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The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie – #1929Club

October 28, 2022 4 comments

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie (1929) French title: Les Sept cadrans.

I enjoy reading books for Karen and Simon’s club.

This time, we’re reading books published in 1929. I would have liked to reread Les enfants terribles by Cocteau or Colline by Jean Giono but I needed something light and fun and settled for The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie. Entertainment is guaranteed with her books and this one is no exception.

It’s the second book featuring Superintendent Battle, Lady Eileen Brent (“Bundle”) and Bill Eversleigh. It’s a classic whodunnit by Agatha Christie.

The starting point of the story is that Lord and Lady Coote have rented Chimneys from Lord Catherham, Bundle’s father. They have guests for the weekend, a group of young people who either went to school together or work together in the Foreign Office.

One of them, Gerry Wade, is found dead one morning. Suicide, accident or murder?

Superintendent Battle is inclined to think it was murder. The young men present at Chimneys this dreadful weekend want to investigate Gerry’s murder and Bundle intends to help them as it happened in her house. I won’t reveal too much about the plot, just enough to say that it’s well-constructed and plays with the reader’s imagination. It involves espionage, secret societies and industrial patterns.

Superintendent Battle only appears in four books by Agatha Christie and I wish she had used him more often. He’s got this avuncular and quiet authority that makes him endearing. He was also in Cards on a Table that I read for the #1936Club.

Contrary to books featuring Poirot, women have great roles in The Seven Dials Mystery.

I love Bundle. She’s a fun heroin, a bundle of joy, energy, courage and sense. The young men seem rather lazy and slow, a contrast to Bundle’s energetic actions. (“She did not fancy that Gerry Wade had been overburdened in an intellectual capacity”)

Bundle lost her mother when she was little and lives with her father, Lord Caterham, who is described as a rather frivolous and stupid man. She has free reign to run the house and her relationship with her father as well as their conversations reminded me of Emma Woodhouse’s ones with her own father. See for yourself, here’s one of Lord Caterham’s tirades, speaking of Lord Coote:

‘One of those large men,’ said Lord Caterham, shuddering slightly, ‘with a red square face and iron – grey hair. Powerful, you know. What they call a forceful personality. The kind of man you’d get if a steam – roller were turned into a human being.’
‘Rather tiring?’ suggested Bundle sympathetically.
‘Frightfully tiring, full of all the most depressing virtues like sobriety and punctuality. I don’t know which are the worst, powerful personalities or earnest politicians. I do so prefer the cheerful inefficient.’

And yet, Lady Coote, older and more traditional, with her quiet stubbornness gets her successful and imposing husband to do what she wants. She seems meek but she has a great force of character or her husband would walk over her. Loraine Wade, the victim’s sister, is no fragile flower either, never hesitating even in dangerous times.

These female characters seem to be in line with the 1920s women who want more than what their mothers had. Bundle drives the family car, doesn’t have a chaperone and has male friends. Bill is one of them and he admires her intelligence a great deal. We’ve entered into modern times.

Besides the crime plot, Agatha Christie has a lot of humour, like here, in another dialogue between Bundle and her father.

‘Well,’ said Bundle. ‘Great Aunt Louisa died in your bed. I wonder you don’t see her spook hovering over you.’
‘I do sometimes,’ said Lord Caterham, shuddering. ‘Especially after lobster.’

Can you hear him say that with a posh accent and a perfectly serious face? I can’t help laughing, just imagining the scene. I didn’t remember that Agatha Christie was so funny. Perhaps it was toned down in the old translations I read.

As you might have guessed, I had a great time reading The Seven Dials Mystery. It was perfect escapism.

Many thanks to Simon and Karen who host the #1929Club and prodded me into revisiting Agatha Christie in English, for almost all the ones I’ve read were in a French translation.

Crime fiction in August: Mexico, America, South Africa and New Zealand

August 28, 2022 10 comments

Let’s have a tour of my August crime fiction travels. First, let’s go to Madrid.

Adiós Madrid by Paco Ignacio Taibo II (1993) French title: Adiós Madrid. Translated by René Solis

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a Mexican crime fiction writer. I’ve already read Days of Combat featuring the PI Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. Adiós Madrid is the seventh or ninth book of the series.

This time, Belascoarán is sent on a mission to Madrid by his friend Justo Vasco, the assistant manager of the museum of anthropology in Mexico. He’s going all the way to Madrid to deliver Vasco’s threat. The Black Widow, “ex-rancheras singer, mistress of an ex-president of Mexico who had recently passed away, ex-icon of the Mexico nightlife and ex-landlord of the country.”, lives in Madrid.

Belascoarán has to tell her that if she tries to sell the plastron of Moctezuma, an antique that belongs to the anthropology museum, Vasco will leak all kinds of embarrassing information about her.

Belascoarán is happy to get a free trip to Madrid, the city where his parents grew up and it’s a bittersweet experience for him to confront the Madrid that his parents described to the actual and modern one. And then of course, things don’t go according to plan as far as the threat delivery is concerned.

Adiós Madrid is a very short book for crime fiction (102 pages in French) and it was good fun but nothing more. No need to rush for it.

After Madrid, it was time to fly to Washington DC and let George Pelecanos drive me through his hometown.

The Cut by George Pelecanos (2011) French title: Une balade dans la nuit. Translated by Elsa Maggion.

In The Cut, Spero Lucas, a former marine who was in Afghanistan, works as a non-licensed investigator for a lawyer, Tom Petersen. Spero’s job is to unearth useful clues that help Petersen during procedurals.

Spero starts on a case where he finds crucial clues that unable to bail Petersen’s client’s son out of jail. The thing is: Petersen’s client is Anwan Hawkins, head of a marijuana trafficking organization and currently in jail. Hawkins uses the “Fedex method”: send the drug via Fedex at the address of an unsuspecting citizen, follow up the delivery on internet, be on location at delivery time and intercept the parcel.

Now two parcels went missing and the loss amounts to 130 000 USD. For a 40% cut, Spero is ready to track down the missing parcels. And that will prove to be more dangerous than expected, even for an ex-marine.

Spero Lucas is a well-drawn character, we see him struggle with his military past and his father’s death. He comes from an unconventional tight-knit family with Greek roots and the personal side of the book was a nice addition to the crime plot.

My only drawback is Pelecanos’s style. You can see that he’s used to writing scenarios as it is very cinematographic. Lots of descriptions of driving the streets of Washington DC were hard to picture and didn’t bring much to the book. In my opinion, it could have been more literary. It was Good entertainment though.

Then, I traveled to South Africa to read my first Deon Meyer. He’s a writer I’d seen and heard at Quais du Polar and had wanted to read for a long time.

Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (1998) French title: Les Soldats de l’aube.

Dead at Daybreak is, according to Goodreads, Matt Joubert book #1.5. This is a series I’m very tempted to read after this introduction to Meyer’s literary world.

Zatopek van Heerden is a former police officer, he’s adrift and when the book opens, he’s hungover in jail after fighting in a bar in Capetown. Like Spero Lucas in The Cut, he’s hired by a lawyer, Hope Beneke, to help her with her client Wilhelmina van As. Here’s the reason she hired van Heerden:

Johannes Jacobus Smit was fatally wounded with a large-calibre gun on 30 September last year during a burglary at his home in Moreletta Street, Durbanville. The entire contents of a walk-in safe are missing, including a will in which, it is alleged, he left all his possessions to his friend, Wilhelmina Johanna van As. If the will cannot be found, the late Mr Smit will have died intestate and his assets will eventually go to the state.’

It seems simple enough: find the will. Van Heerden will have to get out of his drunken funk, informally reconnect with his former colleagues, solve the case, get paid and move on. However, the case takes him to another affair that happened in 1983, during the time of the Apartheid and economic sanctions against South Africa.

Dead at Daybreak is a fantastic crime fiction book and it has it all. A riveting plot. Fascinating thoughts about South Africa, the change of regime and relationships between the black and white communities. Well-drawn characters.

The plot driven chapters are third person narrative, with the reader following the investigation. They alternate with chapters with first person narrative, where van Heerden writes about his life, from his childhood to the events that brought him to get into bar fights and drink too much. These chapters were captivating too. The ending of the book was both the closing of the investigation and closure for van Heerden.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

My next crime fiction book took me to New Zealand where I was happy to reconnect with Maori police officer Tito Ihaka.

Fallout by Paul Thomas. (2014) Not available in French. Published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Fallout is my second book by Paul Thomas as I’d already read and loved Death on Demand.

Fallout has a triple plot thread with interconnected stories. It starts with Finbar McGrail, the District Commander in Auckland who is on the verge of retirement. His first murder case in 1987 is still unsolved and he recently had a new lead. He asks Ihaka to look into it and see if he can find who murdered Polly Stenson at the posh Barton party in 1987.

