Review: Pierre LeMaitre – Camille

9780857052773One of the most anticipated books this year, I was delighted when a review copy of Camille by Pierre LeMaitre dropped through my letterbox. It completes the trilogy featuring diminutive detective Commandant Camille Verhoeven. The series has been translated from the French out of order so we began with the second book, Alex, before starting the tragedy of Camille’s personal life with Irene. This is an excellent series. Any of the books can be read as standalones but with Camille, we do get a sense of the detective’s story coming full circle.

It is a series of seemingly random events that leads Anne Forestier to be shot three times in a bungled raid on a jewellers. She is taken to hospital but an attempt is soon made on her life there. For Commandant Verhoeven, it is an echo of a past tragedy when his wife, Irene, was murdered by a killer exacting revenge on Camille. He is determined to protect Anne at all costs but is hampered by the fact that he fails to tell his superiors of his relationship with the victim.

Camille is a dark tale with the detective once more at its heart. It’s the personality of Camille who, as with earlier books, dominates the narrative. It’s a clever ploy to make him physically small because he is a lion at heart and life’s vicissitudes appear to have only made him more determined. It is a difficult book to review because it invites comparisons to the wonderful Alex. I don’t think the story is was ingenious as the previous book but I did prefer it to Irene. I think this was partly the plot. It’s tightly contained and barely gives the reader a chance to consider what is happening.

Fans of the two earlier books will want to read Camille to complete Verhoeven’s tale. I think it’s a greater book than that as it shows how love, mistrust and acceptance aren’t mutually exclusive. And LeMaitre is a beautiful writer. The excellent translation was by Frank Wynne.

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Fred Vargas – Dog Will Have His Day

w489405-2Readers of this blog will know that Fred Vargas is one of my favourite writers and I always look forward to new translations of her books. Her latest to be published in the UK doesn’t feature Vargas’s wonderful detective, Adamsberg, but rather one the ‘three evangelists’ who appeared in an earlier novel of the same title.

The principal narrator in Dog Will Have His Day is Marc, or St Mark as he is referred to by his housemates. He is helping a former special investigator, Louis Kehlweiler, put his records in order. When Louis discovers the fragment of a bone in a local park, he persuades Marc to help him keep watch on regular dog walkers in the area. Convinced that a murder has taken place, Louis and then Marc decamp to Port-Nicolas in Brittany and shake up the local population in their hunt for the killer.

All of Vargas’s books are characterised by her sly humour and slanted view of the world. Dog Will Have His Day is no exception and the highlight of the book is a typewriter in Port-Nicolas that churns out ‘advice’ to those who ask it questions. There is also the ever watchful presence of Louis’s pet toad and a cast of colourful characters including Marthe, the former prostitute who knows everything about men.

The murder plot itself is quite slight. We’ve become used to getting lengthy books from Vargas and this one seemed less substantial than her earlier novels. Originally written in 1996, the absence of modern technology also slightly dates the book although, to be fair, there is a timelessness about Vargas’s writing anyway.

The novel reminded me how much I enjoyed The Three Evangelists and it is always good to read a Vargas book. While not her best, it was still enjoyable although it would have been nice to see more of the other two ‘evangelists’ in the narrative.

Thanks to Harvill Secker for my review copy. The translation was by Sian Reynolds.

 

Review: Pascal Garnier – The Front Seat Passenger

Gallic Books have been translating a series of novels by Pascal Garnier. These are slim books, reminiscent of the writings of 8a579eddb4bf8f649667fc1baf77e1dcPatricia Highsmith, which provide short but thought-provoking slices of French noir. The Front Seat Passenger is the latest in the series and chronicles the reaction of Fabian whose wife, Sylvie, is killed in a car accident with her lover. He attempts to ingratiate himself with the wife of the dead man, Martine, to exact revenge. But Martine has an over protective best friend who first needs to be removed from the scene.

The first part of the book is excellent as we enter the grieving world of Fabian who, although mourning his dead wife, feels curiously removed from his emotions. His dislocation is exacerbated by his discovery of Sylvie’s affair but in the midst of his shock he is composed enough to write down the address of the dead man’s wife. Before long, he is stalking her with the intention of starting a relationship. But Sylvie has a curious friendship with the first wife of her dead husband. And so we enter the claustrophobic world of an off-beat cast of characters that draw you into their small oeuvre.

The book works well when its leaves the reader unsettled as to how the narrative will unfold. When it’s clear that all bets are off and, in fact, anything could happen, then the narrative felt too loose for me. Which isn’t to say it isn’t an enjoyable read. I particularly liked the sparsity of the writing and the matter of fact tone. It was also a short read, only 139 pages. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy these little blasts of noir.

Thanks to Gallic Books for my review copy. The translation is by Jane Aitkin.

Review: Philippe Georget – Summertime All the Cats are Bored

SummertimeThis exquisitely titled book was sent to me by Europa Editions as part of their summer selection for their World Noir series. It’s a classic summer read: France is sleeping in the August heat and the police appear to be on a reduced workload. When a taxi driver fails to return home, despite the pleadings of his wife, the Perpignan police only cursorily investigate the case. However a young Dutch woman disappears and another is found murdered. Suddenly the police, including Inspector Gilles Sebag, have to put all their resources into finding the key to the mystery.

Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get to the book over the summer which is a shame as it’s an ideal read for the beach or while relaxing in the garden on a scorching day. However, the plot stood up to a chilly Derbyshire autumn reading and gave me a welcome relief from the Scandinavian fare that has dominated recently.

What made the book a delight was how much it appeared to be a direct descendent of Simenon’s Maigret series. It wasn’t just the fact it was a police procedural although many of the elements that make Simenon’s books so enjoyable, in particular the relationship between police colleagues, were there. The book also felt essentially French and it couldn’t really have been set anywhere else. It’s always wonderful to read novels where the plot and the setting is intrinsically linked.

Although I enjoyed the murder investigation, in fact it was the characterisation and background elements of the narrative that really elevated the book. I’d recommend it to all fans of Maigret and readers who want to expand their repertoire of French crime fiction.

Thanks to Daniella at Europa Editions for sending me the book. Norman over at Crime Scraps Review has also just reviewed the book and was similarly impressed. The translation was by Steven Rendall.

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.