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20 Books of Summer #8 and #9 : two books I couldn’t finish

August 3, 2020 24 comments

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002) French title: Neige. Translated by François Pérouse. // La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (2006) Not available in English.

I can’t say I got along with our two last Book Club reads, Snow by Orhan Pamuk and La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (Not available in English and a literal translation would be The Shutter Troopers) In both cases, I read around 120-150 pages before giving up, I think I’ve given them a fair chance.

Let’s start with Snow. The character Ka –sounds like he’s coming of a Dino Buzzati novel—arrives in the provincial town of Kars, in Turkey. It’s winter and snowing. He’s back in his country after living in Germany for a decade. He’s a published poet and he’s sent to Kars as a reporter to investigate the suspicious suicides of young girls in the area. It’s also where his former university classmate Ipek lives. He had a vague crush on her back then and now he thinks she could be marriage material.

I know that Orhan Pamuk got the Nobel Prize of Literature and that Snow is a well-acclaimed novel. I just didn’t get along with it. I thought that the constant religious discussions were too long and boring and I found the relationship between Ka and Ipek implausible.

It’s the kind of book I should have liked and I’m sure it tells lots of interesting things about Turkey but I was really struggling. I asked the other Book Club members how they were doing with it and the one answer I got was that the last 200 pages were a little boring. Since the first 100 pages were already plenty boring to me, I made the decision to stop reading it. I couldn’t push through the 500 pages left. I was just bored.

It’s obviously a good book, just not one for me. Or perhaps I read it at the wrong time.

 

Now The Shutter Troopers. It’s SF, so really out of my comfort zone and I was apprehensive to tackle these 730 pages of hardcore SF, not even dystopian fiction. Think of Dune.

The first chapter threw me off. Humans are in a life-threatening wind tempest in a décor of rammed earth houses and Australian bush. The author is from Lyon and rammed earth houses are typical from the Dauphiné region, between Lyon and Grenoble. Since the landscape was made of red earth, spinifex, eucalypti and oaks, I thought about Australia. Images of my in-laws’ village clashed in my head with images of Uluru.

The structure of the book is unusual. The chapters go from XIX to I. The main characters are described in a glossary at the end of the book, something I’ve just discovered. The characters speak one after each other and are represented by Greek symbols. You never know who’s speaking unless you click on the symbol (ebook) or refer to the characters bookmark (paper book). The POV changes several times per chapter.

I have the ebook version and I hated clicking on the symbol because it broke my reading flow, so I stopped checking. (It would have been the same with the paperback anyway) I didn’t always know who was speaking and I spent the few chapters I read trying to understand what I was reading. French speaking readers will understand what I mean with this quote: “Les chrones les plus petits ont le volume d’un gorce. Les plus gros pourraient tenir dans la doline.”

I asked about La Horde du Contrevent to French readers on Twitter and got the same answers. It takes half of the book to really get into it; you have to read it in few sittings to really manage to enter into the book’s world and you need the book bookmark to follow who’s speaking but after 350 pages, it’s getting better. I also asked what it was about and the most accurate description was that it’s about a sort of rugby team who travels the Earth to find out where the wind comes from. It’s a spiritual quest.

The thing is, I don’t have the luxury to read 730 pages in one or two sittings, even on holiday. It got on my nerves not to be able to understand whose POV I was reading, even if the characters have distinct voices. I believe I would have recognized them in the end. But there are 23 troopers. How long would it have taken me to spot each character through their voice? Russian novels are piece of cake after that, believe me. Each trooper has a role in the team and it’s hard to assimilate as well since these roles are totally imaginary.

Call me conservative but I don’t think I should refer to a bookmark for the names of the characters when I’m reading. All this irritated me, got in the way of my immersion in Damasio’s world. And, honestly, it’s a pity. He’s insanely creative. His descriptions are precise, poetic and visual. He imagined a coherent world with rules and inhabitants and I’m sure that for some readers, it’s a wonderful journey. But Damasio is too verbose for my tastes. I put the book down for a few days, thinking I’d get back to it. I tried to resume reading and I was put-off by the style. I wasn’t interested in knowing what would become of them and I wasn’t intrigued enough to push through the discomfort of feeling totally disoriented.

La Horde du Contrevent won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in 2006, the Goncourt of SF. It’s rated 4.46 stars on Goodreads. My vision of it is only mine and says nothing about the quality of the book just that it wasn’t a good match for this reader.

This blog is not about reviewing books, it’s my reading journey, I share the good and the bad experiences.

20 Books of Summer #6: Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira – Educational and thoughtprovoking

July 19, 2020 11 comments

Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira (2002 – revised in 2015) Original French title: L’esclavage raconté à ma fille.

I bought Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira at the temporary bookshop set up in the Musée d’Orsay at the end of the exhibition Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse.

Christiane Taubira is a French politician who was, among other political achievements, Minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016. She a literature lover and a feminist, as mentioned in my billet here.

As you can see it on the cover of the book, she’s a black woman. She was born in Cayenne, in French Guiana, one of the French overseas departments. And yes, Cayenne is where Dreyfus was deported, in a penal colony. Taubira was deputy of French Guiana from 1993 to 2012.

She has always fought against racism and for France to deal with its history as a slave state. During her mandate she pushed for a law about slavery. The Loi n°2001-434 was promulgated on May 13th, 2001.

In its first article, the law states that France acknowledges that the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean and in the Indian Ocean and slavery perpetrated from the 15th century in the Americas, in the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean and in Europe and against Africans, indigenous people, Indians and Madagascans is a crime against humanity.

The second article imposes that the history of the slave trade and of slavery be taught in schools with sufficient details and taking into account historical sources from Europe and from Africa, America and the Caribbean.

The third article says that France will push the Council of Europe, the UN and other international organizations to acknowledge the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity too. France must also push for a common date to commemorate the abolition of slave trade and slavery.

No wonder Taubira’s favorite author is Toni Morrison. Slavery Explained to My Daughter reflects who she is: combative, passionate, factual and non-violent. As a French, she mostly pays attention France’s history. Through the exchange with her daughter, I learnt or reread about historical facts but what I liked the most is her views on the matter.

She says that a formal and legal acknowledgment of the crime is a necessity, a ground to build the future.

She also says that Europe fabricated false reasonings to justify their crime and that even then, people knew it was not right but clung to their arguments to ease their conscience and keep making money or annexing countries. So, saying it was legal at the time is not a valid argument to brush off the matter and not look at the facts as crimes.

She’s against financial reparations because it would sell her ancestors a second time and it would be a nightmare to organize. How much should be paid and to whom? For her, the only way to compensate now is to put money into programs that will guarantee that the descendants of former slaves and white people have equal opportunities in life. I’m with her. Compensation through investing in the future, that sounds fair to me.

Besides the European side of the issue, she also stresses on slaves’ side. She puts forward slaves who fought against their condition and also reminds us of the new culture that uprooted people created to survive. She takes pride in her ancestry and shares it with the reader.

I thought that Slavery Explained to My Daughter was an intelligent book. The facts and the emotions are there. It’s educational, optimistic but also realistic. There is still a lot to do. It will require a lot of education and political goodwill. I wish my kids studied this book in school.