Meanwhile, Ihaka’s former colleague Van Roon is hired as a non-licensed investigator to find Eddie Brightside. This man has been hiding abroad for years and he was seen in New Zealand.

On the side, Miriam Lovell, Ikaka’s ex-lover, contacts him regarding his father’s death, some twenty years ago. Lovell is writing her PhD thesis about work unions in New Zealand and as Ikaha’s father was a well-known unionist, she comes across breaking news: Jimmy Ihaka might not have died of a heart attack but could have been murdered. Ihaka decides to investigate his father’s death.

I loved Fallout as much as I loved Death on Demand. Ihaka is an incredible character. He’s a maverick police officer with a code of conduct of his own. He’s loud, crude but loyal. He’s either respected or despised and he’s not good with precinct politics. This is Ihaka, assessing a witness.

Gentle, thought Ihaka; sensitive; arty. Probably plays the guitar and writes songs about how hard it is being gentle, sensitive and arty in this fucked-up world.

Political correctness is not Ihaka’s strong suit and that’s why I enjoyed my time with him.

Fallout is a tour de force. I never felt lost between the three investigations, mixing up characters or stories. It was perfectly orchestrated, a fine-tuned mix of standard crime, personal matters and political issues as it branches out on the topic of New Zealand anti-nuclear stance in the 1980s. Fascinating stuff.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

So, that was my month of August with crime fiction. All in all, it was a good pick of books, various places and well-drawn characters and plots. I’m looking forward to reading more by Deon Meyer, so don’t hesitate to leave recommendations in the comments below.

All these books belong to my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

PS : Fallout is published by an indie publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, their books are available online and well, the more books they sell, the more chances we have that they bring us great crime fiction books.

Catching up on billets: six in one

July 17, 2022 20 comments

I really really have a hard time keeping up with billets and blogging at the moment, so I’ll catch up on different books I’ve read and write mini-billets about them. Everything is fine, I’m just terribly busy.

I’ve been reading American literature again or books related to America. All were good, I’ve been lucky with my reading choices. They all deserve a full billet but I’m too knackered to tackle six billets at the moment.

The first one is a French book, set in Ellis Island, Those Who Leave by Jeanne Benameur 2019. (Original French title: Ceux qui partent.) We’re in 1910, in Ellis Island, New York.

Emilia Scarpa and her father Donato, Esther Agakian and Gabor are all candidatures to emigrate to America. Emilia and Donato are Italian and she wants to be free and be a painter. Esther is survivor of the Armenian genocide. Gabor is a Rom and is fleeing the pogroms. All aspire to start a new life, either to leave traumatic events back in Europe or to open to opportunities they wouldn’t have in their native country.

Andrew Jónsson, an American photograph also spends a lot of time at Ellis Island, recording the arrivals of new immigrants. His father emigrated from Iceland with his grand-mother when he was a child and Andrew chases his own history through the newcomers.

All the characters meet at Ellis Island and their lives intertwine for a while. Jeanne Benameur muses about leaving, about new beginnings. Can you start over or as the song says, “You don’t rebuild your life, you only go on”? What do “roots” mean? How to you survive a genocide? How are you linked to your lineage?

Jeanne Benameur has a lovely and poetic style. Her tone is smooth, contemplative and tries to convey the characters inner thoughts.

It was a good read but sometimes I felt she could have said the same in less pages.

Then I was in New York again with The Fire, Next Time by James Baldwin (1963). This non-fiction book is composed of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew James and an essay about being black in America.

The letter was very moving, one James giving advice to his namesake nephew. Words of wisdom and self-confidence.

As always, Baldwin is spot on, direct and unflinching. He’s intelligent, nuanced and never lets himself fall into the pitfall of simplification.

He explores the idea of violence and various schools of thought about the future of the black community in America. He’s not convinced by any extremist thinking.

There is no hatred in his words but a challenge issued to white people: the condition of black people will change only if they’re willing to acknowledge that they need to change.

Then I moved to Kansas, around the same time as The Fire, Next Time, with In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) I read it in French (De sang froid) in the 1966 translation by Raymond Girard.

This translation needs to be updated, that’s for sure. It was done in a time where we were a lot less Americanized and the translation reflects this with comments about obvious American things or weird spelling. (“base-ball”, really?) I was intimidated by In Cold Blood and thought it would be best to read it in French but I think I could have read it in English.

Anyway. I’m not sure it’s necessary to remind you that In Cold Blood is about a true crime affair. The Clutter family, a well-loved family in the village of Holcomb, Kansas was savagely murdered without any reason. Capote reconstructs the crime, showing the murderers before and after their crime, including their time in jail and switching of point of view to picture the family and the KBI inspectors who work on the case.

It was a memorable time for many people and Capote’s various angles shows the trail of devastation and life-changing moment that such a crime entails for a broad cast of people.

I enjoyed it a lot more than expected and it was easy to read. The chapters cover the different moment of this terrible crime, with a bit of suspense. The writing is vivid, like a reportage and it’s well worth reading.

After Capote, I changed of scenery but remained with law representatives. I went to North Carolina, where Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (2014) is set. It was my first novel by Ron Rash, as I had only read a collection of short stories before, Burning Bright.

In this novel, Les is 52, sheriff in a county in North Carolina. He’ll retire in three weeks, handing over his job to Jarvis Crowe. He has a burgeoning relationship with Becky, a park ranger. They both carry a heavy personal baggage.

Les has to handle two cases that represent the spectrum of country sheriff duties: on the one hand, he has to deal with Gerald who trespasses on his neighbor’s property and on the other hand he has a very precise intervention to close a meth lab, as drug is a major issue in this State.

Above the Waterfall is representative of books set in small towns America.

Like Longmire, the sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County, Les has to take into account the local history, the relationship between the parties and look the other way sometimes to preserve peace. They all have to live together anyway. Btw, this reminds me that I also read Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson but I won’t write a billet about it as it’s not my favorite Longmire story. It felt like a long race in the cold, in the falling snow of the Rocky Mountains.

But let’s leave Wyoming behind and go back to Rash’s novel set in the Appalachians, where he lives.

His books are cousins to David Joy’s or Chris Offutt’s books. Should we call them the Appalachians School? They are in the same vein and as a reader, I think they give an accurate picture of their land. Rash is less violent than Joy and he’s also a poet. I know from attending his interview at Quais du Polar, that he reads his books aloud to ensure they ring well. Above the Waterfall has a very poetic side and I’m not sure I caught all the beauty of his descriptions of wilderness.

It was a story full of grey areas where what is right isn’t always legal and vice-versa. Life isn’t black and white and like with Baldwin, I appreciate that Rash doesn’t over simplify issues but turns his writing spotlight in different corners of this Appalachian county, near the Shenandoah National Park. He lets us see different point of views.

I still have another book by Rash on the shelf, Serena and I’m looking forward to it as I really think that Ron Rash is a talented writer.

Then I flew to Argentina and you may wonder how Thursday Nights Widows by Claudia Piñeiro (2005) belongs with a billet about America. Well, it does because it is set in a country, a gated community at 50 kilometers from Buenos Aires. This huge compound is modeled after its American counterparts and it’s a sort of Argentinean Wisteria Lane. Rich businessmen have their house there, they live in close quarters and their wives, who don’t work, have very few opportunities to spend time in real Argentina.

Everything is about status, not making waves and getting along with everyone. Buy a the end on the 1990s and early 2000s, a devastating economic crisis shatters Argentina and these couples’ carefully balanced life is at threat. Unemployment spreads at Covid speed. The husbands try to keep face, the wives are oblivious and everyone has dirty secrets that stay hidden (or not) behind closed doors.

Piñeiro excels at describing this microsociety and its unspoken rules. Their carefully assembled houses of cards is fragile and drama looms. We know from the start that a tragedy occurred and the author takes us to the genesis of it, coming back to recent events or to older ones with anecdotes that pinpoints the characters’ tempers.

I have read it in a French translation by Romain Magras. It is entitled Les Veuves du jeudi and I recommend it.

At my personal bingo of literary events, I ticket several boxes with these books. All but the Jeanne Benameur count for my 20 Books Of Summer Challenge. (Books 5 to 9) Thursday Nights Widow counts for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month hosted by Stu.

Have you read any of these six books? What did you think about them?

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden – fantastic

July 9, 2022 10 comments

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. (2020) French title: Justice indienne. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

I wondered what it was like to live without that weight on your shoulders, the weight of the murdered ancestors, the stolen land, the abused children, the burden every Native person carries.

After Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese , Winter Counts is my second contribution to Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week.

