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The Rhône River Murders by Coline Gatel – French CSI in 1897

July 7, 2019 12 comments

The Rhône River Murders by Coline Gatel (2019) Original French title: Les suppliciées du Rhône.

I am forever late with my billets this year and I was tempted to write a crime fiction post about The Rhône River Murders by Coline Gatel, Black Run by Antonio Manzini and The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. But I’m always reluctant to mix several books in a billet, even if I enjoy other bloggers’ omnibus reviews.

The Rhône River Murders is Coline Gatel’s debut novel. It’s not available in English but it’s an easy read for a foreigner who understands French. Coline Gatel was invited at Quais du Polar and participated to a panel with Fabrice Cotelle, the head of the French CSI. This talk about the early days of criminology was fascinating and I wrote about it here.

After attending this conference, I purchased and got signed Coline Gatel’s crime fiction book, set in Lyon in 1897. Young women are murdered in the city, pregnant and most probably after visiting a faiseuse d’ange, a backstreet abortionist. (The French term is more poetic for such a bleak business, it means angel maker.)

At the time, Alexandre Lacassagne is a pioneer in forensic medicine and criminology. He’s convinced that autopsies are a way to gather clues about the cause of death. He instigated techniques to find material clues on the corpses and on the crime scene. Lacassagne is one of the fathers of CSI but he was also interested in sociology and psychology, linking them with scientific investigation methods.

While the police remain incompetent and absent, Lacassagne asks his best student Félicien Perrier to investigate the case. He will work on it with his roommate Bernard and a young journalist, Irina Bergovski, an emigrant from Poland.

Coline Gatel takes us to the Lyon of that time and for those who know the city, it’s a nice journey into the past. We see Lacassagne teaching at the Lyon Faculty at the Hôtel Dieu. We enter the opium salons of the city, something I wasn’t aware of. We see the hospices and the streets. We learn about early criminology and that the morgue was actually on a boat on the Rhône River. Coline Gatel peppers her book with anecdotes and trivia. This is where I learnt that in the 19thC, women couldn’t wear pants unless they had a special police authorization to do so. Without the appropriate pass, women could be arrested for wearing pants. Unbelievable.

I’m a good public for this type of books because I love hearing about everyday life in previous centuries. (I had a great time with What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist—the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England by Daniel Pool) And I enjoyed reading about Lacassagne who is now more than an avenue name to me.

The plot was well drawn, I kept reading, I was eager to know the ending. It had an unexpected turn in the end, one I didn’t see coming. The Rhône River Murders is a pleasant read, a nice way to dive into the Lyon of the Belle Epoque with a gripping murder story.

A perfect holiday read.

Bitch Creek, Gray Ghost and Dark Tiger by William G. Tapply – Three soothing crime fiction books

June 16, 2019 11 comments

Bitch Creek (2004), Gray Ghost (2007) and Dark Tiger (2009) by William G. Tapply. French titles: Dérive sanglante, Casco Bay, Dark Tiger. Translated by Camille Fort-Cantoni and François Happe.

A lady working for the publisher Gallmeister recommended William G. Tapply to me. I started with Dark Tiger, then went on with Bitch Creek and felt compelled to read Gray Ghost. In three months. I never read three books by the same writer in three months, unless they’re a trilogy.

These three books are the beginning of a crime fiction series and reading them in the right order would be reading Bitch Creek first, then Gray Ghost and finally Dark Tiger.

Set in Maine, the recurring character is Stoney Calhoun, a fly-fishing guide / “amateur” sleuth. Calhoun is in his late thirties and five years before the action of Bitch Creek, he lost his memory in a lightning strike. He woke up in a hospital with no memories. He doesn’t know anything about his past. He assumes that he used to work for the government since they gave him a hefty sum after his accident, but they never told him what he used to work on. He has no clue about his personal life either, just that heading to Maine and settling in an isolated cabin in a rural area felt right. He now works at a fishing equipment store, takes clients to fishing trips and makes fishing flies for the store to sell. He’s involved with the store owner, Kate Balaban. However, their relationship poisoned by guilt since Kate’s husband, Walter, is slowly dying in a nursing home. Walter is aware and OK with Stoney and Kate’s relationship but it’s not easy anyway.

