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Quais du polar #4: Cardboard Hammocks by Colin Niel

March 23, 2016 17 comments

The Cardboard Hammocks by Colin Niel (2012) French title: Les Hamacs de carton.

Quais_polar_logoColin Niel is a French crime fiction writer who works as an environmental engineer and is specialized in the preservation of biodiversity. He worked in French Guiana several years and started a crime fiction series set in this overseas department and whose recurring character is capitaine André Anato.

The novel opens on Barnabé, a six-years old Maroon boy who lives in the remote village of Wetisoula on the river Maroni. The Maroon community in French Guiana represents 70 000 people out of 244 000 inhabitants in the department. They don’t acknowledge the border between Guiana and Suriname, each country being on one bank of the river Maroni. Wetisoula is a fictional village, populated by Maroon people and located nearby Apatou.

guyanne_frLittle Barnabé wakes up early and runs to the river to get cleaned up for the day. He’s surprised that his friend Tobie isn’t awake yet as they usually compete to see who’ll be up first. He decides to go and fetch him and finds him dead in his hammock. Tobie’s mother Thélia and his brother Justin are dead too. In their sleep. Thélia’s husband, Fernand, is a gold panner and he usually doesn’t stay with his family. He visits them as often as possible.

The village is only reachable in dugout canoe and this is how capitaine Anato and lieutenant Vacaresse arrive on the scene. From the outside, nothing obvious shows the cause of  Thélia and her children’s deaths. They seem peaceful. Thélia was a hardworker and a farmer; she grew different vegetables and Vacaresse soon discovers that she also grew cannabis. Does this production have a link with her death? Anato decides to leave Vacaresse in the village to investigate further. He goes back to Cayenne to try to find out where and how Thélia sold her crops, the legal and the illegal one.

Fernand leads Anato and Vacaresse towards Olivier Degricourt, a man who works in a garage in Cayenne and who knew Thélia. Olivier and his partner Monique had befriended Thélia and her children and used visit them in Wetisoula. But Fernand knew that Thélia was afraid of Olivier. When Anato finds him, Olivier flees before Anato has even the chance to talk to him. What does he feel guilty about?

A few days after the Wesitoula murder, Véronique Morhange is found dead in a park in Cayenne. She was a civil servant working for the administration that delivers identity papers. The cardboard hammocks of the title are the suspension folders that Véronique Morhange uses to keep track of the files of people who fill in applications to get French identity papers. The procedure can be complicated, especially for people who were born in remote places where getting documents such has birth certificates is a problem.

Are these crimes related? Anato and his team investigate.

Niel_hamacsI found his book fascinating on every aspect. Colin Niel writes a thick plot around these murders, describes aspects of life in French Guiana and draws attaching characters. The story behind the murders is well drafted and the reader is eager to know what happened. There is a real sense of place in this polar coming from the author’s life in French Guiana. I enjoyed reading about the funeral rites and other customs of the Maroon community. He explains them but not with too many details that you forget about the plot and think he digressed too far. Because let’s face it, you are here to read a good story and unwind, not read an essay about the history of the Maroons in French Guiana. I also found his descriptions of place, of the vegetation and local food interesting. The text is livened up with local words and my edition includes a useful glossary. I don’t know much about this overseas department and I was glad to learn about it. It was a bit strange to feel at the same time in a familiar place (this is France and the local institutions are here to prove it) and in a totally strange country because the geography and the local history is so far away from our life in mainland France.

And last but not least, the characters are likeable and I want to see them again. Anato is an odd character and I’m curious to see how Niel will develop him. He comes from the Maroon community but has never lived in French Guiana. He’s lived all his life near Paris and after his parents’ tragic death in a car accident, he asked to be transferred to Guiana. He’s in a strange place: he looks like a local but doesn’t know anything about local life. He’s estranged from his family and he’s trying to build a relationship with them. He lost his feeling of belonging to a place, to a family, to a community. He’s a bit adrift and has trouble connecting with his team. He’s new and his men don’t know what to make of him. He needs to earn their respect. His lieutenant Vicaresse has also a scar in his personal life and his stay in this Maroon village might have triggered something in him. The third man of this team of gendarmes is Girbal, who helped Anato with his investigation in Cayenne. He’s harder to pin down; it’s difficult to say if his methods of investigation are the mark of an intuitive investigator or of a skiver.

The Anato series has two volumes (so far) and I will read the next one with pleasure. I’m sorry to report that it is only available in French and that it goes in the Translation Tragedy category. Any Publisher interested?

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