This was another read for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

20 Books of Summer #5: The Overstory by Richard Powers – a book tree

July 14, 2020 10 comments

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) French title: L’Arbre-monde. Translated by Serge Chauvin.

I decided to read The Overstory by Richard Powers after reading his interview in the review America where he talked about the fascinating world of trees and made me look at them in a different angle. I thought I’d give his sequoia novel a try.

The Overstory is a Sagrada Família book. Built like a cathedral with precise blueprints and with trees as pillars. Like a tree, it has four parts, Roots, Trunc, Crown and Seeds.

In the Roots part, we meet nine characters, Nicholas, Mimi, Adam, Ray, Dorothy, Douglas, Neelay, Patricia and Olivia. Each has a tree totem. They come from California, the Midwest or the West. All have a relationship with trees and forests. It comes from their childhood or they have a revelation later. They come from different backgrounds, two of them have immigrant parents. It’s hard to say how old they are but they’re born between the 1940s and the 1960s. Some will keep a remote relationship with trees. Some will turn into green activists or even eco-warriors. One is a scientist devoted to the cause of biodiversity. All are convinced that old forests are precious and need to be protected.

The Trunc part is where some of the roots meet and live together for a while. Crown sees them live apart, make their own way in life. And Seeds is their legacy. The structure of the book is rather clear-cut and it is intentional, Powers is too gifted for it to be random clumsiness.

I enjoyed Roots, learning about the characters, knowing they’d interact somewhere in the future. I liked the Trunc part but was a bit disappointed with the rest. I learnt things about the destruction of trees, either because of bugs or through the cutting for woods. I heard the argument about giving trees the status of a legal body. Lawyers can represent their interests in court, then. I was fascinated by the description of the workings of the ecosystem around the roots of the trees. They live in harmony with other living creatures, animals or plants. Scientist are only unearthing the complexity of the communication system between trees. Since trees don’t move and don’t interact with us, we forget they’re living creatures. And Powers points out, Noah only took animals and humans on his ark. I got it and it’s a valid argument.

We think with our times. When people fought against slavery, for women’s rights, for the independence of colonies, a lot of their contemporaries thought they were extremist and nuts. They were ahead of their time and now their vision is the norm. Did we make the same mistake with environmental activists since the 1960s?

Powers says you don’t change people’s minds with rational thinking, that humans aren’t wired that way. You might change their minds with a good story. I think he’s right. The Overstory is not like The Monkey-Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey even if some parts reminded me of the Gang. It’s less abrasive in it’s form, more consensual and more likely to reach readers with moderate thinking.

Back to the Sagrada Família book. I have mixed feelings about The Overstory. Powers’s writing is incredibly poetic and his sentences rustle like leaves in a quiet forest. The tree metaphor is everywhere. I suppose that it needed to be that long (730 pages) to mirror the longevity of the old trees it sings about. I had the feeling that things were coming along smoothly, that important facts were sown in a poetic vision of forests and trees.

I was captivated and bored. I wasn’t really receptive to some farfetched communication channel between trees and one of the characters, Olivia. I am wary of people with callings. I’m with James Lee Burke when he writes “I’ve had some experience with people who are always trying to right the world by wiping out large portions of it. They all have the same idea about sacrifices, but it’s always somebody else’s ass that gets burned.”

Everything is well orchestrated, like a symphony. Each character plays its own instrument, has its part and they are in perfect sync. It doesn’t mean that the characters are saints. They are adrift, mean sometimes and not always good spouses or parents. They try to raise awareness but symphonies are barely heard in the world of pop-music.

The Overstory is a majestic symphony. I acknowledge it’s beautiful just like I do when I hear classical music. But symphonies never manage to move me the way blues does. The Overstory didn’t tug at my emotions as much as The Book of Yack by Rick Bass did.

I’m curious about other readers’ responses to this book. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

20 Books of Summer #3: Blood by Tony Birch – Indigenous Literature Week

July 7, 2020 14 comments

Blood by Tony Birch (2011) French title : Du même sang. Translated by Antoine Bargel.

Tony Birch is an Australian Indigenous writer. His debut novel Blood is my third 20 Books of Summer billet and my contribution to Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week. Lisa hosts this event to help readers discover Indigenous Literature, mostly from Australia and New Zealand. If you want to know more, here’s her post that describes the event and gives book recommendations.

In Blood, Tony Birch introduces us to Jesse and Rachel who live with their useless mother, Gwen. She works where and when she can and she’s constantly attracted to bad boys with criminal streaks and has no motherly instinct.

Jesse (13) and Rachel (8) almost never go to school. They move too much, living in abandoned farmhouses, in trailers, in shitty flats. Their mother leaves them on their own and the telly is their baby-sitter. They watch a lot of crime shows and films they’re too young to see. Gwen shows no real affection to her children. She’s always on the run.

The children know nothing about a normal life and a normal childhood. They stick together and their deepest fear is to be picked up by social services and to be sent to different foster homes. Jesse feels responsible for his sister, they made a blood pact to always help each other. Gwen is the major source of their issues.

We’d always been on the move, shifting from one place to another, usually because she’d done the dirty on someone, or she was chasing some fella she’d fallen for. And when Gwen fell for a bloke, she had to have him.

Once she shacks up with Jon, an ex-convict. Due to his past, he can’t find a job, stays home and starts to take care of the house and the kids. He’s determined to stay on the wagon and to turn his back to his former life. He sticks to it, cooks, cleans up the house, takes the children to school. They start to have a routine but this life becomes too homely for Gwen, Jon lost his edge and she kicks him out. The children lose a caring adult and are back to square one.

Gwen leaves them behind at her estranged father’s house. Jesse and Rachel have never met him and the improbable trio finds their way together. Stability is around the corner when Gwen shows up again and takes the kids away. Now she’s with Ray and this one is a real criminal. Jesse quickly realises that this man is very dangerous. He starts thinking about running away with Rachel and his hatred for his mother grows.

We know from the beginning that something terrible has happened. Jesse, the only narrator in the book, rings true. He takes us through his life up to the present. The story is suspenseful, breathtaking and heartbreaking. I was hooked from the first pages, mentally cheering the children, dreading for their future and cursing Gwen’s idiotic and shameful behaviour. It’s bleak but Jesse never gives up.

It sounds like American Darling by Gabriel Tallent. I rooted for Jesse and Rachel like I did for Tallent’s Turtle. I wish that Turtle and Jesse could meet, bond and share their mad survival skills. Both Tallent and Birch are gifted storytellers, embarking us on a journey in these kids’ lives. Blood isn’t as emotionally scarring as American Darling but it still made me angry on behalf of Jesse and Rachel.

Blood is on this thin line between literary fiction and crime fiction. (Gabriel Tallent was invited to Quais du Polar, btw.) We see children put on the path of violent criminals by their worthless mother. We wonder where social services are and how children can live under the radar like this. No institution worries when they don’t come back to school. No social worker ever shows up at their house. The world of adults constantly fails them, up to the point that Jesse and Rachel take matters in their own hands.

Blood is a compelling read that will stay with me and I highly recommend it. Many thanks to Lisa for reviewing books by Tony Birch. I knew of him when I visited the bookshop Readings in Melbourne and Blood was among the books I brought back to France.

