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Pike by Benjamin Whitmer – Excellent American Neo-Noir

December 2, 2018 8 comments

Pike by Benjamin Whitmer. (2015) French title: Pike. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

We are now in December and I’m starting to realize I still have FIVE unwritten billets and that I have to catch up within a month. That’s going to be a challenge considering my current workload and family occupations. I would like to say that I have a method to tackle the pile, like alternating FIFO and LIFO methods but I don’t. So today, it’s going to be Pike by Benjamin Whitmer. It’s crime fiction again, a series of billets I might close with Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook.

Set in the Appalachees and in the 1980s, Pike is American neo-Noir brought to the French public by the excellent publisher Gallmeister.

Douglas Pike is retired from crime and murder. He’s back in his hometown in the Apalachees and makes a living doing odd jobs with his partner, Rory. Pike tries to survive, to leave the past behind and takes care of Rory in a gruff and discreet way. His life changes when he discovers that his estranged daughter Sarah overdosed and he’s the only one left to take care of his twelve-year-old granddaughter Wendy. A granddaughter he’d never heard of until that day.

While he’s busy settling into a new life with a kid and bonding with Wendy, he soon realizes that Derrick Kreiger, a corrupt cop from Cincinnati, takes an unhealthy interest in his granddaughter. Protecting Wendy will push him to investigate what happened to his daughter and to try to understand what Derrick Kreiger does behind his police officer uniform.

Pike is a pure Noir gem with a great gallery of characters. Pike is still haunted by his past, does his best to move on but Wendy will force him to dive back into his old world. He’s taken Rory under his wing, being a father figure to this young adult who tries to do something with his life and defy the odds his background put against him. Iris is a waitress at a diner Rory and Pike go to. She has a soft spot for Pike and is part of his new “family” or support system in Nanticote. There’s all damaged by life. Here’s Pike and Wendy’s first meeting at the diner, under the Iris’ and Rory’s incredulous eyes.

It gives you a idea of Whitmer’s style, of the atmosphere of the novel and of Pike’s task with Wendy. She’s a tough cookie and she’s not ready to open herself to this stranger of a grandpa.

The other side of the book is the manhunt in Cincinnati, the depiction of a corrupted police force and its meddling with organized crime. Derrick Kreiger is not someone you want to mess up with and Pike arriving in the picture doesn’t sit well with him.

You’ll have to read it to know more…

As always, Gallmeister did a wonderful job of bringing excellent American literature to the French public. Pike will be a success with fans of classic Noir. It’s like watching a movie. Benjamin Whitmer was in bookstore in Lyon recently for a reading and a book signing. I wish I could have gone and met him. *sigh* I need to work on this quote by Michel Serres Travailler moins pour lire plus. (Work less to read more)

PS: I can’t help commenting the American and French cover of the book. The French one is so much better, at least for me. It conveys everything, the main protagonists, the atmosphere and the danger.

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin – French Noir

November 27, 2018 4 comments

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin (1982) Not available in English.

Jean Vautrin (1933-2015) was a writer and a scriptwriter. Heatwave was our Book Club pick for November and it was a stark contrast to The Ice Princess, the crime fiction we read the month before.

Heatwave opens on a runaway criminal, Jimmy Cobb who has attacked a bank in Paris. He’s in the Beauce countryside, the agricultural region near Paris. There are large flat fields there and nowhere to hide. The police are after him and he’s digging a hole in a field to hide his loot from the robbery. He’s dressed in an elegant suit and it draws the attention of eleven-years old Chim. He sees him from his hiding place and decides to steal the money and hide it somewhere else.

Chim comes from the Morsang farm, the closest house. That’s where Jimmy Cobb decides to hide when the police’s chopper starts making rounds above his head.

The Morsang farm is the home of a violent and mostly uneducated family. Horace Maltravers married Jessica to take over the farm and its vast estate. His drunkard brother Socrate lives with them. Horace has a grownup daughter from a previous marriage, Ségolène. She’s not right in her head and a total nympho. She keeps assaulting men around her. Jessica had Chim with a seasonal farmhand before her marriage to Horace. Three employees work on the farm, Saïd from Algeria, Soméca Buick from an African country and Gusta Mangetout.

