Review – Antonin Varenne – Bed of Nails

Bed of NailsFrench 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.

I received my copy of the book from the publisher. Other reviews can be found at Eurocrime, Raven Crime Reads and Yet Another Crime Fiction blog.

28 thoughts on “Review – Antonin Varenne – Bed of Nails

  1. I love Fred Vargas and don’t know anything about Varenne, but with such a warm recommendation, I immediately have to check it out! Too bad my xmas wishlist has already been dispatched 😉 … Happy holidays to you!


  2. kathy d.

    I love Fred Vargas, too. I may try this one out based on your recommendation, and I like Sian Reynolds’ translations.
    Have you read any books by Pierre Magnan? Death in the Truffle Wood is quite good. Commissionaire LaViolette is quite a detective, and appearances by Rosalind, the truffle-hunting pig are fun and also help provide clues to the murderer.
    There’s also Dominique Manotti, but I didn’t like Affairs of State, and wasn’t moved to try any of her other books. I do remember that Maxine liked that book and others by Manotti.
    Maxine’s views on various authors and books seems to be on my mind this week.
    I am planning on printing out her suggestions for each year and reading those she valued highly.


    1. I have read ‘Death in the Truffle Wood’ Kathy. It was a few years ago and I enjoyed it. I haven’t tried Manotti so thanks for the tip.

      Great idea about Maxine’s reviews. I ought to make a list too.


  3. Great review Sarah! I’m so pleased you enjoyed this as I picked it as my best read of the year on my own blog. Have a feeling that one of the contenders for next year’s best read will also be French as I’ve recently read ‘Alex’ by Pierre Lemaitre which is equally as good as ‘Bed of Nails’…


  4. Keishon

    Excellent review Sarah and thanks for linking. I haven’t read but one Fred Vargas book and enjoyed it. I am searching for more books like Varenne.


  5. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – What a great review – thanks! I’ve seen the ‘talk’ about this one and wondered if it would be too bleak for what I need right now. But it doesn’t seem to be. I should move it off my wish list and onto my TBR list. And you’re right about Vargas: she’s got a very appealing dispassionate way of looking at the world. If this one has that quality then I’m definitely interested.


  6. I did not like the first Fred Vargas book I read, but have read so many good things about that author since, that I will have to try the series again. This one sounds good. I don’t mind bleak.


  7. I like Vargas very much, so perhaps should try this author – as ever you do a persuasive job! Happy Christmas, Sarah, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you over the past few months.


  8. I’ve read Fred Vargas before but never realised he was French! I’ve read mixed reviews of this one but you make it sound quite gripping. As for other French crime fiction, Xavier-Marie Bonnot is pretty good and I’d echo the recommendation for Pierre Magnan.

    Hope you have a wonderful Christmas, and best wishes for 2013!


  9. kathy d.

    This may be too bleak for me right now. Am trying to read light, humorous books and watch the Nero Wolfe TV episodes, which are hilarious and just my speed for now.
    By the way, Fred Vargas is the pen name of Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau, a very popular writer of the Inspector Adamsberg series, and also another series about three historians. The only book published in English, to my knowledge, about the three historians is The Three Evangelists, a great read, and a winner of the Dagger award a few years ago.
    Readers seem to either love Vargas’ books or not like them; there are few readers who are ambivalent. I love them. They are very quirky and creative, although the methods for solving the crimes do use deductive reasoning, logic and science.
    Her last translated book was An Uncertain Place, which stretched the imagination, even for Vargas fans, but it was a lot of fun for those of us who like her writing. Serbian vampire dynasties, 18 severed feet, and more await those who get this book, perhaps annoying to some, but like a chocolate dessert to others.


  10. Pingback: French Crime Writers: No Longer Lost in Translation

  11. make

    Borrowed the book with no expectations whatsoever, not knowing the writer before. I truly had to struggle after half the book not to put it aside. What promise there is soon gets missed into pointless description of details that fail to bring any depth, feeling more glued on than real substance.

    Also it becomes obvious rather soon that the book is typical, modern crime book of bleak which rushes to dim all the more colourful spots when one happens to appear in form or another. The characters with their deficiencies are what have been typical in the crime books of The Nordic Countries for years already, only taken bit further into mad, obsessive side. That in turn adds into mess the book suffocates the possibly interesting fibres of plot.

    Thus what unfolds towards the end of the book wasn’t a surprise. Very disappointing and left the feeling of overrated, artificially arty piece.


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