 

20 Books of Summer #2: Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski – Take a walk on a wild timeline

June 27, 2020 6 comments

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski (2010) French title: Date limite. Translated by Sophie Aslanides

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski was our Book Club choice for June. I’ve read enough Swierczynskis now to be –almost—able to write his name without mixing the letters up or putting too many Ys. I’ve read The Blonde and the Charlie Hardie series, Fun and GamesHell and Gone and Point and Shoot.

All books mix Noir, thriller and SF with a huge dose of humor. Imagine the cocktail. I love it. For French readers, Swierczynski’s translator is Sophie Aslanides and it’s published by Rivages Noir. That’s enough for crime fiction lovers to pick the book, IMO.

So, what happens in Expiration Date?

We’re in Philadelphia. When the book opens, it’s present time. Journalist Mickey Wade has just been fired by his newspaper. Since he earned just enough to survive with his wages as a journalist, he’s now flat broke. He’s moving from his upscale neighborhood to a bad one, Frankford. That’s where he grew up and where he’s going to stay rent-free in his grandfather’s apartment while he’s at the hospital.

First night in the building, there’s a bodega downstairs but not a lot of neighbors. His friend Meghan helps him moving in and when she’s gone, Mickey feels tired, lonely, a bit desperate and headachy. He looks around Grand Pop Henry’s apartment and is intrigued by all the boxes he sees. But now is not the time to go through Pop’s stuff. He hunts down pills to fight his headache, finds what he thinks is Tylenol, pops two in his mouth, washes them out with some water and is thrown back to Frankford on February 22, 1972, his date of birth.

And I can’t tell you more about the plot without truly spoiling it. It sounds like Back to the Future but it’s by Swierczynski, so there must be murders, an investigation and bad guys. The plot is gripping and takes you for such a spin that sometimes you don’t know where you are or when. That’s the entertaining side of the book.

The more serious side is that, through these journeys into the past, Swierczynski takes us to Frankford street and shows us how it was a working-class neighborhood in the 1920s, moved to a middle-class one in the 1970s when Mickey was a kid to a run-down neighborhood. It’s now dangerous and the territory of gangs and drug dealers. The decline of industrial jobs in the US happened. It is the same implacable scenario that Roth describes for his hometown Newark. There is always some social commentary in good crime fiction.

A word about the American edition. Swierczynski writes for Marvel Comics and this one is published by Minautor Books. It includes black-and-white illustrations like in old fashioned books. It gives them a wonderful vintage feel.

Do I need to add that this is a great holiday read?

PS : A big thank you for this book to Guy, from His Futile Preoccupations.

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ – the pressure of traditions on young couples

June 20, 2020 13 comments

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (2017) French title: Reste avec moi. Translated by Josette Chicheportiche.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ is a Nigerian writer and her novel Stay With Me was our Book Club choice for May. (Yes, I’m late with writing this billet. I never seem to be able to write billets in the same order as I read books)

Yejide and Akin are still in university when they meet and fall in love. They get married quickly and are happy together. Unfortunately, four years after their wedding, Yejide isn’t pregnant yet. The young couple wouldn’t worry about it if Akin’s mother didn’t put pressure on them. As her eldest son, he must have children to keep his family’s lineage alive. Yejide sees all the specialists and medicine men she can, but to no avail. Life goes on until her mother-in-law brings to her house Akin’s second wife.

Stay With Me goes back and forth between the present (2008) and the past (the 1980s) where everything began. Yejide’s first reaction is intense jealousy towards Fumni, Akin’s second wife. She feels betrayed by her husband, by her mother-in-law. She’s against polygamy and never wanted to be an Iya, a first wife.

Yejide has lost her mother when she was little. Her father was close to her but she had to live with his other wives and their children and she never found her place in the household. She thought she had found a new family with Akin’s family and her mother-in-law’s behavior is hard to accept.

Things don’t go where you think they’re headed, with a cohabitation between the two wives and all the drama around it. I can’t tell you how the story develops without spoilers, so let’s keep it that way: it’s dark and unorthodox.

Stay With Me shows an educated young couple with a Western type of relationship who is powerless to resist the pressure put by family and tradition. Yejide owns her hairdressing salon and Akin works in a bank. They live in a rather big city. They are happy the way they are but they don’t dare to go against tradition. Fighting Akin’s mother’s wishes is rude and impossible to do.

I discovered a culture I knew nothing about. Akin’s younger brother, Dotun is married and has children but it’s not enough to appease their mother. Her first born must be a father, at any cost. There’s also strong beliefs in devils, various superstitions that weigh on people’s lives.

Stay With Me is narrated by Yejide but also by Akin, and it was interesting to see events from his side. We see the pressure put on their shoulders. Of course, when a couple doesn’t have children, the assumption is that the woman’s fertility is the cause of the absence of pregnancy. Akin’s mother can’t imagine that her son could be responsible for it.

Stay With Me also mentions politics in Nigeria in the 1980s. There was a military coup in 1985 by Ibrahim Babangida. It doesn’t impact Yejide’s and Akin’s lives more than any other Nigerian of the time. They are not involved in politics and it doesn’t interfere in their attempts to have children. I didn’t see the point of including these political events in the novel.

I thought that Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s book was poignant and that it is an important plea for more individual freedom in her country. We’re in 2020, the story takes place in the 1980s, I don’t know how mores have changed in almost 40 years but surely things have moved on.

I enjoyed traveling to Nigeria, reading about the food, the customs, life in Yejide’s salon and the time it takes to braid women’s hair. I liked Stay With Me well-enough but something’s missing and it prevented me from loving it. It’s still worth reading, though.

In French, Stay With Me is published by Charleston, a publisher I’d never heard of. After a bit of research, they publish romance, which might explain why I never came across them. The French translation is by Josette Chicheportiche who has just published a new translation of Gone With the Wind. It’s a chunkster, I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle such a long book. So if you’ve read it and loved it, I need some encouragements here. 😊

For the anecdote, there’s a “battle” between Gallmeister, the publisher of the new translation and Folio, who republished its old translation. If Folio’s translation of Gone With the Wind is like their translation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or A Rage In Harlem, I’m definitely team Gallmeister and I’ll be reading Chicheportiche’s translation.

A Mirrors Greens in Spring by Selina Sen – New Delhi in the 1980s

June 10, 2020 16 comments

A Mirror Greens in Spring by Selina Sen (2007) French title: Après la mousson. Translated by Dominique Goy-Blanquet.

A Mirror Greens in Spring is an Indian book by Selina Sen. Set in New Delhi in the early 1980s, it focuses on the lives of two sisters, Chandrayee “Chhobi” and Sonali. We are in a Bengali household where the two young women live with their widowed mother and their grand-parents.

The grandfather is very nostalgic of his youth. He had to leave his hometown after the partition of India and Pakistan. He’s from Bangladesh and he chose to stay in India but he never truly healed and still feel in exile.

Chhobi is 25 and Sonali is 19. The two sisters have very different personalities, due to a different education. When Chhobi was a young girl, their father died and she stayed in a Catholic boarding school when Sonali went back to New Delhi with their mother.