In Bitch Creek, Tapply sets up the décor and the characters for his new series. We get acquainted with Maine, Stoney, his dog Ralph – named after Ralph Waldo Emerson – and Kate. Calhoun is a competent fly-fishing guide and he loves his quiet life in his cabin, with his dog and Kate. He gets the occasional visit from a mystery man who ensures that he has not regained any memories.

When his best friend Lyle is murdered during a fishing assignment that he filled in for Calhoun, Stoney starts poking around and investigating. He discovers that he has buried knowledge of police work, he knows what to do and not do, he has muscle memory for fights. He is a great help for the local sheriff who investigates the murder.

In Gray Ghost, Stoney is out on the water in Casco Bay with a client when they discover a dead body on one of the bay’s island. He’s roped into participating to the investigation again, officially seconding sheriff Dickman. Forgotten skills resurface again, giving him pieces of his past.

In Dark Tiger, a government operative was found dead in the north of Maine at Loon Lake. The mysterious visitor bullies him into taking a position as a fishing guide at Loon Lake and investigate the death of their agent.

I loved the Calhoun series. Honestly, I’ve never been fishing in my life and I don’t see myself doing it any time soon. I’m urban, I work as a corporate executive. As my work life turned into an out-of-control high-speed train, I felt drawn to Tapply’s books and that probably explains why I read the three in three months. Tapply was a New Englander and passionate about fishing. He knows what he’s writing about and the reader can feel it. Bitch Creek is where Stoney’ cabin is set, Dark Tiger and Gray Ghost are fly-fishing baits.

Tapply has an intimate knowledge of fishing trips and of the New England countryside. As a European, I was sometimes disoriented by the names of the cities in Maine. Dublin, Madrid,  Portland don’t conjure up images of rural Maine. Tapply gives the right amount of descriptions in his books, frequent enough to take you there and learn about the landscape and the history but not too long and too erudite to bore or lose you on the way. He took me there with his words, like Craig Johnson takes you to Absaroka country in Wyoming.

Being with Calhoun in Maine was so far away from my daily life that it provided an easy and immediate escape. It soothed me. Calhoun is a very likeable character who lives a slow life, takes time to enjoy the creek around his house, spends his time in quiet places where he can catch fish. He doesn’t fish for catching preys, photograph them and brag about the size of the fish he caught. He fishes as a communion with nature. I enjoyed visiting him and witness his touching and humorous relationship with his dog and his on-and-off and yet deep relationship with Kate. (I think dog lovers will enjoy these books too.) Stoney feels real. He’s a placid, reasonable man who enjoys his solitude, a few genuine relationships in his life and tries to live a tranquil down-to-earth life. I guess he allowed me to hop off the high-speed train for a few hours.

I’m sad about Tapply’s untimely death in 2009. There will be no more episode to this series and no Calhoun comfort read for me.

As usual, the Gallmeister books have gorgeous covers and outstanding translations. I’m repeating myself I know, but what can I say, it’s a repeating performance on their side. Not surprisingly, I much prefer the Gallmeister covers to the American ones. The Gallmeister illustrations show both the crime setting and the fishing theme of the series and the American ones give off a creepy vibe that I didn’t feel in the books, even if the crimes were horrible.

I’ve seen that Tapply had written another series, the Brady Coyne mysteries. Has anyone read it? Is it worth exploring too?

The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson – Boston crime

May 30, 2019 2 comments

The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson (2013) French title: Cassandra. Translated by Laurent Bury.

The Hard Bounce is Todd Robinson’s debut novel and he was at Quais du Polar a couple of years ago. In France, he’s published by Gallmeister.

Boo and Junior have never left each other’s side since they were sent to St Gabriel’s Home for Boys, an orphanage in Boston. Now adults, they still live in Boston and decided to put their 470 pounds of muscles and ten grants of tattoos in good use: they founded their own security company. They are in charge of the security details at The Cellar, a Boston nightclub and they are competent bouncers, intimidating but not necessarily violent.

When they are asked to look for Cassandra, the DA’s missing daughter, they have to go out of their comfort zone. They were never hired for that kind of job before but the DA doesn’t want the police to get involved to avoid bad PR.