We are in South Dakota, on the Rosebud reservation, land of the Lakota nation. Virgil Wounded Horse raises his nephew Nathan on his own after his sister Sybil died in a car accident three years ago. Nathan is 14 and he and Virgil have found a way to live together. Nathan is a good student, interested in science. Virgil doesn’t make a lot of money but Nathan and he get by, leaning on each other to recover from Sybil’s death.

Virgil survives on odd jobs: he’s hired to beat people up when they did something wrong and are never prosecuted. Indeed, the tribal police can only intervene on minor offence and “the feds prosecuted all felony crimes on the rez, and they didn’t mess with any crime short of murder”. For all the crimes that are not interesting enough for the feds and out of the sphere of action of the tribal police, victims may hire Virgil for a kind of local justice. This explains the French title of Winter Counts, Justice indienne.

Then Ben, councilman at the tribal council wants to hire Virgil to go after Rick Crow, a potential drug dealer. Ben says that Crow is part of a criminal organization that aims at introducing heroin on the reservation. Virgil refuses the job, his guts telling him not to go there.

Then Nathan almost overdoses on heroin and it becomes a personal matter. Virgil accepts Ben’s contract and rekindles his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Marie. She’s a social worker on the reservation, she dated Rick Crow and she’s Ben’s daughter. Three good reasons to get involved. Soon, their path crosses the FBI’s since this case is important enough for them to investigate it.

Winter Counts is a crime fiction book and the plot is centered around the heroin trafficking and Virgil’s and Marie’s involvement in this investigation but it’s a lot more than that.

Weiden writes about life on the reservation and Lakota traditions. He explains the Lakota’s view of the world, comes back on their history. Virgil has distanced himself from Lakota ways while Marie wants to promote them, to come back to them and live by them on the reservation.

This investigation involves Nathan, Virgil’s only family and it forces Virgil to lean on the community. It brings him back to his people, their way of thinking and their rituals. Reading Winter Counts, we follow Virgil’s journey as he reconnects and embraces his Lakota roots.

The title Winter Counts comes from a Lakota tradition, the making of pictorial calendars or stories to remember major events of the tribe’s history. Virgil does his own mental winter counts and it’s another way for him to get closer to his Lakota background. Along his way, the reader learns a little bit more about Lakota culture and ceremonies. Weiden explains that Lakota ceremonies are secret and that he only describes what had already been revealed in other books. Not everything is written but we get a glimpse of what they are and it is enough for us philistines.

I always enjoy augmented crime fiction books. The gripping plot holds your attention and all the detours about the context are informative and give the plot and the characters an additional depth. Winter Counts is exactly that.

In an afterword, Weiden explains that the plot of his book is based on true facts and his description of life on the reservation sound accurate. He never sugarcoats reality and he brings a nuanced and factual vision of the Rosebud reservation. Like James Baldwin for black people, he points out and reminds us what the white man has done to Indigenous nations. (Btw, like Wagamese, Weiden uses the word Indian and not Native American.) It’s not in anger or with hatred but a calm way to set history straight and make it known. Cold hard truth.

I will definitely read more books by David Heska Wanbli Weiden in the future.

This is my #20BooksOfSummer number 5, another book published by Gallmeister with an outstanding translation by Sophie Aslanides, who also translates Craig Johnson and Jake Hinkson, among others.

Three beach-and-public-transport crime fiction books: let’s go to Sweden, Japan and Australia.

June 12, 2022 13 comments

The summer holiday are coming soon, with lazy reading hours, waiting time in airports or train stations, train or plane travels and all kinds of noisy reading environments. That’s what my Beach and Public Transports category is for: help you locate page turners that help pass the time and don’t need a lot of concentration. So, let’s make a three-stops journey, starting in Stockholm with…

The Last Lullaby by Carin Gerardhsen. (2010) French title: La comptine des coupables. Translated from the Swedish by Charlotte Drake and Patrick Vandar.

It’s a classic crime fiction book that opens with a murder. Catherine Larsson and her two children are murdered in their apartment. She was from the Philippines, got married to Christer Larsson and they were divorced. He was deeply depressed and had no contact with his children.

Catherine lived in a nice apartment in a posh neighborhood in Stockholm. How could this cleaning lady afford such a lavish home?

The commissaire Conny Sjöberg and his team are on the case. The troubling fact is that their colleague Einar Ericksson has not shown up for work and hasn’t call in sick. Sjöberg looks for him and soon discover that Catherine Larsson and Einar Ericksson were close, that he used to come and meet her and play with the children. His sweater was in her flat.

Now the police are in a difficult position: their colleague is a suspect but Sjöberg thinks he’s a victim too. It complicates the investigation.

I enjoyed The Last Lullaby as the story progressed nicely, all clues clicking into place one after the other. I thought that the police team’s personal lives were a bit heavy. What are the odds to have on the same team someone with a traumatic past, someone who was raped and filmed, someone recovering of a heart attack and multiples divorces and affairs. It seemed a bit too much for me.

That minor detail aside, it’s a nice Beach and Public Transport book. Now, let’s travel to Japan for a very unusual story.

The House Where I Once Died by Keigo Higashino (1994) French title: La maison où je suis mort autrefois. Translated from the Japanese by Yukatan Makino. Not available in English.

The unnamed Narrator of the book and Sayaka met in high school and were a couple for a few years. Sayaka broke up with him when she met her future husband. He wasn’t too heartbroken, they never meant to spend their life together anyway. Seven years later, they reconnect at a high school reunion.

Sayaka contacts the Narrator a few weeks later and asks him to accompany her on a strange trip. When her father died, he left her with a key to a house. She knows that her father used to go there once a month but never talked about it. Since her husband is on a business trip, she doesn’t want to go alone. The Narrator accepts and they drive to a strange house in the woods by Matsubara Lake.

Sayaka doesn’t have any family left and has no memories of her early childhood. She wants her memory back and hopes that this house will trigger something in her.

The Narrator and Sayaka enter the house and start playing detective to find out whose house it is, why it is empty, where its inhabitants are and how they are linked to Sayaka’s father.

The House Where I Once Died is a fascinating tale and as a reader, I was captivated from the start. It’s like a children’s mystery tale, a strange house, clues in the rooms, a memory loss and weird details everywhere.

Step by step, along with the Narrator and Sayaka, we discover the truth about the house and its family. The ending was unexpected and the whole experience was a great reading time.

That’s another excellent Beach and Public Transport book at least for readers who can read in French, since it hasn’t been translated into English.

Now let’s move to Tasmania with…

The Survivors by Jane Harper (2020) French title: Les survivants.

This is not my first Jane Harper, I’ve already read The Dry and Force of Nature. This time, Jane Harper takes us to the fictional Tasmanian small town on Evelyn Bay. It’s on the ocean and along the coasts are caves that can be explored when the tide is low and that get flooded when the tide is high.

Kieran and his girlfriend Mia live in Sydney with their three-month old baby but they both grew up in Evelyn Bay. They are visiting Kieran’s parents Brian and Verity in their hometown. Brian has dementia and the young couple is here to help Verity pack their house to move Verity into an apartment and Brian goes to a medical facility.

This family is still haunted by the drama that occurred twelve years ago. Kieran was in the caves when a bad storm hit the town. Finn, his older brother who had a diving business with his friend Toby, went out to sea to rescue him. The storm turned their boat and they both drowned. Kieran has always felt responsible for the death of his older brother.

The storm devastated the town. The material damage was repaired. The psychological one, not really. That same day of the historical storm, Gabby Birch disappeared and never came back. She was fourteen and she probably drowned too. Her body was never found.

That summer, Kieran and his friends Ash and Sean were a tight unit who partied a lot. They were just out of high school and Kieran had secret hook-ups with Olivia in the caves. Gabby was Olivia’s younger sister and Mia’s best friend.

So, the group of friends who meet again in Evelyn Bay has this traumatic past in common. Olivia and Ash are now in a relationship. Olivia works at the local pub, with a student who is there for the summer. Bronte is an art student at university in Canberra. She waitresses at the pub too and shares a house on the beach with Olivia.

One morning shortly after Kieran and Mia’s arrival, Bronte is found dead on the beach. Who could have wanted to kill her? Old wounds reopen and everyone thinks about the storm and Gabby Birch’s unexplained death. The digital rumour mill runs freely on the town’s forum.

Are the two deaths related? How will Kieran deal with being in this town again in the middle of another dramatic event? What happens in those caves?

The Survivors isn’t an outstanding crime fiction book but it does the job. It’s entertaining and exactly what you need to read on a beach. Well, except for the fear you may get about rising tides and being stuck in caves…

The Survivors is my first of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge. Do you look for easy and entertaining reads for the summer or do you take advantage of the slower pace (no school and related activities, holidays…) to read more challenging books?