Chhobi is more studious and loves history. She works for a magazine in Delhi and writes pieces about various historical places of the city. She wants to have a PhD in Indian history. She’s the serious one, taking care of her sister and behaving responsibly. As she’s already 25, their intrusive neighbour, Mrs Chatterjee, wonders why she doesn’t have any prospect of marriage yet. But Chhobi enjoys being single and doesn’t seem eager to get married. She’s intelligent, grounded and her good sense brings a good support to her family. Her boss, Rosemary, encourages her to follow her dreams and not give up for family reasons.

Sonali is the frivolous one. She’s gorgeous, spoilt and self-centred. Her only interests in life are clothes, jewels and parties. She’s naïve and since she’s so pretty, her grandmother, the real master of the house, hopes for a rich marriage. So, when Sonali sneaks out of the house to meet her wealthy boyfriend Sonny, her mother and grandmother turn a blind eye. The inevitable happens: Sonny’s family has already chosen someone else for their son…

The first part of the book is pretty standard. Two girls with opposite characters, a cautious one and a reckless one. I thought that the plot was a classic déjà-vu and I almost stopped reading. The second part moved past the jilted poor girl part of the plot and became more suspenseful and I’m glad I didn’t abandon it.

Overall, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring but I thought there were too many descriptions of places, flowers, dishes, saris and of the weather. It felt written for an international public who doesn’t live in India. The descriptions happened at odd moments, as if a tourist guide jack-in-the-box popped up to give details and it broke my reading flow. It did make me want to learn how to cook Bengali cuisine though, everything sounded delicious!

India is a complex country for foreigners and I didn’t get the Bengali vs Panjabi comments from the characters. Sonali got on my nerves because I have little patience for spoilt princesses. I rooted for Chhobi and hoped she wouldn’t sacrifice her dreams to take care of her vapid sister and support her family.

Selina Sen takes us to a cultured household who struggles to make ends meet. We see three generations of women and the toll that widowhood puts on the girls’ mother. The book is set at the time Indira Gandhi was assassinated and I wonder why the author chose this time and place for her novel written in 2007. Politics has little to do with the story but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement appears in the plot. Selina Sen mentions the historical wounds that people still carry with them, the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947, the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971, terrorism in Sri Lanka.

In the end, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring for the sense of displacement, for taking me away from my home and drop me into another country, into another culture.

Two books by Viveca Sten – thoughts on the translations

May 31, 2020 12 comments

Still Waters (2008) and Closed Circles (2009) by Viveca Sten. French titles: La Reine de la Baltique and Du sang sur la Baltique. Translated from the Swedish by Laura A Wideburg (Still Waters) and by Rémi Cassaigne (Du sang sur la Baltique)

I’d heard of the Swedish writer Viveca Sten from a colleague and she was on the Quais du Polar writers’ panel for this year’s aborted edition. I think it’s the first time I’ve read two crime fiction books in a row from the same series since I had my Agatha Christie binge in 5ème (7th Grade in the US system)

It’s also the first time I read one in English translation (Still Waters) and one in French (Closed Circles). More of that later.

Still Waters and Closed Circles are the two first books of the Sandhamn series by Viveca Sten. Set on the Sandhamn island in the Stockholm archipelago, they feature Inspector Thomas Andreasson and his friend Nora Linde. Thomas works at the Nacka police and Nora is a legal advisor in a bank. Both work in Stockholm and have spent their summers in the islands near Stockholm since they were children. Nora uses her legal knowledge to help Thomas in his investigations. Unofficially, of course.

Sandhamn has become a famous vacation spot in Sweden and, from what I gathered in the books, it’s like The Hamptons in the US or Deauville in France. Nora inherited her house from her grandmother, otherwise she couldn’t afford to buy one. Thomas has a summer house on Harö, a nearby island. The two books are set in July, in the peak season for holidaying in Sweden.

In Still Waters, a body is found on the beach during the summer holidays. Thomas soon finds out it’s Krister Berggren, a middle-aged man from Stockholm who works for the state-run alcohol shops, Systembolaget. He has no obvious link to Sandhamn, what happened?

In Closed Circles, a famous regatta organized by the Royal Swedish Yacht Club (RSYC) is about to start when a participant is shot. The victim, Oscar Juliander is the deputy president of the RSYC and a well-known bankruptcy lawyer in Stockholm. Thomas was already on the scene since he was among the public who wanted to watch the race. He will lead the investigation. Nora is also in Sandhamn for the holidays, with her husband and children.

These two books are part of a series and a key success factor of a series is to hook up the reader on the characters’ private lives. We’re in the realm of all modern crime fiction series, away from Poirot and Maigret who don’t seem to have a life outside of crime investigating. It worked with me since I engaged in Thomas and Nora’s lives and picked up Closed Circles right after reading Still Waters.

Thomas is a Swedish cliché: six foot four, well built, his shoulders broad from years of handball training. He looked just like the archetypal policeman, big and reassuring, with blond hair and blue eyes. He’s divorced and his marriage to Pernilla fell apart after their infant died from SIDS. After almost drowning in sorrow, he’s now slowly resurfacing. After several crime fiction books with alcoholic PIs and detectives, Thomas was a welcome reprieve.

Nora is married to Henrik, a doctor, and they have two sons, Adam and Simon. In her late thirties, Nora starts to think she doesn’t get that much out of her marriage. Henrik spends his holiday on his boat and participates in regattas while she’s left behind with the children. Then Nora’s employer asks whether she’d be interested in becoming the head of their legal department in Malmö. It’s a promotion but one that requires a move. Will Henrik accept to uproot the family for her career?

I wasn’t thrilled by Still Waters, I thought that the writing was a bit clumsy at times (Nora placed the chicken dish on the table and put on the latest Norah Jones CD, her namesake apart from the h.) and I had guessed who the murderer was, which is not a good sign. When I read crime fiction, I let the writer carry me to the ending. I don’t try to pick up clues and outsmart the detective to find out who did it. So, if I guess the ending without trying to find it, in my eyes, the book is flawed. The cliffhanger about Nora’s life pushed me to read the second book, also thinking that the first book of the series isn’t always the best one. Unfortunately, the same thing happened with Closed Circles: I guessed the two main clues of the plot and that’s a definite no-go for me. Plus, the characters’ lives took a turn that didn’t interest me anymore.

So, no more Viveca Sten for me, unless I want something easy to read. That said, reading two books from the same series, one in English and one in French was an interesting experience.

I had the English rhythm of Sten’s writing well in mind when I started the second book in French. It didn’t have the same vibe and it took me a few chapters to get used to the French translation. The English one felt neutral and smooth, the French one felt a bit contrived and inaccurate. The translator overdid it when he translated the scenes at the Nacka precinct, lowering the level of language of the police team, as if they needed to sound more NYPD Blues to sound true.

In the English version of Still Waters, the police chief is introduced like this: The old man was the head of criminal investigation in Nacka, Detective Chief Inspector Göran Persson.

Then, he’s called Persson in the rest of the book. In my head, he was close to retirement and a bit quick-tempered. In the French translation, he’s called le Vieux. (The Oldman) I was really surprised and downloaded an extract of the English translation of Closed Circles. Chapter 5, we’re at the precinct:

Göran Persson, the head of the criminal unit of the Nacka police, couldn’t keep his anger under control.