Is Cassie just a rebellious runaway teenager or did she fall into bad hands? Will Boo and Junior find her alive? And what does Cassie’s story stir in Boo’s past that makes him want to find her, no matter what?

The Hard Bounce has a great sense of place, Boston is almost a character in the story. Boo and Junior explore its back alleys, flirting with legality sometimes and but always committed to doing their job.

Boo is our narrator and through the story, he takes us to meet the team at The Cellar, all outsiders who have found a new family at the club. We discover Boo’s past and the strength of the friendship between him and Junior. They look out for each other, they are their own family unit.

Boo has a wonderful voice, a mix of street talk and wit that makes the book alive and the reader eager to find out what will happen next. The story was engaging in itself but I rooted for Boo who is a true softie under his muscle. I have the French translation but downloaded a sample of the original on my Kindle to give you a taste of Boo’s storytelling.

In the following passage, Boo meets Kelly Reese for the first time. She works for the DA and is the middleman between Boo and Junior on one side and their employer on the other side. She’s just arrived The Cellar to hire Boo and Junior:

Everything about her screamed “out of place”. Her dark, curly hair was cut in a perfect bob. Most of our regulars looked like their hair was styled by a lunatic with a Weed Whacker. She was also in a dark blue suit that looked like it cost more than the combined wardrobe of everyone else in the bar.

Whether your collar is blue or white, in Boston, you stick with the crowd that shares your fashion sense. The city’s got a class line as sharp as a glass scalpel and wider than a sorority pledge’s legs. The old money, reaching back generations, live up Beacon Hill and the North End. They summer in places like Newport and the Berkshires.

They see me and mine as a pack of low-class mooks. We see them as a bunch of rich bitch pansies. Kelly Reese’s collar was so white it glowed. Still, it didn’t keep me from checking out her ass as she walked up the stairs ahead of me. Ogling knows no economic boundaries.

That’s on page 19 and I was hooked. Maybe you will be too.

PS: I think that with the American cover, The Hard Bounce looks like a romance novel.

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott – Aspartame Noir.

April 6, 2019 5 comments

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott (2007) French title: Absente. Translated by Benjamin Legrand.

Megan Abbott was at Quais du Polar a few years ago and I had the opportunity to talk to her and she signed my French copy of The Song Is You. It was time for me to finally read it.

The book opens in 1949, in Hollywood. An ambitious starlet, Jean Spangler leaves her home to go to a night shooting at a studio. She never comes back. The only thing that was ever found was her handbag in a park. The case is closed quickly by the police and remains unsolved.

Then we’re in 1951. Pushed by Jean’s friend Iolene, the journalist Gil Hopkins starts investigating Jean’s disappearance again. Jean was involved with actors who had violent and degrading parties and possibly with the mafia.

Gil Hopkins is a journalist turned into a well-known PR person for a studio in Hollywood. He spins stories for a living, in order to keep the studio’s actors out of bad press. He benefited of Jean’s disappearance in a way because he was the one who helped her studio erase any link between her and them that night.

Gil Hopkins (Hop) is a troubled character, a womanizer who drove his wife into the arms of his best friend. A man attracted by Hollywood’s fake lights like a moth to a flame. He has money to buy fine clothes but at what price for his integrity? Of course, he drinks a little too much and spends too much time in bars. He’s handsome, has a real talent for spinning stories and feeding them to the press. He knows how to swim in muddy waters.

To be honest, I wasn’t interested in discovering what happened to Jean Spangler and I abandoned The Song Is You after reading half of it. I figured that if I wasn’t hooked by a crime fiction novel after 150 pages, then it was probably time to spend my precious reading time on something else. It didn’t help that the translation had some mishaps, mostly frenglish translation. Completed cannot become complété in French. And executives are cadres, not exécutifs.

The Song Is You is a tribute to Chandler but to me it remained aspartame Noir. It reconstructs the atmosphere of Hollywood in the golden age. All the details are probably accurate but it lacks the feeling of the writer who actually lived that time. It’s well-crafted but it’s not the same. It is also based on a true story and I think it might even be a cold case. It’s hard not to think of it as a reference to The Black Dahlia.