The Color of Her Eyes by Conan Kennedy – murky waters in the seaside town of Bognor Regis in Sussex

June 6, 2022 4 comments

The Colour of Her Eyes by Conan Kennedy. (2011). Not available in French.

This one has been on the Kindle TBR for 10 years, I think. I must have downloaded it after reading Guy’s excellent review.

John Dexter first met Ruth Taylor at a school disco when she was fifteen and he was twenty-five. She was a student and he was a young professor. Ruth got pregnant at that time, John says nothing happened between them.

They meet again five years later, by chance. John is now married with two kids. They go to a café and talk. Ruth is poor and struggles to raise her daughter Sandy. John gives her money to help her start over.

They meet again five years later. They become lovers and John takes interest in Sandy, Ruth’s daughter.

Ruth and John are a case of opposites attract. He was drawn to her when she was fifteen. The colour of her eyes is of the same green as the Southdown Motor Company buses that he used to take with his parents when he was a child. They used to spend the day at Bognor Regis. Happy memories.

Something happened, we know it right away because the first chapter of the book is a police transcript of Detective Inspector Harris interrogating John Dexter. The tone of the questions is judgmental. Harris has a dirty mind and he keeps putting words in Dexter’s mouth. Harris assumes that Dexter has sexually assaulted Ruth at the disco and that Sandy is his daughter.

Right from the start, we’re in murky waters. We read the police transcripts and John sounds sincere but also very clever. Enough to manipulate Harris and step aside all the obvious traps Harris plants in his line of questioning.

DI Harris has an awful personality. He’s oldish, always dreaming about constable Phillips’s breasts, he’s racist and judgmental. A real prick. The reader understands that he’s as an unreliable narrator as John.

The novel is constructed around the police transcripts, John’s narration and Harris’s thoughts and life. The language is rather crude on Harris’s side, more polite and elaborate on John’s side. It strengthens their voices and their roles and blurs the line between legal and illegal, moral and immoral.

Being in their mind is uncomfortable. John is weird and did he really fight his attraction to Ruth at that disco? Is their relationship a true love story or a sordid affair? Harris isn’t as professional as he should be and his vision of the world is narrow-minded and reactionary.

The reader tries to make their own opinion of what happened and who the protagonists are but their personalities make it hard to disentangle the true from the false. This feeling of walking on quicksand kept me reading and wondering what the truth was and where the author was taking me.

The ending blurred the lines again and there were threads in the book that bothered me a bit but I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

Conan Kennedy also peppers his novel with thoughts about the British society as his two main characters muse about the world they live in or the EU (should I stay or should I go?). They express their distaste towards foreigners (even John’s wife, Yvette, who is Belgian), a feeling of loss of their “Englishness” and traditional values, and a general distrust of globalization. The Colour of Her Eyes was published in 2011, five years before the Brexit referendum. Maybe its outcome shouldn’t have been such a shock as it was all there already.

And ten years later, I recognize in Harris’s thinking the rank smell of the racist and retrograde arguments of some candidates at the last French presidential election. Seeing where the UK is headed, I imagine we could follow the same path. Now, that really, really scares me.

So, not-clear-cut crime fiction associated with social commentary, what’s not to like? Thanks, Guy!

Crazy me, I’ll do 20 Books of Summer again #20booksofsummer22

May 22, 2022 39 comments

I’m crazy busy and yet, I plan on doing 20 Books of Summer again.

Cathy from 746Books is the mastermind behind this event. I could pick only 10 or 15 books but I wanted to have 20 books to choose from and then we’ll see how it goes.

I already have the books from my ongoing readalongs with my Book Club, my sister-in-law, my Proust Centenary event and my non-fiction challenge. That makes seven books.

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (USA)
  • Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro (Argentina)
  • The Survivors by Jane Harper (Australia)
  • Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (South Africa)
  • Fall Out by Paul Thomas (New Zealand)
  • Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (France)
  • Proust by Samuel Beckett (Ireland)

In August, I’ll be travelling to the USA, going through Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve already read The Line That Held Us by David Joy and Country Dark by Chris Offutt. I love to read books about the place I’m visiting, so I’ll be reading:

  • Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (Louisiana)
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (North Carolina)
  • Serena by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (Southern Region)
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Appalachians)
  • The Cut by George Pelecanos (Washington DC)
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Southern Region)

That’s eight more books and some of them rather long. I also wanted to do Liz’s Larry McMurtry 2022 readalong as I’ve had Lonesome Dove on the shelf for a while. That’s two chunky books in a beautiful Gallmeister edition.

And then I’ve selected four novellas, to help me reach the 20 books with one-sitting reads:

  • Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (France)
  • A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi (Algeria)
  • The Miracles of Life by Stefan Zweig (Austria)
  • Adios Madrid by Pablo Ignacio Taibo II (Cuba)

I’m not sure I’ll make it but who doesn’t love a little challenge? I’m happy with my choices, a mix of countries, of crime, literary and non-fiction and of short and long books.

Have you read any of the books I picked? If yes, what shall I expect?

If you’re taking part to 20 Books of Summer too, leave the link to your post in the comment section, I love discovering what you’ll be up to.

Three crime fiction books from France – three very different rides

May 1, 2022 10 comments
  • The Wounded Wolves by Christophe Molmy (2015) Original French title: Les Loups blessés.
  • Missing in Pukatapu by Patrice Guirao (2020) Original French title: Les disparus de Pukatapu.
  • Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy (2018) Original French title: La petite gauloise.

This week I’m taking you through three different parts of France with three different authors. Christophe Molmy takes us to Paris, Patrice Guirao to Tahiti and Jérôme Leroy to a suburban town in Province.

Let’s start with Paris and Les Loups blessés by Christophe Molmy (The Wounded Wolves).

Molmy is the chief of the BRI (Brigade de recherche et d’intervention), the Gang unit of the French police. In other words, he’s specialized in fighting against organized crime. Like Olivier Norek, he’s policeman and a writer.

The commissaire Renan Pessac, chief of the BRI, is exhausted by his work, the relationship with his hierarchy and working on the field. He’s recently divorced and feels rather lonely. He has a close but complex relationship with his informers, a mix between co-dependance and sometimes attraction, as one of them is a prostitute. He’s not in a good place professionally or personally and if someone offered him an out, I had the feeling he’d take it gladly.

On the other side of the law is Matteo Astolfi, a criminal, with a master degree in holdups, living on the run and running a criminal organization. Astolfi is getting older, his partner accepts less and less to live under false identities. They a have a son, he’s six and it’s getting more and more complicated to keep him out of a normal life. Astolfi wants to do a last job and stop his illegal activities. He doesn’t want to go to prison and he wants to start a life in the open somewhere.

Two petty criminals from a Parisian suburb, the brothers Belkiche decide to branch out of hashish trafficking and attack a post office. Their team included Doumé, Astolfi’s little brother. Pessac is on the case and this affair will make Astolifi’s and Pessac’s lives collide.

Les Loups blessés is a good read as we alternate between point of views and see what happens on the three sides of the affair: Pessac, Astolfi and the Belkiche brothers have their say. Pessac felt real, with a physical and mental fatigue weighing heavily on his shoulders. Astolfi sounded human, despite the killings and years of criminal activities.

Recommended to Corylus Books, they might want to translate it into English!

Now let’s go to Tahiti.

Les disparus de Pukatapu by Patrice Guirao (Missing in Pukatapu) is set on a very isolated atoll in Tahiti. The kind of atoll where a boat comes every four months for resupplying. *shudders* You’d better not forget the sugar on the grocery shopping list! Maema an Lilith, journalist and photograph landed in this remote atoll to write an article about the impact of global warming on the locals’s life. There are 26 inhabitants on the atoll and no children.

Things start to go wrong when Lilith discovers a dead hand on the beach, while she’s lying down under a coconut tree. Whose hand is this? Maema and Lilith start investigating and digging into the inhabitants’ secrets.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the ocean, a military basis is doing secret researches and their laboratory is threatened by a submarine volcanic eruption.

The reader follows what happens on the atoll, only to realize that the paradisiac setting does nothing to abate humans’ baser instincts. The passages on the mysterious (and nefarious) military basis felt like jumping from one subject to the other and didn’t mesh well with Maema and Lilith’s work.

I thought that Guirao was trying too hard to pack an investigation and raise awareness about Tahiti and the destruction brought by the French presence there. It was in Tahiti, in the Mururoa atoll that the French government did their nuclear tests, without caring much about the consequences on the local population.

Trouble in Paradise would be a good title for this book, I think, but I wasn’t convinced by the story or the construction of the plot. The sense of place wasn’t good enough for me, which is also what I’m looking for in that kind of book.