Göran, chef de l’unité criminelle à la police de Nacka, surnommé le Vieux, ne parvenait pas à contenir sa colère.

Where does the “surnommé le Vieux”, (“nicknamed the Oldman”) comes from? And then, he becomes le Vieux in the book. A few lines later, about Carina:

Carina Persson, the chief’s daughter sat beside them. For the past two years, she’d worked as their administrative assistant while trying to get into the police academy. She’d finally been admitted this fall. A côté d’eux était assise Carina Persson, la fille du Vieux, qui travaillait depuis deux ans au commissariat comme assistante administrative, tout en préparant le concours de l’école de police. Elle allait enfin le passer à l’automne.  

The “chief’s daughter” becomes the “Oldman’s daughter”. In French, le Vieux is more derogatory than Oldman in English. You never know what was the publisher’s order regarding the translation, they may have asked for this and the translator had to comply. We’ll live with this.

But inaccuracy has nothing to do with the publisher’s requests. In the quote before, “She’s finally been admitted this fall” becomes in French “She’ll take the exam in the fall”, which is not the same at all and it happens to be an important detail in the story.

And then there was the victim’s profession. Oscar was a bankruptcy lawyer. I have no clue how it is said in Swedish but I’m sure that Viveca Sten, being a lawyer herself, used the right term. In French, the proper term in administateur judiciaire, not un administrateur de faillite like in the translation. A little research would have prevented that.

I usualIy don’t read English translations of books. Why should I make my life more difficult and read in English when I could read in French a translation made for a French reader? But I had the opportunity to get Still Waters for a cheap price on my e-reader and went for it. Reading Closed Circles in French right after Still Waters in English was eye-opening.

The writer doesn’t sound the same way in the two translations and the French one, on top of its translation flaws, sounds a bit old-fashioned. The publisher’s probably partly responsible for it, if you look at the translation of the titles. La Reine de la Baltique (The Queen of the Baltic Sea) and Du sang sur la Baltique (Blood on the Baltic) sound a lot more sensational than Still Waters and Closed Circles, which are, according to Google translate, the right translations from the Swedish.

What can I say? Readers, the publisher matters. Le Livre de Poche is not Rivages, Actes Sud or Gallmeister as far as translations are concerned. I wish they’d paid more attention to it or spent more money on it. In my opinion, they have no excuse as this book was meant to sell well: it’s crime fiction, a hugely successful genre in France, it’s Nordic crime, a bestselling sub-genre and Sten was already a success abroad. What was the financial risk on this one? We, readers, deserve a better translation than that. Maybe Gallmeister changed me into a spoiled princess, sensitive to every little pea in my crime fiction translations.

Meanwhile, if I ever read another Viveca Sten, I’ll get it in English.

Snitch World by Jim Nisbet – San Francisco Noir

May 23, 2020 6 comments

Snitch World by Jim Nisbet (2013) French title: Petit traité de la fauche. Translated by Catherine Richard-Mas

Klinger didn’t waste a moment. His door, being the one that had impacted the light pole, was jammed. So, as they’d been robbing liquor stores with the top down, since they couldn’t figure out how to get it up, he tried to step up and out of the stolen sports car with dignity. But the remnants of the airbag entangled his legs, and he and his dignity spilled headlong into the street.

And this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is Klinger, the main protagonist of Snitch World by Jim Nisbet. He’s a middle-aged thug, a weird concept because people should grow out of being a thug.

He and his accomplice Chainbang have just robbed a liquor store. They are in a car accident in the middle of the street, the police, the firemen and the paramedics are on their way. Klinger takes his share and ditches Chainbang, disappearing into the night while his partner is getting arrested. That’s Klinger for you.

He loves to drink and steals to pay for his booze and spend nights in cheap hotels, in North Beach, San Francisco. Nisbet takes us to this city, which seems to have turned its back to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s to fully embrace the tech era. Klinger is old school, he doesn’t even own a mobile phone. Walking down the SF streets, he gets reacquainted with Frankie, a pick-pocketing artist who was just released from prison.

Living in the tech world is Phillip Wong, a genius in programming and designing phone apps. He’s been working night and day for a start-up founded by Marcie, a girl he has a crush on. After working himself into exhaustion, he finally understood that Marcie took advantage of him and he decided to hop off the train.

Klinger and Wong’s worlds collide when Klinger and Frankie pick Phillip as their mark and accost him on the street. Klinger distracts him, Frankie visits his pockets. Problem: Phillip fights back and both he and Frankie are unconscious on the pavement when Klinger scurries for cover.

The next morning, Klinger reads in the paper about the aggression and that one man is dead and the other is in the hospital. Who is dead and who is alive? He gets his answer quickly when Marcie knocks on his hotel door. She has geolocated Phillip’s phone and she wants it bad as it is the key to his latest IT developments.

Klinger can’t say no to Marcie’s money and embarks in a fatal journey.

This is Noir territory. San Francisco is used as an atmospheric background and rain pours down on Klinger, the same kind of rain Chandler describes in Los Angeles. Nisbet takes us on the rainy streets of San Francisco, from Tenderloin to North Beach. We visit shabby bars and decrepit hotels that could not survive COVID-19 health code regulations.

Nisbet has a great sense of humor, he makes fun of this new world we’re in, with phone owning our lives and all the various apps we use. Klinger is out of his depth in this tech-dominated world.

Professional robbers don’t pick coat pockets anymore, Nisbet tells us. Marcie and her kind pick at other people’s brain and pocket the money. But since it’s technology, it’s socially acceptable.

As his name suggests it: Klinger clings to his old ways and to life. He’s always been a drifter and his main goals are to avoid jail and to get enough money for booze, food and a dry place to sleep. He’s not a very pleasant character, probably because he’s lazy, selfish and has no loyalty. I guess we can sympathize with a criminal who lives by his own moral code, provided that he has a code and abides by it.

I was invested in the story and wondered how it would end. I enjoyed Nisbet’s style and the barbs against the tech world that transformed San Francisco into one of the most expensive cities of the USA.

Recommended.

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass – Poetic, peaceful and militant

May 8, 2020 8 comments

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass (1996 & epilogue: 2007) French title: Le livre de Yaak. Translated by Camille Fort-Cantoni.

It is a kind of church, back in these last cores. It may not be your church — this last one percent of the West – but it is mine, and I am asking unashamedly to be allowed to continue worshipping the miracle of the planet, and the worship of a natural system not yet touched, never touched by the machines of man. A place with the residue of God – the scent, feel, sight, taste, and sound of God – forever fresh upon it.

I continue my literary journey in Montana and through nature writing as the hope of visiting Montana and Wyoming this summer vanishes like snow in the sun. My next stop is The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass, brought to French readers by Gallmeister.

Rick Bass has lived in the Yaak valley in Montana for twenty years before moving to Missoula. He wrote The Book of Yaak in 1996 and added its epilogue in 2007. It is an ode and a plea for the protection of these 471 000 acres of wilderness threatened by the timber industry. In this valley, less than two hundred humans cohabit with black bears, grizzlies, deers, wolves and coyotes.

