French crime writer Fred Vargas is one of my favourite authors but I’ve read very little other contemporary crime fiction from France. Bed of Nails by Antonin Varenne has been garnering some decent reviews although the emphasis on its noirish credentials in the blurb at the back wasn’t doing much for me. However, it turned out to be a compelling read and Varenne has now been added to my list of ‘must read’ writers.
Inspector Guérin is a shabbily attired police detective whose career has been derailed by an event in his past. He has been assigned to the suicide archives of the French CID where deadbeat and corrupt cops are stationed. But the department suits honest Guérin and his assistant Lambert who diligently record and investigate each suicide that is assigned to them. However one case, the death of drug addicted American Alan Musgrave onstage during his S & M show appears to be more than a voyeuristic public suicide. When John Nichol’s, Musgrave’s friend arrives from his tent in the lot valley, he too decides that the suicide is not all it seems.
The tone of the book reminded me of Fred Vargas’s books. It has a dispassionate standoffish view of the world which is very compelling and helped to create a slightly surreal atmosphere both within the corrupt police department and in the investigations of John Nichols. Nichols I found by far the most attractive character. His friendship with the ravaged Musgrave was an important element in his life and the depth of the friendship gradually reveals itself to the reader. Guérin and Lambert are deliberately lustreless characters whose dedication to their job is a joke amongst their colleagues. But both show a humanity missing in others in their department. Minor characters are equally well drawn including a German artist who covers herself in paint and runs naked at walls, and the ex-convict Bunker.
This book excels in its characterisation and depiction of human relationships and it is worth reading for these elements alone. However, the murder plot was also very good, centring around the psychological disorder Saint Sebastian Syndrome. There are also excellent descriptions of the darkness and corruption of Paris life compared with the bucolic Lot countryside. Bed of Nails is a fascinating if bleak read and hopefully more of Varenne’s books will be translated by the excellent Siân Reynolds, who also translates Vargas’s books.