Les disparus de Pukatapu is not translated into English and let’s say it’s not translation tragedy.

Now, the next one, Little Rebel is available in English, thanks to Corylus Books. Yay!!

It’s only 141 pages long but what a ride! It draws an actual picture of a part of today’s France. It is set in an industrial town in the West of France, where the extreme right has won the city hall election.

The characters ring true and Leroy shows the implacable puzzle of various pieces that lead to a terrorist attack. What he describes feels horribly accurate and his tone based on a sharp irony and direct talk to the reader is very effective.

I don’t want to go into details about the characters or the plot because it would give too much away.

It is a social crime fiction book and the analysis is accurate. Several important pillars of our society are eaten by pests and they threaten its foundation. Political abandonment of working and middle classes. Racism and fear. School and the disenchantment of teachers. Boredom. Infiltration of suburbs by foreign extremists. Social networks and the endless possibility to spread hatred and fake news.

And things aren’t as straightforward as they seem.

You want to read about a France that doesn’t look like Provence, sun and lovely postcards? Read Little Rebel. You want to understand how the dreadful Marine Le Pen scored that well at the last presidential election? Read Little Rebel.

On top of a breathless ride on this side of France, you’ll help Corylus Book, an independent publisher who wishes to bring new voices to crime fiction in English. And, as you know, our fellow blogger Marina Sofia is part of this adventure.

Little Rebel: Highly recommended.

Three crime fiction books set in Africa

April 9, 2022 10 comments

Adieu Oran by Ahmed Tiab (2019) (Adieu Oran)

Hunting Down the Shrew by Florent Couao-Zotti (2017) (La traque de la musaraigne)

The Head Chopper Case by  Moussa Konaké. (2015) (L’affaire des coupeurs de tête.)

I’ve always loved to explore other countries through crime fiction. These books usually take you out of the bourgeois society and show you the dark side of a place, the one you won’t find in a tourist guide. I’m also more and more interested in reading Francophone literature, to see how French sounds in other countries. I’m not talking about Belgium or Switzerland here, their French is really close to the one from France, itt is more about French from Québec or Africa.

It wasn’t deliberate but I ended up reading three crime fiction books set in Africa in three weeks. All come from former French colonies, which explains why they are written in French.

Ahmed Tiab is an Algerian writer born in 1965. He lives in the South of France since 1990. Florent Couao-Zotti was born in Benin in 1965. He’s a writer and a journalist. Moussa Konaté (1951-2013) was a writer from Mali. These three books have first been released by independent publishers, Les Editions de l’Aube for Ahmed Tiab, Les Editions Les éditions Métailié for Moussa Konaté and Jigal Polar for Florent Couao-Zotti.

Now, the books!

Adieu Oran, as the title suggests, is set in Oran, a big city on the Mediterranean, west from Algiers. It features Tiab’s recurring character, the commissaire Kémal Fadil.

Adieu Oran is hard to sum up because the plot isn’t really straightforward. We have Chinese workers murdered in Oran and human trafficking. Fadil’s girlfriend Fatou is an emigrant from Niger and she works as a nurse for a non-profit organization in Oran. Along with other migrants, she’s kidnapped and sent to the South of Algeria to be sent back to her country.

I thought that the plot was a bit messy and we were following the murder of the Chinese and then left this case a bit behind to run after Fatou who was kidnapped. Note that, like in Yeruldelgger by Ian Manook, the crime involves Chinese businessmen who run business out of their country, import their own workers, work according to their own ways and have their ambassy meddling in the investigation, bypassing the local police.

Tiab delivers a scathing portrait of Algeria with corrupted and inept politicians. Nothing runs well and the population’s needs are never met, the country paralyzed by former military men whose resume is reduced to having fought against the French for the country’s independence. This act of glory is enough to maintain them in power and hush up any criticism.

Tiab also shows how the Islamists have set roots in the country, importing their vision of Islam from the Middle East. He sums up Algeria that way, in a pessimistic statement:

Lorsque que la génération qui a fait la guerre sera éteinte, le pays entrera alors dans le XXIème siècle avec ses rejetons imprégnés d’une idéologie directement inspirée du Moyen Age. Bonjour la modernité !When the generation who has fought in the war will be dead, the country will enter into the 21st century with an offspring permeated with an ideology directly inspired by the Middle Ages. Hello modernity!

(By the way, this use of “it’s the Middle Ages” is a very European-centered point of view because at the time, in some aspects, the Arabs were more modern that the Europeans.)

Adieu Oran also takes you to into the city’s streets where the past French colonization is still palpable with the streets’ names. Even the high school where Fadil went kept its French name. Coming from a country where the 1789 revolutionaries even changed the calendar, I’m surprised that the Algerians didn’t change the street names or the name of places right after the independence to erase all traces of the French occupation and show that they regained control on their land. For example, there’s still a Michelet market.

I discovered the issue of migrants in Algeria. I wonder why I was so surprised. How dumb of me: did I think that they arrived to the shores of the Mediterranean by magic? Of course, they had to cross other African countries to end up there and Algeria is one of them. We usually hear about Morocco because it’s close to the Spanish border or Tunisia, because of its border with Libya and its proximity to the Sicilian coasts. It never occurred to me that Algeria was a destination too.

Tiab describes the discrimination against migrants and the racism of the local population against black people, migrants or not. Some characters use the derogatory term of nigrou. He also comes back to the complicated relationship between France and Algeria since the independence, through two characters, a French colon who fought with the Algerians for their independence and remained in Algeria and a mysterious women hidden behind a veil, born from the rape of her mother by a French soldier.

Adieu Oran broaches too many topics at the same time to keep the story in a straight line and it is a book I found more interesting for its context and its characters than for its plot.

The two other books I read were more plot driven.

Hunting Down the Shrew by Florent Couao-Zotti is the story of a chase and a bad case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The book opens in a strip-club and jazz club in Porto-Novo, Benin. A Frenchman, Stéphane Néguirec has left his Brittany to settle in Porto-Novo. He’s about to leave the club with one of the dancers when she’s kidnapped on the street and he’s assaulted. His path will also cross Déborah’s, who is on the run. Stéphane accepts to hide her but they are soon attacked by criminals.

Déborah’s real name is Pamela and she left the neighboring Ghana after she participated to a hold-up that turned into a triple murder. She left with the money.

Her former partner in life and in crime, Ansah Ossey, aka Jesus Light, is the other survivor of the hold-up and he’s quite enraged that she left him and took the money. He’s after her too and we follow him on his road trip from Ghana to Benin to track her down. The novel is a double track race across Benin, Stéphane and Déborah on one hand and Jesus Light on the other hand. The reader discovers the country through the characters’ eyes.

Along the way, Stéphane, as a French, is seen as bait money by the Islamist rebels. They want to kidnap him to get a ransom and finance their war. The Islamist threat is present in this novel too, as it is in Tiab’s.

The plot was a bit confusing at times but I enjoyed the ride. Couao-Zotti has a wonderful voice, a French language that mixes the codes of Noir fiction and French from Africa.

The Head Chopper Case by Moussa Konaté is the lightest of the three books.

Set in Mali, It features Konaté’s recurring character, the commissaire Habib. The story is set in the city of Kita where several bodies of beheaded hobos are found. The local commissaire, Dembélé, is dumbfounded and doesn’t quite know where to start the investigation. They have the bodies but not their heads which complicates the identification of the victims.

A local pious man receives a out-of-the-world message about Kita being sin city and needing to atone for its sins. The souls of the ancestors are also seen up the mountain and the population, Dembélé included, is tempted to believe in an otherworldly intervention.

Commissaire Habib is more into earthly criminals and is sent from Bamako to his hometown to solve this case.

The Head Chopper Case pictures a Mali torn between traditions and modernity. Kita seems like a religious town, where the imam plays an important role, the one the Catholic church used to have in France too. Konaté describes Kita and its culture and how he and his second in command Sosso have to adapt their investigation methods to the local ways. According to the person they want to interrogate, they choose the straight police line or make a detour through polite conversation to make the person talk and not clam up in front of a policeman.

Konaté’s characters make frequent jokes about their ethnic origins. Kita is mostly of the Malinké ethnic group. The policemen Sosso and Dialo are Fulani. They throw goodhearted digs at each other but I couldn’t help wondering how this banter would turn out if the population was thoroughly manipulated by extremists.

The Head Chopper Case was written in 2015 and since then the civil war has blown up in Mali and violence seems out of control. Sadly.

So, what about these three books? I had a nice time with the three of them, they were armchair traveling. They took me to countries I’ve never been to and enriched my vision of the world.

Unfortunately, none of them are translated into English.