Rick Bass tells us how he and his wife fell in love with the place. He takes us hiking in these old woods, describing the trees, the flowers, the river and the animals. He has a different approach to nature than Thomas McGuane in An Outside Chance.

With McGuane, hiking and hunting were sports. With Rick Bass, it’s a spiritual experience, a way to find peace, to experience the invisible link between humans and nature. It feels closer to Amerindian customs, more instinctive. His writing conveys his genuine love for this valley. It has become his happy place. He writes beautiful passages about art and nature and their connection. Living in this valley grounds him and fuels his artistic endeavors. He’s in communion with the nature around him. I’ve never read his fiction but I will.

I loved The Book of Yaak and I’m puzzled. I’m still trying to pinpoint why I love nature writing so much and what I find in these books.

I’m a very urban non-outdoorsy person. I don’t long to hike in the rain to reach the right fishing spot. I hated it when my parents took us blackberry gathering when I was a kid, mostly because I was bored to death and would have rather been at home with my books. I love the theatre, museums and sitting in coffee shops with a novel or my billets notebook. I love walking in historical districts of cities and admire old buildings, traditional shops and watch passersby. I can’t seem to do anything with my hands except hold a book and cook a little. For the rest, I’m pretty useless. My lack of sense of direction is legendary among my family, friends and colleagues. How would I survive in these nature writers’ tough environment?

However, the older I get, I more I want to spend my holidays in large spaces. I need to refuel. The more work experience I get in the corporate world, the more I envy the Rick Basses of this world who were brave enough to retrieve themselves from the grind. I’m not saying their life is easier or lazy, because it certainly isn’t. I’m saying they managed to cut the ball-and-chain of middle-class expectations and what-ifs that I have at my ankles. Mostly they were not afraid. Of missing out on the little comforts of everyday life, like central-heating, electricity and hot water. Of raising kids in a remote place. Of getting sick and being far from hospitals. Of not having enough money when they are old. Of living without a security net.

The Book of Yaak is also a plea, a way to raise awareness and seek for the reader’s help. Rick Bass is an ecology activist and he’s been relentless to have the Congress pass a bill to protect his beloved valley from the timber industry. He’s a moderate and doesn’t want to stop any woodcutting in the area, he just wants it to be local based and respectful of the fragile ecosystem of the valley. Saving the Yaak valley is a way to save humanity, a way to show ourselves that we can still turn our backs to our profit-oriented ways.

We need the wilderness to protect us from ourselves.

We need wilderness to buffer this dark lost-gyroscopic tumble that democracy, top-heavy with big business and leaning precariously over rot, has entered.

We’re an adolescent country, a tough, macho, posturing Madison Avenue sleek-jawed Marlboro Man’s caricature of strength.

We need the strength of lilies, ferns, mosses and mayflies. We need the masculinity of ponds and rivers, the femininity of stone, the wisdom of quietness, if not silence.

I guess I love nature writing for that and maybe it’s always been in me. After all, I loved Jim Harrison instantly when I was a young adult and Gary advocates the same ideas in The Roots of Heaven. In the end, the way we treat nature is an indication of how we treat humans.

Highly recommended.

The Guards by Ken Bruen – Galway blues

April 29, 2020 7 comments

The Guards by Ken Bruen (2001) French title : Delirium Tremens. Translated by Jean Esch

I have only one rule about blogging: write about all the books I read, even I abandon them before the end. Most of the time, I don’t have time to write my billet just after I finish a book. Usually I take notes while I read and I’m fine afterwards.

As far as The Guards by Ken Bruen is concerned, it’s even worse than not finishing the book. I read it from cover to cover, didn’t take any note and now only remember snippets of it.

It’s set in Galway, Ireland. Jack Taylor is a PI who has been thrown out of the Garda and he’s trying to make a living with private investigations. He’s drunk half of the day, thanks to coffee spiced up with brandy and Guinness. He spends his time in a pub, where he has set up his unofficial office.

A mother comes to him to investigate her daughter’s death as she’s sure she didn’t commit suicide. Taylor accepts the case, does a vague investigation and by chance discovers what happened. At least, that how it seemed to me.

End of the snippets.

I enjoyed Bruen’s Dispatching Baudelaire, which explains why I bought this one. This time, the permanently drunk PI didn’t do it for me. It’s the first book of the Jack Taylor series, well, I’ll leave him to better suited readers.

If anyone has read it, please leave a comment and so I can figure out what I missed.

QDP Day #3 : The Unfaithful by Dominique Sylvain

April 5, 2020 16 comments

The Unfaithful by Dominique Sylvain. (2018) Original French title: Les Infidèles

This is Day 3 of Marina’s and my Quais du Polar and I’m a little late with my billet. Isolation or not, I’m still quite busy. Before diving into The Unfaithful by Dominique Sylvain, let me share Guy’s review of The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre and Andrew’s review of In the Name of Truth by Viveca Sten. Manue thanks Guy and Andrew for your participation to our virtual Quais du Polar. It was great to have you on board.

Now let’s go back to Dominique Sylvain and her great novel.

Alice Kléber runs the website lovalibi.com: she sells stories and alibis to people who cheat on their spouse. She fabricates fictitious seminars, night work sessions and other professional emergencies for people who need an excuse not to go home. She makes up excuses and provides her client with material evidences of the thing they were supposed to be at.

Alice lives in an isolated home in Burgundy and suffers from the aftershock of an aggression. She doesn’t feel safe and uses a lot of coping mechanisms. She’s also convinced she’ll die young and soon and it impact her way-of-life and her decision making process. Alice is single and very fond of her niece Salomé, a young journalist who works for TV24. She sees her as her heir and she feels close to her.

Problem: Salomé is found dead in a trash can near the hotel La Licorne, in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. Salomé had decided to do a reportage on these unfaithful people, to understand why they do it and buy services to her aunt. Did that lead to her death? Does her boss at TV24 know something? Or is it someone from her personal life?

Commandant Barnier and his partner lieutenant Maze are in charge of the case. All the people around Salomé are under investigation. Is the murderer lurking in the shadows, ready to strike again?

Said in a few words, the plot is quite simple but the book stands out. Its flavor comes from Sylvain’s brand of writing and her knack for characters. She imagines unique characters. They have their quirks but are not caricatures. They sound real and interesting with their unusual profession or their singular personal lives.

Alice is special, with her questionable business. She seems tough but she’s not that much and howls for love. Her niece is very important to her and she longs to have someone who loves her and has her back. But Salomé isn’t the innocent and punchy young woman that her aunt wants her to be.

Salomé’s boss, Alexandre Le Goff has an unusual family, with his wife Dorine and her slightly handicapped brother Valentin living with them. They draw a lot of attention. Valentin works as a janitor at TV24 and has a crush on Salomé.

Even the cops are special. Instead of two cops with clashing personalities who need to work together anyway, Dominique Sylvain imagined a partnership between two men who are attracted to each other. Maze is stunning and openly gay. Barnier is married with a son, his marriage is in a bad shape and he doesn’t understand his sudden fascination for his colleague.

Dominique Sylvain has a wonderful writing voice. I enjoyed her descriptions of Burgundy, the dialogues between the characters and her original images in her prose. I wanted to know who had killed Salomé and I enjoyed the ride, like a gourmet in a good restaurant.