I felt like Megan Abbott was slipping into someone else’s shoes instead of using hers. Although he’s a lot less detail oriented about Hollywood, I preferred Jake Hinkson’s Not Tomorrow. It is set in the 1940s but he doesn’t try to create another Chandler or another Cain. He made the setting his own and wrote a book with his own voice. He didn’t try too hard to respect some Noir codes.

So, I left Hop in Hollywood and hopped on another crime fiction trip with Les suppliciées du Rhône by Coline Gatel.

Quais du Polar Day 2: James Sallis, Michael Connelly, Ron Rash and others

March 31, 2019 10 comments

You will probably never guess it from my billets about Quais du Polar but this year, the focus is on Nordic crime fiction. Lots of writers from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark are invited to the festival. Since I’m not a great reader of Nordic fiction I chose to attend other events.

Sorry if anyone expected billets about Nordic fiction. 🙂 You can always listen to the conferences on replay here. But let me share with you my second day at Quais du Polar.

My first panel featured Ron Rash, Colin Niel, Ingrid Astier and Monica Kristensen. The theme was Great landscapes and Noir fiction. It echoes to the conference I recently attended about Nature Writing. We were in the room Tony Garnier at the Palais de la Bourse.

Ron Rash writes novels set in the Appalaches and nature is an important part of his protagonists’ way of life. Colin Niel writes crime fiction novels set in French Guyana. You can find my billets about his books here and here. He used to work there as a environment engineer and contributed to the creation of a national park.

Ingrid Astier wrote a surf novel set in Tahiti, French Polynesia. She spent a few months there, to understand the land and talk to the natives of the area. Her book focuses on a special and very dangerous wave that surfers want to ride in Tahiti.

Monica Kristensen is a scientist, a climatologist and the first woman to have led an expedition to the South Pole. She writes crime fiction novels set in the North Pole in Norway.

What I enjoyed about the panel was the good interactions between the writers or how they bounced on each other’s ideas. They listened to each other and even if each of them told stories related to their books and their specific natural environment, they managed to find common points between the issues described. One of the issues is how to combine human activities that ensure that the populations living there can work and make a decent living and protect the environment. Tourism is not always a good solution. They pointed out how our relationship with nature is different according to who we are. Colin Niel said that hiking in the Amazonian forest with soldiers is not the same as hiking there with natives.

They seem to have a common goal with their books: give a voice to the local populations, make their voices heard. And you should have heard Monica Kristensen talking about polar bears! I would have loved to hear her trade bear stories with Craig Johnson.

A very interesting moment with these four authors.

The second event I chose was a mix between jazz and literature. It was set in the Opera of Lyon and James Sallis and Michael Connelly talked about jazz and their literature. Here’s a picture of the premises, for you to have a feel of the jazz club atmosphere.

A quartet played songs between bits of conversation between the two guests, artfully guided by a journalist. It was a wonderful moment, good music and also a great conversation between two writers who truthfully enjoy jazz.

Sallis is actually a specialist and he has written books about jazz music. They made the link between jazz and their work, how it influences their style. Sallis made interesting comments about the music we had just listened to and the process of writing. He pointed out the lead of the song and its patterns and how the quartet improvised from it and came back to the lead and pattern. He said that writing a book was a bit like that. The writer has a lead, he pokes around this idea, plays with it and comes back to it. They have pattern in their writing. He said that music helps him get in the right zone for writing, in the state of mind that will engender his literature. Fascinating stuff.

The third event was a panel with Ron Rash, James Sallis and Chris Offutt about the “Great American Noir novel”, at the Chapelle de la Trinité. Gorgeous place, isn’t it?

They connected well, interacting cleverly, answering the questions of the journalist. They seemed happy to be there, discussing their working habits. Rash and Offutt both write books set in the Appalaches, where they come from. They evoked the nature there and the culture of the inhabitants. Both say that they keep writing about the same place, hoping that if they dig far enough, they’ll reach the universal and be relevant to readers coming from different backgrounds. Sallis has moved a lot in his life and he said that writing about a place was a way for him to absorb the place, to understand it and get to know it deeply.

The three of them have a close relationship with nature and want to stress on the importance of the natural environment on the men who are settled there. Nature influences people’s way of life and their culture, whether they are conscious about that or not. It was a lively conversation with writers who were willing to share, to give us clues about their writing.