Crime in Québec : two books by Louise Penny

March 28, 2022 16 comments

The Cruelest Month (2007) and The Murder Stone (2008) by Louise Penny. French titles: Le mois le plus cruel and Défense de tuer. Translated by Michel Saint-Germain / Claire and Louise Chabalier.

I have read two Louise Penny in a row, The Cruelest Month and The Murder Stone, #3 and #4 in the Armand Gamache series and the two have a very different vibe. Louise Penny is famous for her village of Three Pines, nested in the Canadian Appalachians, in Québec, near the American border. Besides the team of the Sécurité du Québec, the main characters are Peter and Clara Morrow, both painters settled in Three Pines and pillars of their community.

The Cruelest Month is the darkest on two aspects. We’re in Three Pines again and it’s Easter time. The villagers are organizing an egg hunt. The bed and breakfast is expecting a medium as a guest and a séance is quickly organized at the old Hadley house, where a murder has already occurred.

The place creeps out the participants and suddenly, one of the participants dies of a heart attack. It’s as if she had died out of fear after a bird disturbed the séance. Of course, it’s not a banal heart attack but a murder. Armand Gamache comes with his team to handle the case and while they’re investigating the murder, a terrible smear campaign is organized against him. Part of the police institution never accepted that he revealed the wrongdoings of members of the Sécurité du Québec against indigenous people. Gamache has become a target.

The Murder Stone is a more classic whodunit with Poirot flavor. A rich family gathers at the Manoir Bellechasse, a holiday house by a lake and rather far away from civilization. They are there for their yearly reunion, to celebrate the donation of a statue of their deceased patriarch. We soon discover that Mrs Finney is the former Mrs Morrow and her son is the Peter Morrow who lives in Three Pines with his artist wife Clara. The Morrow children carry the scars of a dysfunctional family, all seeking their father’s love and approval at the expense of their relationship as siblings. Julia, the oldest daughter gets killed when the statue falls down on her. It looks like an accident but guess what? It’s a murder.

Like Poirot, Gamache happens to be at the Manoir Bellechasse with his wife Reine-Marie. They celebrate their wedding anniversary at the manor every year. Gamache’s team joins him on site and they start the investigation.

As in every book of the series, Gamache faces a personal challenge and this time, his relationship with his son is at stake when Gamache rejects the name Honoré for his future grand-son. It was his own father’s name and he was notorious for his behavior during WWII.

I preferred the second book as I don’t care for stories with séances and ghosts. I don’t understand why Louise Penny chose such an improbable setting. However, I enjoyed the cozy crime vibe of The Murder Stone. How to kill someone with a statue was a fun fact of the novel, I reckon.

I was happy to see Three Pines again and reunite with what makes the flavor of Penny’s books. The village is set in Québec, among the anglophone community and the little digs about each community’s habits sound authentic and build the sense of place. Louise Penny writes in English and I read the Québec translation, which keeps all the little language quirks that I love so much.

The complex relationship between Clara and Peter Morrow is well-developed. Both are painters and Clara has just been discovered by a famous gallerist of Montreal. Peter already sells well but wonders if Clara’s not a more gifted painter than he is. On her side, she’s eager to have his approval since she loves him and knows that he already won the public’s recognition.

The Murder Stone is an opportunity to explore Peter Morrow’s and Armand Gamache’s pasts. It is also a reflection on fatherhood and the way children always seek their father’s approval. The Morrow children did, in their own way. Gamache had to live with his father’s reputation and his relationship with his son Daniel hits a bump on Daniel’s road to fatherhood.

Despite the murders, a lot of kindness oozes of Penny’s books and it’s a treat to spend time in Three Pines with Gamache and his troops. There are 17 volumes in the Gamache series, and the good news is that I still have thirteen books of pleasure ahead of me!

Quais du Polar 2022 : let’s get ready!

March 19, 2022 18 comments

In two weeks, the crime fiction festival Quais du Polar will open. It’s a three-days celebration of crime fiction all over the city. The program is available on the Quais du Polar website and you can download it in pdf file if you’re interested.

The organization of the festival outdid themselves. There are the usual panels with several writers gathered around a theme, the giant bookstore in the gorgeous hall of the Chamber of Commerce, the mystery to solve in the city with a booklet of clues and questions. There are also crime escape games in several museums of the city.

Last year, the festival was in June, during COVID restrictions and they had to do things outdoors. They started the “literary cruises” on the Saône River, using the city’s bateaux-mouches. I went on the cruise with Florence Aubenas last year and this year, I’m very happy that I snatched a ticket for a literary cruise with Olivier Norek.

The Opera and Théâtre de l’Odéon are also involved and I booked a ticket for a Jazz & Literature event with Jake Lamar and Les Paons. I have wonderful memories of the one with James Sallis and Michael Connelly in a previous edition of the festival.

There are tons of talks with writers, opportunities to get signed books, chat with authors and discover the city of Lyon and sneak into places where you usually don’t go, like the grand room at the city hall. Almost everything is set in the city center withing walking distance and all events are free.

The festival has a broad approach of crime and works with the police and the justice to show how things work in real life. The police organize tours at the national school for commissaires de police and police officers set near Lyon. One year, you could do a tour at a police station with police officers to explain how they work. for a tour or have police officers explaining their jobs in police stations.

Last year, I attended a panel at the tribunal with judges and lawyers specialized in cold cases. This year, the festival goes further with bus tours with CSI, police and judicial experts. People you see on the screen and hope to never meet in real life, at least, not in their official capacity.

For the rest, I’m thrilled to spend time at the festival with friends and relatives. Let’s hope that the weather cooperates and it’ll be a fantastic weekend.

Last but not least, the authors without whom this festival wouldn’t exist. Here are the authors invited to the festival. The photos come from the official Quais du Polar website. I put a book sign on the writers I’ve already read (not many, actually). Let me know in the comments which ones you recommend.

The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo – What a blast!

February 15, 2022 28 comments

The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo. Total Kheops (1995) Chourmo (1996) and Solea (1998). Original French titles: Fabio Montale (Total Kheops, Chourmo and Solea)

Les belles journées n’existent qu’au petit matin. J’aurais dû m’en souvenir. Les aubes ne sont que l’illusion de la beauté du monde. Quand le monde ouvre les yeux, la réalité reprend ses droits. Et l’on retrouve le merdier.Beautiful days only exist in the early morning. I should have remembered that. Dawns are only the illusion of the beauty of the world. When the world opens their eyes, reality takes over. And we’re back in deep shit.

I just spend two days visiting Marseille and I took The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo as a traveling companion. What a marvelous idea it was! I am not going to describe the plot of each volume, that would be too long and useless. I want to give you the flavor of the books and the irresistible urge to get them and read them on the spot.

Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000) was born in Marseille in family of Italian and Spanish immigrants. His mother was born in a working-class area of Marseille, Le Panier. He was a member of the Communist party from 1966 to 1978. He was a journalist, a poet and a writer. It’s important to know his background to understand his character, Fabio Montale.

Fabio Montale is in his forties. When the first book opens, his childhood friend Ugo got killed when he himself killed a gangster to avenge the death of their other childhood friend, Manu. The three of them were thick as thieves when they were young, in the figurative and the literal way. They parted after a break-in at a pharmacy that turned bad. Manu chose a career in crime. Ugo left the country. Fabio went to the army and later joined the police force. They were all in love with Lole, the only girl of their group.

The volume go from this settling of scores, from organized crime to the presence of the Mafia in the South of France, in the Var (Toulon), Alpes Maritimes (Nice) and Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseille) departments and through the raise of racism and religious extremism. The plots of the three books are suspenseful and you want to keep reading to see what will happen next. As often in good crime fiction, the best is on the side, though.

At the end of Total Kheops, I thought that Montale was a lot like Connelly’s Bosch. He’s a maverick and compassionate investigator. He loves music, especially jazz. He’s single, lives in a house with an incredible view. He loves his town. But unlike Bosch, Montale loves to fish and lives in a cabin by the sea. He inherited it from his parents, which explains why his neighbor Honorine is over seventy and treats him like her son. In the next volumes, the comparison isn’t so obvious, Montale takes off as a character and becomes unique.

Music plays a capital role in Montale’s life. It’s soothing, raging, uplifting, consoling. A haven through life’s storms, a constant blankie to pick him up or pacify him. The books are named after songs. Total Kheops comes from a rap song by IAM, a group from Marseille. It means total mess, in their language. Chourmo comes from a word from Provencal patois and is a song by Massilia Sound System, another group from Marseille. And Solea is a piece by Miles Davis. Like there’s a Harry Bosch playlist on Spotify, you’ll find a Fabio Montale one too. It’s made of jazz, French, Arab, Italian, Cuban music. It’s a melting-pot of sounds and influences, the spitting image of Marseille, in sounds.