Unfortunately, Les Infidèles is not available in English but another of her books, Passage du désir has been translated as The Dark Angel. I recommend it warmly and my billet is here.

PS: Dominique Sylvain is from Lorraine and it slips into her writing when she says :

“Elle agrippe Alexandre aux épaules et le secoue comme s’il était un mirabellier plein de mirabelles bonnes à manger”.

She takes Alexandre by the shoulders and shakes him up as if he were a mirabellier tree full of mirabelles ready to be eaten.

The mirabellier tree is typical from Lorraine and produces mirabelles, small yellow plums that are very sweet and juicy.

QDP Days #2 : At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier – Discover Lyon in 1921 and the first CSI lab in the world

April 4, 2020 13 comments

At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier (2013) Original French title : La nuit, in extremis. Not available in English.

This is Day 2 of Marina’s and my Quais du Polar.

Today is about At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier. It is the third instalment of a series set in Lyon, with professor Hugo Salacan and commissaire Kolvair as main characters.

We’re in 1921 and Anthelme Frachant gets out of prison. Commissaire Kolvair knew him from their war years and knows that he killed Bertail, another soldier and a friend of Kolvair’s. Kolvair suspects that he will kill again and decides to follow him. He takes a room in the same boarding house as Anthelme. During his first night there, Kolvair leaves his room in the middle of the night, overwhelmed by withdrawal symptoms and goes out in search of his next cocaine dose. Kolvair lost a leg in the Great War and suffers from phantom pain. He also has PTSD. Cocaine has become a coping mechanism and that night, it saves his life, in extremis. Indeed, while he was away, Anthelme slaughtered everyone in the boarding house.

Anthelme turns himself to the police and Kolvair finds him at the prison’s asylum. The question is Will Anthelme be judged for his crimes or will it be considered that he lacks criminal responsibility, due to mental illness? The alienist Bianca Serragio thinks that he is schizophrenic, an illness that doctors still investigate and try to define. Will she be able to convince Public Prosecutor Rocher that Anthelme cannot be hold accountable for his actions and that he must be placed in an asylum instead?

At night, in extremis is more a novel about Lyon, the 1920s than a true crime fiction novel. With the murderer known from the beginning and without any actual police investigation, the plot centers around the city, the times and the personal lives of the characters.

Lyon is where the cinema was born. It is also a scientific cluster for forensic science. Lyon had the first CSI lab in the world. Indeed, Edmond Locard (1877-1966) studied with Alexandre Lacassagne, a pioneer in forensic medicine. (See Lacassagne in action in my billet about The Rhône Murders by Coline Gatel) Both are from Lyon. In 1910, Locard set up the first CSI lab in the attic of the Palais de Justice in Lyon. He researched graphology, fingerprinting methods, ballistics and toxicology. He coined the Locard’s exchange principle, still used in today’s forensic science. His statement is that “Every contact leaves a trace”. His Traité de police scientifique is a seven-volume methodology of forensic science still in use in today’s CSI departments.

Kolvair believes in CSI and works with forensic scientists. Odile Bouhier evokes the famous lab in the attic. Her alienist, Bianca Serragio works at the Bron asylum, now known as Le Vinatier hospital. It was founded in 1877 and they still have some of the 19thC buildings and a big park. It’s also a reknown psychiatric hospital in France. Bianca Serragio is doing research in psychiatry, looking for ways to improve diagnosis and cures. The Rorschach test dates back to 1921 and Bianca believes it will help. Odile Bouhier depicts times of great scientific breakthroughs in criminology and psychiatrics.

This historical setting is interesting and piqued my curiosity. Since the crime plot was easily solved, the reader’s attention is focused on the characters’ personal lives.

Kolvair battles against demons inherited from the Great War and his liaison with Bianca is his safe place. Bianca has to fight for a field that needs recognition and being female doesn’t help. Forensic scientist Badou is orchestrating a hasty marriage of convenience because someone blackmails him, and threatens to reveals his homosexuality. His bride knows his sexual preferences and goes into this marriage with her eyes open. Professor Salacan’s children need extra-care, one has trisomy 21 and another is diabetic. This is how I learnt that in 1921, in Toronto, J.J.R. McLeod was conducting research and experiment on insulin.

Bouhier’s novel shows a city with a strong scientific community, but the novel felt unfinished, pieces are not stitched together well-enough. I had trouble remembering all the characters. There are too many of them for a 280 pages book. IMO, the writer should have either stuck with Kolvair and his PTSD or written a longer book, to give herself time to develop everyone’s personal lives and personalities.

It was a nice read for the local setting, the picture of Lyon in 1921. It spurred me to browse through several Wikipedia articles about Locard, Le Vinatier and other scientific facts and I always love to learn new things.

Many thanks to M. who gave me this book before moving back to America.

QDP Days #1 : Kingdom of the Strong by Tony Cavanaugh – Visit Melbourne and its police department

April 3, 2020 14 comments

Kingdom of the Strong by Tony Cavanaugh (2015) French title: L’affaire Isobel Vine Translated by Fabrice Pointeau.

This is Day 1 of Marina’s and my Quais du Polar. Our beloved festival has been cancelled and we decided to post a billet about a book by an author invited to the festival. Marina’s first review is here. As far as I know, we have three other participants: Lizzy, Andrew and Guy. And maybe Max. I remind you that Pat, at South of Paris Books, read and reviewed the books short-listed for the Quais du Polar prize. The winner will be announced online today.

The festival has organised some online activities, go check them here. Here’s the program for April 3rd, the one for April 4th, and the one for April 5th. Now, let’s go back to Kingdom of the Strong by Tony Cavanaugh, who was invited to Quais du Polar in 2019, the year he signed my copy of his book. It seems a fitting book to illustrate Quais du Polar, Cavanaugh even mentions Lyon and its famous Edmond Locard, who was a pioneer of CSI. (more of that in an upcoming billet)

Kingdom of the Strong is an excellent cold-case crime fiction set in Melbourne. It won the Prix du Meilleur Polar awarded by readers of the publisher Points in France.

Burned out, Darian Richards resigned from the Melbourne police force four years ago and settled in an isolated cabin in Queensland. To Australian standards, it sounds like leaving the heart of civilisation to live as a recluse in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, only with warmer weather. Poor Darian tries his hand at fishing but doesn’t have the skills of a Jim Harrison character.

So when his former boss and mentor, Copeland Walsh comes to take him out of retirement to work on twenty-five-year-old cold case, the death of Isobel Vine, he has mixed feelings. In appearances, Darian has no wish to jump back into action, in Melbourne or anywhere else but he cannot refuse anything to Walsh, a sort of father figure to him. And, burned out or not, he misses the job.