I had a lovely time listening to these great writers. I’ve never read Chris Offutt but since he’s published by Gallmeister, I’m sure I’ll like him.

What I love about Quais du Polar is that the writers are not on an obvious promotion tour. Of course, they may be invited to talk about their last book and they sell and sign books. But they are also invited to discuss themes that are in line with their work but not always direct promotion. It avoids readymade comments about their book to questions journalists ask over and over again. They have to play another partition, they have a chance to chat with likeminded writers and that makes it more enjoyable to the public.

Book haul of the day:

A whodunnit in the Proust world written by an academic specialized in Proust. It was wrapped in a nice tote bag designed by the publisher Viviane Hamy. I’m sure cat lovers who will read this post will appreciate it.

Day 3 will be about criminology and about translations.

Quais du Polar 2019 – Day 1: Brian de Palma, Michael Connelly and a good book haul

March 30, 2019 5 comments

The 15th edition of Lyon’s crime fiction festival started on March 29th, 2019. It is a large festival dedicated to crime, with a giant book store, numerous conferences, investigation games in the city, several escape games and films at the Institut Lumière, the museum of cinema. (The cinema was invented in Lyon, where the first film ever was made.) It is set in different historical buildings in the city center, giving the attendants the opportunity to see places that are usually closed to tourists.

It lasts three days and I plan to take advantage of the three days.

First, I attended interview of Brian de Palma and Susan Lehman who wrote a crime fiction novel together, Are Snake Necessary? That’s the translation of the French version of the book, Les serpents sont-ils nécessaires? I don’t know the actual English title because the book is published in France but not in the USA. This means that, although it was originally written in English, it has not found its publisher in the US. Amazing. To be honest, this interview was disappointing. The journalist had obviously prepared her questions and knew de Palma’s filmography well but he kept deflating questions with jokes, never really answering anything. Susan Lehman tried to compensate for his lack of response but it was not enough to make of this meeting an engaging conversation.

Then I went to the cinema to see the preview of a documentary about Michael Connelly and Los Angeles. Olivier Marchal, a French former cop and crime fiction filmmaker flew to Los Angeles to visit the city, the places mentioned in Connelly’s books and to meet with the real-life cop who inspired Harry Bosch. I have never read anything by Connelly but the documentary was excellent, showing Connelly and Marchal driving around Los Angeles. Connelly talked about Harry Bosch, his work and his love for LA. Olivier Marchal is a great fan of Connelly’s and he was like a kid in a candy store who has met their favorite star. It gave a special atmosphere to the documentary as his enthusiasm and awe are visible. It will be on the French television soon. Connelly was in the movie theatre, discovering the film at the same time as us and he spoke to the public a little bit. He seemed quite approachable for such a successful writer.

After this good time at the cinema, I went to the bookstore at the Palais de la Bourse (The Chamber of Commerce) and wandered among the various stands, all belonging to independent bookstores.

Of course, my wallet didn’t come out of this unscathed but I had a lot of pleasure buying books, discussing with passionate libraires and other readers. Here’s my book haul:

Santiago Gamboa is a Colombian writer. I’ve never heard of him, it was an impulse purchase based on the cover and the name of the publisher. Usually what Métailié publishes is excellent, so I trust them on this one.

I also chose to buy Serena by Ron Rash in English because I knew from his previous visit to Quais du Polar that he reads his book aloud to himself when he writes. He started writing with poetry and moved to novels and short fiction later. He likes to check the sound of his prose. Since I had no trouble reading his Burning Bright collection of short stories, I thought I’d get this one in the original.

For the first time, James Sallis is at Quais du Polar. I’ve never read anything by him, except Drive. I’m curious about Moth (Papillon de nuit in French) and the New Orleans setting appeals to me. I’m curious to compare his New Orleans to the one pictured by James Lee Burke.

Reading Michael Connelly seemed obvious after watching the documentary. It made me curious about Harry Bosch, so I decided to start at the beginning and read the first of the series, The Black Echo.

I enjoyed Nothing But Dust by Sandrine Collette and I had the chance to tell her how good her book is. She signed my copy of Les larmes noires sur la terre and I’m looking forward to reading it, even if I already know it will be bleak.