Like Los Angeles in the Bosch series, Marseille is a character itself in the Fabio Montale trilogy. Izzo has lived all his life in Marseille, except for a mere two years in Saint-Malo. He knows the city in and out and his love for this multi-cultural, blue-collar city pours off the pages of his trilogy. It gives us evocative descriptions of the weather and the town.

Il a fini par pleuvoir. Un orage violent, et bref. Rageur même, comme Marseille en connaît parfois en été. Il ne faisait guère plus frais, mais le ciel s’était enfin dégagé. Il avait retrouvé sa limpidité. Le soleil lapait l’eau de pluie à même les trottoirs. Une tiédeur s’en élevait. J’aimais cette odeur.It rained, eventually. A violent storm, and brief too. Furious, even, as Marseille has them in the summer sometimes. It wasn’t cooler but the sky was clear, at least. It was limpid again. The sun was lapping up the rain on the sidewalks. A warmth came off them. I loved this scent.

I walked around the city, knowing of the streets, some restaurants and bars, some places sounded familiar, thanks to Izzo’s books. Izzo was also a poet, his first literary love. It gives a flavor to his writing as his poetic sensitivity applies to his descriptions of his beloved city but also to Montale’s love interests and hypersensitivity.

Fortunately, Izzo doesn’t stick to postcard Marseille full of sea, sun, local soap, pastis and wonderful cuisine. He also writes about its darker side, the rampant criminality, the corruption of the politicians, the collusion between organized crime, politicians, the police and other administrations. He describes the raging unemployment that feeds racism, fuels resentment and raises candidates for organized crime, drug trafficking, religious extremists and extreme-right political parties. He can only deplore the extremist and violent path that his beloved city seems to take.

The trilogy is set at the end of the 1990s and Montale is in his forties. His parents are dead and his best friends too. He’s nostalgic of his youth and also understands that these 1990s are the end of an era. The post-war society doesn’t exist anymore and the witness of his youth are almost all gone. His old neighbords, Honorine and Fonfon, are the last generation of the Marseillais you have in Pagnol’s plays. Honorine has even a Pagnol name, typical from the South. They speak with the Marseille accent, something that is transcribed in Izzo’s dialogues. For a tourist like me, she sounds like sunshine, cicadas and holidays (I wonder what the translators of these books did about that.)

The 1990s were my formative years. Highschool, business school, first job, meeting the man who’ll become my husband, starting our life together. That decade was busy and self-centered. For Montale, the 1990s are the end of the communist dream (and thankfully the end of the communist nightmare for Eastern countries), the final collapse of old industries and the defitinive take-over of money and capitalism as a leading power over the world. It’s the decade of the war in Yugoslavia, the massacre in Rwanda and the terror of the FIS in Algeria. From Marseille, right on the other side of the Mediterranean. With inevitable repercussions in France. He also describes the settling of the Mafia in the South of France.

It’s also the last decade before 9/11, before other wars and the bloom of the digital revolution. We’re pre-smartphones, digital services and all that will come with the 21st century. Montale’s melancholy is a black echo to the end of the century.

The sadness is tempered by an indomitable joie de vivre. Life cannot be too bad as long as there’s the sun, the sea, good food, good music and pretty ladies. Women are Montale’s Achilles’ heel. He admires them and loves them. He attracts them but never really recovered from Lole. His failed love life torments him.

But Montale is also a bon viveur –how did the French bon vivant turned into the English bon viveur, I wonder. He loves good food and I wish there were a cookbook of all the recipes of Honorine’s cuisine along with a Fabio Montale wine list. Maybe it exists somewhere. Like music, food is a soothing balm to his soul. Honorine’s cuisine is a like an umbilical cord to his childhood. Another blankie.

I turned the last page of this trilogy with sadness, like I was leaving a friend behind. I love the South of France too and that’s probably why this passage felt like a little dig:

Du ciel à la mer, ce n’était qu’une infinie variété de bleus. Pour le touriste, celui qui vient du Nord, de l’Est ou de l’Ouest, le bleu est toujours bleu. Ce n’est qu’après, pour peu qu’on prenne la peine de regarder le ciel, la mer, de caresser des yeux le paysage, que l’on découvre les bleus gris, les bleus noirs, et les bleus outremer, les bleus poivre, les bleus lavande. Ou les bleus aubergine des soirs d’orage. Les bleus verts de houle. Les bleus cuivre de coucher de soleil, la veille de mistral. Ou ce bleu si pâle qu’il en devient blanc.From the sky to the sea, it was an endless variety of blues. For the tourist, the one who comes from the North, the East or the West, blue is always blue. It’s only afterwards, if you take the time to observe the sky, the sea, to caress the landscape with your eyes, that you’ll discover the grey blues, the black blues, the ultramarine blues, the pepper blues, the lavender blues. Or the eggplant blues of stormy nights. The green blues of swell. The copper blues of sunsets, on the eve of a mistral day. Or this blue so pale that it’s almost white.

I beg to differ, Fabio. I’m a tourist from the North and the East but I know the variety of blues. I know how beautiful the landscapes are, how radiant the sea can be and how different the light is from one season to the other. That’s why I keep coming back, in all seasons. February smells like mimosa. April often smells like rain and wind. July and August give off the heady scent of pine trees heated by the sun and salt from the sea. October fights against the upcoming cold season and spreads a last hooray of sunshine, warmth and summer scents.

Go and rush to The Marseille Trilogy. You won’t regret it. No translation tragedy here. The only tragedy is Izzo’s untimely death that deprived us of more books. Fucking cancer.

PS: There’s a TV adaptation of the trilogy with Alain Delon as Fabio Montale. I would have prefered Gérard Lanvin. I’m not sure I want to replace my mental images of the book with the ones of the series. I’m not inclined to watch it.

Mongolia and Montana : two crime fiction books

February 13, 2022 14 comments

Yeruldelgger by Ian Manook (2013) Not available in English

Ian Manook is the penname for the French writer Patrick Manoukian. (A play-on-word on his surname Manoukian/Manook Ian, I guess) Yeruldelgger is the first volume of the Commissaire Yeruldelgger trilogy set in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It won the Prix SNCF 2014, a prize dedicated to crime fiction.

Commissaire Yeruldelgger is still recovering from a personal tragedy when he’s called on two crime scenes at the same time. One is in the steppe, away from the capital. Nomadic people called him because they found the body of a little girl, buried with her tricycle.

The other is in Ulan Bator: three Chinese men were killed and their penis was cut and stuffed into three hookers’ mouths. Six bodies and a horrific crime scene. Inspector Oyun who works under Yeruldelgger, goes on scene and starts the investigation.

Yeruldelgger and Oyun work on the two cases at the same time. We meet the police of Mongolia, its corrupted and non-corrupted members. Yeruldelgger works with two women, Oyun and Solongo, the medical examiner. A street boy named Gantulga will help them.

Their investigations will lead them to Yeruldelgger’s past, to the exploitation of Mongolia’s natural resources by Chinese companies, to corrupted Mongolian business men who organize wild rides in the steppe for rich Koreans and to Mongolian neo-Nazi groups.

While the plot is solid and the story unfolds nicely and according to the codes of crime fiction, I can’t say that I loved Yeruldelgger. Something was off. The sense of place felt stilted, the landscape descriptions as fake as a theatre décor. I am sure that the details about Ulan Bator and the cultural references were accurate but they didn’t flow well.

The titles of the chapters were disconcerting, sounding like 19thC literature. You know those titles like “Where Mr … goes to XX and makes a fool of himself” The language couldn’t hide that the book is written by a Frenchman. A native from Mongolia would have written differently, with another sensitivity.

I think the book would have been better if Ian Manook had embraced the fact that he was a Frenchman writing a book set in another country. Yeruldelgger could have become a foreigner living in Mongolia, working with the local police under whatever capacity and all would have been well. The awkwardness would have had an explanation.

Yeruldelgger is not available in English and for once, it’s not a Translation Tragedy.

Dead Man’s Fancy by Keith McCafferty (2015) French title: La Vénus de Botticelli Creek. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens

After this visit to Ulan Bator, I turned to one of my comfort crime fiction series: cozy crime by Keith McCafferty. Back to Montana with the sheriff Martha Ettinger helped by Sean Stranahan and Harold Little Feather.

In Dead Man’s Fancy, Nanicka Martinelli, a fishing guide at the Culpepper Ranch, goes missing. For once, she was riding with the tourists of this dude ranch and her horse came back to the ranch, without its rider. A wrangler took off to find her in the mountain and he’s found dead, impaled on an elk antler. (Who needs guns for a crime scene when the wilderness provides such weapons, eh?)