Copeland was offering more than a job. I’d been trying to fight it but having a hard time. I was remembering the buzz and the thrill of an incoming murder announcement. We lived for murder. It was exciting. In Victoria we’d have about a hundred a year, but we always wanted more. Give me two hundred, three hundred, give me a city of killings. The swirl of the eighth floor, the crews working Homicide, the buzz and the thrill, the oxygen that gets us moving. Eventually, over time, I was poisoned and burned out, unable to break free of the victims and their wraith-like murmurs of anguish fingering out like tentacles, reaching into my increasingly vodka-soaked mind as I kept searching for the very few killers, most notably The Train Rider, who slipped the net, stayed in the shadows, killing again and again or maybe retiring after one or two successful shots at it, leaving behind the plaintive sounds of the victims, calling for justice. Or calling out for me, at least, the guy who wanted to be perfect, Mr Hundred-Per-Cent, that’s how it seemed. I couldn’t deny, not after seeing the boss and hearing the war stories, that old feeling of camaraderie within the ranks of the crews of the eighth. The idea of going back to HQ, to solve a twenty-five-year-old killing, was giving me flutters of excitement.

Against his better judgement, he goes back to Melbourne, and demands his former partners Maria and Isosceles as a team. They start investigating Isobel’s death.

Isobel was in high school and involved with her English teacher, Brian Dunn. She had spent a year in Bolivia as an exchange student and upon Brian’s request had brought a “present from a friend”, drugs. The customs caught her at the Melbourne airport and the police was after her to get the names of her contacts.

Isobel was found dead, hung up with a man tie at her bedroom door, naked. The police concluded it was suicide, a sexual game with a deadly outcome. The night she died, there was a party at her flat and four young cops were among the guests. One of them, Nick Racine is now a serious contender for the position of Police Commissioner in Melbourne. The Premier of Victoria wants to make sure they endorse someone with a clean past.

Darian is in charge of re-opening the Isobel Vine investigation with the purpose to prove once for all, that Nick Racine has nothing to do with her death and that his nomination as Police Commissioner is possible.

They start digging and poking around everyone’s past. They meet with Isobel’s boyfriend, her teacher and the guests of that last fateful party. They stir up bad memories, things that people would rather leave buried now that they have moved on. They do their best to piece together Isobel’s life and see what happened to her.

Tony Cavanaugh is a screenwriter and his novel benefits from it. It’s very cinematographic, it’s fast paced, with a lot of twists and turns. Sometimes, I thought that one or two plot devices were a bit farfetched and now I wish I could ask Tony Cavanaugh if he invented them or if he read about it in newspapers as sometimes reality surpasses fiction.

The narration alternates between the past and the present, letting the reader peek into Isobel’s life. Cavanaugh uses an omniscient narrator for all the characters except Darian. He speaks at the first person. The cast of characters was well drawn and Darian and Maria make a great pair.

He’s like a lone wolf PI, responding to his own moral code and said moral code is not always in line with legality. He’s a man scarred by his years in the police force, to the point that every street in Melbourne reminds him of a case. It spoils his pleasure of strolling in the city. He only sees the ghost of investigations past. You see that both the French and English covers show a lonely PI with a gun and the Melbourne skyline. I prefer the English cover.

Maria is a spitfire and her boyfriend used to be a big shot in the Melbourne crime community. It’s at odds with her job and she’s always afraid that his former life is not completely over and that his criminal endeavours put stains on her career in the police force. She and Darian make a great team. Helped by Isosceles’s uncanny ability to unearth information about people, they dive into this investigation head on and don’t hesitate to ruffle feathers in the process.

Cavanaugh take us in Melbourne’s back-alleys, in the corridors of the police force where well-established cops feel that they now are on a hot seat. Will they get out of it unscathed? Will they manage to find out what happened to Isobel, twenty-five years ago?

Read the book and find out. It’s an entertaining read, one that will virtually take you out of lockdown. It will take your mind off epidemic thoughts and wash away the virus of anxiety that eats at us, despite our best efforts. Recommended.

A little word about French stuff in this book. I love noting them down.

I mentioned Edmond Locard earlier but several other odd references to French things pop in Cavanaugh’s novel and it was unexpected.

Maria listens to Les Négresses Vertes.

There’s a funny explanation of Voilà! I paraphrase since I have the book in French translation: Cavanaugh says it seems to mean anything from take this to the cat is dead. Well observed, I’d say.

And then when the characters go to a -stuffy- French restaurant in Melbourne, the French waiter is named Jean-Paul. What is it with Australian writers and the name Jean-Paul? Is there an Australian reader out there who can spot the French textbook with a character named Jean-Paul? There must be one. I have no intention to write a book, but I promise that if I ever change my mind, I won’t name the British characters and their dog, Brian, Jenny and Cheeky.

Gone to Ground by John Harvey – Crime fiction, cinema and urban violence

March 27, 2020 6 comments

Gone to Ground by John Harvey (2007) French title: Traquer les ombres. Translated by Mathilde Martin.

Gone to Ground by John Harvey is a crime fiction novel set in Cambridge and Nottingham. I didn’t know this writer and bought it at Quais du Polar, attracted by the cover and the publisher. (You can’t go wrong with Rivages Noir) After a quick read of his biography on Wikipedia, I see that John Harvay has written more that 100 books and his best known for his Charlie Resnick series. Have you ever read this series? Is it good?

Gone to Ground is a standalone novel, though. In this one,  Inspector Will Grayson and his partner Helen Walker have to investigate the murder of Stephen Bryan. His murderer beat him to death in his bathroom. There’s no trace of someone breaking in. Grayson and Walker will follow several leads at the same time. Bryan was gay and had just broken up with his last partner, Mark. Is it a homophobic crime? Did Mark not take the breakup well and kill Stephen?

Is it work related? Indeed, Stephen was working on the biography of Stella Leonard. She died in the 1930s and belonged to a rich and powerful family. They don’t want to hear about this bio. Is there something to hide in Stella’s past?

We follow the investigation as the two inspectors try to find out what happened to Stephen Bryan. I have to say that I didn’t expect the ending. Harvey knows Cambridge and Nottingham pretty well and Gone to Ground has a good sense of place. The writing is fluid, with enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention.

The police team is a bit too staged, in my opinion. The contrast between Will Grayson and Helen Walker is convenient to feed the narration. Grayson is married to Lorraine and they have two children, a toddler and a baby. They have just moved out of the city to live in a house and the commute weighs on Grayson’s days. Helen Walker is single, lives in the city and has a complicated love life. The two have a solid friendship, though and manage to have real discussions.

To be honest, Grayson’s misogynistic side annoyed me. We’re in 2007 and he’s fighting with his wife because she wants to work instead of staying at home to take care of their children? I wanted to tell him “If you think it’s so enviable, why don’t YOU be a stay-at-home father and your wife will have her career?” Helen sides with Lorraine and talks him into accepting the idea that his wife will go back to work. Thanks Helen, for getting through to him.

Despite this minor annoying trait, Gone to Ground was entertaining, a good story to take your mind off something else and we seem to be in dire need of this kind of books now.

PS: I include the covers of the French and English versions of the book. Same book, totally different vibe. Both are accurate. The French one puts the stress on the cinema thread, the story about Stella, the 1930s actress. The English one shows the homophobic violence in Nottingham, which is another side of the story. I find the difference between the two editions absolutely fascinating and I wonder what made each publisher choose this cover instead of another one.

PPS: John Harvey is British, I wonder why it’s written ‘translated from the American’ in my book, just like I wonder how Folio could write on the back cover of The Guards (upcoming billet), that its author Ken Bruen, an Irishman from Galway, is one the most talented British writer of his generation. *sigh*

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