Tony Cavanaugh is described as the Australian Michael Connelly, so we’ll see how I like his book. He was very friendly with his public and stunned to learn that the young couple in front of him had come from Lille (700km away) just to attend a book festival. Yes, we French love our crime fiction.

It was a good day to take time at the bookstore and chat with writers. I’m glad I could tell Bogdan Teodorescu how much I loved Spada. (Still no English translation in sight, apparently, no publisher wants it.)

My program of Day 2 is a panel with Ron Rash, Colin Niel, Monica Kristensen and Ingrid Astier about landscapes and Noir. Then a jazz and literature hour with James Sallis and Michael Connelly. Then a panel entitled Eternal flame, the great American Noir novel, featuring James Sallis, Ron Rash and Chris Offutt.

If you want to see the whole program of the festival, you can visit their website. All the talks, interviews and shows are available on replay here.

Away From Men by Pascal Dessaint – excellent crime fiction set in Toulouse

March 28, 2019 4 comments

Away from Men by Pascal Dessaint. (2005) Original French title: Loin des humains. Not available in English.

Last year at Quais du Polar, Pascal Dessaint was signing books at a stand and I asked him to recommend one of his books to me. He picked his fourteenth book, Loin des humains, saying it would give me a good idea of his work. Pascal Dessaint lives in Toulouse and according to his bio on Wikipedia, he loves to hike and is passionate about environmental causes.

Loin des humains is set in Toulouse and was published in 2005. The action takes place in September 2004, one year after the heat wave of 2003 and three years after the AZF tragedy. On September 21st, 2001, the chemical factory AZF exploded near the city center of Toulouse. The blast was of 3.4 on the Richter scale, 29 people died and 2500 were wounded. Two thirds of the windows of the city of Toulouse were destroyed. Needless to say, it left scars on the city and its inhabitants.

The book opens on Jacques Lafleur who decided to tackle the bramble branches that have invaded his sister Jeanne’s garden. He’s there with a pair of pruning shears when his murdered taps on his shoulder…

This will cost Capitaine Felix Dutrey his last days of holidays. His colleague Marc calls him to come back early and lead the investigation about Jacques Lafleur’s murder.

While the police are doing their job digging in Lafleur’s life, Rémi, who works in waste collection center finds Jacques Lafleur’s journals. They date back to the summer 2001. He starts to read them voraciously and Lafleur’s words and way of life make a certain impression on him. When he hears the news about Lafleur’s murder, he decides to act…

Loin des humains is a well-crafted crime fiction novel. Jacques Lafleur is quite a character. He’s a wanderer, a hiker, a bum. He travels and hikes. He usually come back to France to spend a few weeks at his friend Mariel’s place in Ariège. She’s a nurse who lives in a remote house in the mountains. His journal of the summer 2001 was written there.

Jacques came back to Toulouse in September 2001 and stayed with his sister Jeanne since the AZF tragedy. Their brother Pierre also lives in Toulouse with his wife Valérie and their son Quentin. Pierre is a snake specialist and has a vivarium full of dangerous snakes in his backyard. Jacques and Pierre have a complicated relationship. They used to be close but don’t seem to be on speaking terms when Jacques’s death happened. Why?

Loin des humains is a well-written and multi-layered crime fiction novel. The point of view shifts between the police team, Rémi’s and Jacques’s diaries. The police team (Félix, Marc and Magali who has just come back from her personal tragedy) always speaks in the first person, embarking the reader on their side. Rémi’s chapters are told by a omniscient narrator. And Jacques’s voice is conveyed by his journals. It gives the reader clues about the dynamics between the siblings. Jacques hikes in Ariège and it Dessaint writes beautiful pages about the nature there. Remember, he loves to hike too.

The whole book has a great sense of place, Toulouse and the nature in Ariège are part of the characters’ DNA and influence their lives. The police team characters are developed enough for the reader to get attached to them. I liked Félix’s voice, his life on a boat on the Canal du Midi and his relationship with Elisa. Rémi’s looming presence adds to the plot. And the siblings are odd enough to pick the reader’s interest.

Really, who wanted Jacques Lafleur dead?

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