The investigation leads Martha and her team to the controversy around the reintroduction of wolves in the mountains. Nanicka was pro-wolves while her father Alfonso worked for the ranches to control the population of wolves. Another strange character haunt the woods: Fern Amarok, a pro-wolves activist who camps in the area with his girlfriend. Did Nanicka and Fern know each other? Is she missing or dead?

The plot is well-drawn but the fun isn’t in the story. It is in what happens around the plot. I wonder how Keith McCafferty got the idea of Nanicka’s father, Alfonso, a Frenchman born in the Hautes-Alpes, in the village of Saint-Véran and who emigrated to Québec, British Columbia and then Montana.

Our hero Sean Stranahan now lives in a tipi. He still paints but has an office at the community center because he can’t paint in his tipi. I didn’t that change coming in the previous volume.

Stranahan works for the sheriff but never forgets to take the time to fish. He stops to fish any time he wants. Determined to try out all the rivers possible? Given McCafferty’s job as Survival and Outdoor Skills Editor of Field and Stream, the descriptions of fishing and living in Montana ring true.

I found in Dead Man’s Fancy the fun and relaxation I was looking for, even with the dreadful elk antler and the wolf cries. Despite the violent crimes, some unmistakable peace oozes from this series. I’m a bit dubious about Stranahan’s new accommodation and life style, I find it a bit too much. So, now I’m curious to see what McCafferty will do with his characters in the next volume.

Dead Man’s Fancy is published by Gallmeister, an independant publisher in France. It belongs to Oliver Gallmeister and it’s specialized in crime fiction and Nature Writing from the USA. It has recently branched out to Italian fiction, always with nature as an important part of the book.

The Island of Souls by Piergiorgio Pulixi – Perfect crime fiction in my book

January 30, 2022 14 comments

The Island of Souls by Piergiorgio Pulixi. (2019) French title: L’île des âmes. Translated from the Italian by Anatole Pons-Reumaux. Not available in English.

The Island of Souls by Piergiorgio Pulixi is a crime fiction novel set in Sardinia. I bought it at Quais du Polar after a panel about crimes set on islands. The authors were David Vann, Susanna Crossman, Piergiorgio Pulixi and Patrice Guirao. I liked the idea of showing that islands don’t always rhyme with paradise.

The Island of Souls is the first book featuring the two detectives Eva Croce and Mara Rais. They have just been assigned to set up the first cold case unit of the Cagliari police. It is not a promotion.

Eva Croce is a transfer from the Milan police. Sardinia is a demotion for her, after a screw-up, her divorce and another personal drama. She arrives on the island, bruised and battered. One day at a time, one foot before the other is her survival attitude. Her first meeting with Mara is frosty.

Mara was also set aside from her team after her divorce. Her ex-husband used his connections to get to her professionally and her prickly attitude fueled his claims.

So, our two detectives set their office down in the musty archives department, where all the documentation on their cases is stored. Their first case is the ritual murders of women spread over several decades. It is an obsession for their colleague Moreno Barrali, who is terminally ill. Eva and Mara have to get as much information as possible about the murders before he dies. They know that the commissaire Farce asked them to look into it to keep them occupied and out of trouble but also to indulge Barrali, who is well-respected.

Eva and Mara meet with Moreno and dive into the case. And then Dolores Murgia goes missing.

The police eventually find her body, murdered according to the same ritual. The cold case merges with a very hot one. Eva and Mara will work with the investigation team.

All these women are killed according to a religious ritual that goes back to the ancient Nuragic civilization, the oldest one on the island.

It is still alive through their descendants, the Ladu clan. They live off the land in the mountains. Their leader is Bastianu, who is taking over his dying grandfather, Benignu. They live according to clan rules and they worship a goddess according to an antique cult. And Bastianu has a problem: they are facing a severe dry, the harvest isn’t good and the sheep cattle is impacted too. According to ancient rules, it means that the Goddess expects the sacrifice of a young woman…

But the Nuragic civilization is also alive through the neo-Nuragic cult, a group of people who reenact the Nuragic religious customs. Needless to say, the police is suddenly very interested in their activities…

The Island of Souls is exactly what Touch and Go isn’t. It is literary crime fiction. It is engaging. It is educational. As a reader, I wanted to know more about Eva and Mara’s pasts and I enjoyed watching their interactions and the building of their work relationship. The investigation wasn’t straightforward, leading the readers to dead ends, progressing in zigzags as the police know more about the victim and the neo-Nuragic group. In parallel, we have Bastianu, who faces the worst dilemma of his life. And I kept wondering if the stories were indeed parallel or if their path would intersect at some point. And on top of the stellar characterization, the excellent plot, you have a breathtaking description of Sardinia.

It’s my perfect crime fiction combo. Literary, unusual, intelligent and with a great sense of place. Pulixi disoriented me and I didn’t guess the ending.

A terrible Translation Tragedy for you, anglophone readers as it’s only available in French and Italian. Gallmeister has branched out of American literature with Italian literature and it’s a success!

PS: Diana from Thoughts on Papyrus hosts an Italia Reading Challenge and I decided to join her as I enjoy Italian literature very much.

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner – déjà vu and too clichéd for my taste.

January 22, 2022 18 comments

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner (2013) French title: Famille parfaite.

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner was our Book Club choice for January. It’s a thriller set in Boston and in New Hampshire.

Justin has been married to Libby for eighteen years and they have a fifteen-year-old daughter, Ashlyn. In appearance, they look like a perfect family. Justin is an entrepreneur and took over his father’s construction company and developed it. Libby works from home and creates jewels. She mostly has the role of a trophy wife, entertaining Justin’s clients and employees, being the main care giver to Ashlyn.

Justin and Libby’s marriage exploded six months ago, when Libby discovered that Justin cheated on her with a twenty-something travel agent from his office.

And now, they get kidnapped in their Bostonian brownstone. The Boston police arrive on the scene but the FBI takes over as soon as Justin’s jacket is found in New Hampshire. The local sheriff, Wyatt assists the Feds. Tessa Leoni, a former state trooper has been hired by Denbe Construction as a private investigator and is on the case too.

We’re in a classic thriller where on the one hand, we follow the investigation team and on the other hand, we follow what happens to the Denbes through Libby’s thoughts and point of view.

The plot is fast paced, I read it as you watch an action movie. It’s entertainment. But…it’s a weak book.

Half way through the book, I guessed the ending which is the kiss of death for a crime fiction book.

If the reader finds out so early in the story, who did it and why, it means that the plot is too thin and not woven properly. I don’t feel like a clever reader, I only think that the writer is not up to par.

The other weakness is the string of thriller clichés: the rich husband who cheats on his wife, the wife who has no real professional life but sells the jewels she makes, the crumbling façade of a perfect marriage, the kidnapping, Tessa Leoni and her traumatic past and the attraction brewing between her and Wyatt.

Other easy plot devices arrive later in the game but they would be spoilers, so…The only cliché that is missing is the classic conflicts between FBI, local police and PI. They get along rather well.

I’ll spare you the banal thoughts about marriage, love, pain and guilt that Libby inflicts on the reader as part of her thought process.

All this would have been insufferable in lit fiction but when it’s crime fiction, we seem more forgiving as a we’re only looking for a good time.

Then, it got me thinking about common tropes in fiction and I wondered how some American authors would fare if they were French. Indeed, writing in a French context would mean:

1 – Free social security. So, characters with crippling health bills are out of the question,

2 – Community property as the most common matrimonial regime meaning that property owned by one spouse before marriage, and gifts and inheritances received during marriage, are treated as that spouse’s separate property in the event of divorce. All other property acquired during the marriage is treated as community property and is subject to division between the spouses in the event of divorce. (Wikipedia) No prenup-driven plots or one-spouse-loses-all plots when divorce is involved.

3 – By law, one cannot totally disinherit their children or give all of their money to one heir. The part that one can freely dispense of depends on the composition of the legal heirs. Say you have two children, you’re free to do whatever you want with one third of your money. The rest goes automatically to your children. It limits the power of inheritance driven plots, no?

Back to the book.

My billet may sound a bit harsh as the book has a solid 4.07 stars on Goodreads. That’s my opinion. I like my crime fiction more literary and more original but I understand why other readers enjoyed Touch and Go.

Stay tuned and discover soon a wonderful Italian crime fiction book that mixes a good plot, original police characters and a great dose of information about Sardinia’s culture.  

What do you think? Have you read this book?

PS: A word about the covers. The American one is OK. The French ones are just awful. The person who chose the picture of Wisteria Lane has not read the book as the Denbe’s brownstone is almost a character of the book. And the other one with the young girl behind the wire netting, I don’t see how it relates to the book.

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