringing the reader into the world of contemporary Sweden and a series of brutal attacks on the homeless community, cold-bloodedly filmed and uploaded to social media sites, a series of attacks that the police are failing to solve. An assured Scandinavian debut that kept me completely gripped…

Read my review  here

 

And the winner is…

 

the-lying-down-roomThe Lying- Down Room is an astounding, emotive and utterly gripping French debut thriller by Anna Jaquiery that it was my great pleasure to review in June. I didn’t think that there was anyone to challenge Pierre Lemaitre (author of Alex and Irene)  in my affections as a French crime author par excellence but delighted to discover that there is. I implore you to discover this one too!

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.

 

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)

 

Antonin Varenne- Bed of Nails

Product DetailsIt’s as if he’s being mocked from beyond the grave. When John Nichols arrives to identify the body of an old friend, he is immediately caught up in the detritus of Alan Musgrave’s life, the side of Paris the tourists don’t see, where everyone has a past but very few count on a future. But what can he expect from a man who bled to death in his own excruciating S&M stage show? Now there’s a maverick police lieutenant on the prowl who thinks that Musgrave’s suicide was murder. Guérin might not look like much, but he’s one of the few honest officers on the force. As the horrific extent of police abuse is revealed, the race is on to find the link between a slew of recent suicides – and the key to it is buried deep in Nichols’s past. Bed of Nails does for Paris what James Ellroy did for vintage America, shining a light as never before on the seedy underbelly of La Ville-Luminère…          

I have not read a crime thriller as utterly compelling and emotionally powerful as ‘Bed of Nails’ for many years and, having been promised a unique crime reading experience by those lucky enough to have read this before publication, I would implore that you seek this out and prepare for an unparallelled master class in crime writing. A novel that metaphorically slaps you round the face from the opening scene of a harrowing suicide and a plot that continues to pummel the reader’s senses throughout, plunging you unreservedly into the seedy underbelly of Parisian life, police and foreign diplomatic corruption and a twisting thriller peopled by a cast of beguiling and emotionally flawed but totally engaging characters. Being reluctant to divulge any further details of the plot, I would say that this a novel that is best approached from another angle entirely and for the following reasons:

There’s that awful reviewer’s cliche that ‘this is a book that stays with you long after the final page is turned’ but I would absolutely endorse this statement in relation to this novel. The ending is so emotionally bleak for all the main protagonists, but you have engaged with them so much during the course of the book, gravitating between moments of violence to tenuous but touching interludes of human connection that it genuinely strikes a powerful chord. As the denouement unfolds with such devastating consequences for the characters , there is a calm and understated depiction of human frailty. In the death of one character in particular, whose violent end is tinged with a moment of complete serenity, there is a beautifully wrought and succinct juxtaposition with a solitary image that is wholly resonant of the natural world . With assured vignettes like this at absolutely the right moments, the manipulation of language to suit the change of tempo and tone in the plot, and the deeper philosophical context, this crime novel just draws you in and adds to your sense of this being more than a thriller, but a literary exploration of the boundaries of mainstream crime writing. Simply wonderful…

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)