At the Morsang farm, they all have issues, except the employees. Horace is extremely violent and volatile. He hates Chim. Socrate could be sensible if drinking had not changed him into a useless slob. Jessica has locked herself into her housework, bringing cleanliness in the house since she can’t have a safe and sane home. Ségolène is creepy, always trying to corner males employees. They are all horrible in their own way. Horace and Ségolène clearly have mental health problems. Socrate and Jessica try to survive in this environment in their own way. And Chim is damaged for life.

The novel is a man chase, the police being after Cobb and the inhabitants of the farm willing to take advantage of his presence for their personal gain. Will Cobb get out alive of the farm? Will the police catch him or will the Morsang inhabitants get to him first? The whole novel happens in the span of two days.

Heatwave is a polar written in the pure tradition of classic Noir in bad French translations. In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the American crime fiction was published in the famous Série Noire. They were published quickly, translated in a way to respond to the French public, sometimes without much respect for the original text. If passages were too long, they were cut to keep the book within a certain number of pages. Thick argot was used, some of which got old quickly and is incomprehensible today.

Heatwave was written in this Série Noire tradition. It’s a polar à la San Antonio. It’s full of play-on-words, of twisted French and old-fashioned gangster way of speaking. When I started to read it, right after The Emperor’s Tomb I felt disoriented.

Heatwave is written in a style that requires a bit of adjustment from the reader. It’s also a succession of quick vignettes that betray Vautrin’s experience with cinema. It felt stroboscopic. It was like entering a nightclub and needing a moment to adjust to the place, the noise, the dark and the flashing lights. At first, you’re overwhelmed. Then, once you’ve been here for a while, you get used to it and you start seeing details, enjoying the décor and having fun. The reader must reach page 50 to get accustomed to Vautrin’s brand of writing and to start enjoying the atmosphere and the inventive style. It’s better to read Heatwave in a few sittings or the process of adjusting to the ambiance is to be done each time. Among the horrible argot, we can find poetic descriptions of the landscape,

Vingt-deux heures cinq

C’est l’heure des exhalaisons soudaines. Au moindre souffle de la brise, les odeurs voyagent à dos de pollen ou de petit lapin. Chiendent, blé tendre, coquelicots, fleurs neuves, les senteurs de la nuit sortent de terre. Elles remercient le soleil

10 :25 pm

It’s the time for sudden exhalations. With each breath of breeze, scents travels on pollenback or on rabbitback. Couch grass, common wheat, poppies, new flowers, the night’s scent come out of the earth. They are thankful for the sun.

and quirky descriptions.

It’s also extremely violent. Gunshots, torture and violence to women. I was also bothered by the descriptions of Saïd and Soméca Buick, full of clichés coming from colonial France. Maybe it was tolerated in 1982, twenty years after the war in Algeria and decolonization but now, it’s shocking. And I’m happy to be shocked because it means that things have improved.

I thought it was rather unrealistic as far as police procedural is concerned. The GIGN intervenes. They’re Special Operations in the gendarmerie, elite corps who come in touchy situations. They don’t show their face to cameras and don’t give their names. And here, they introduce themselves as country gendarmes do. But I guess accuracy is not the point of the book.

I don’t know what to think about Heatwave. It’s obviously classic noir, written into a tradition. The gangster jargon used here and there felt like a pastiche, a will to follow the Série Noire rules. It is a pity that Vautrin tried too hard to do that because when his own writing dominates, it’s powerful with clear-cut descriptions, sharp portrays and poetic descriptions of the landscapes.

Heatwave is not available in English but it has been made into a film directed by Yves Boisset. The lead actors are Lee Marvin, Miou-Miou, Jean Carmet and Victor Lanoux. I won’t be watching the movie because I have a better tolerance to violence when it’s written than when it’s on film. When I read, I manage to block images from flooding my head, something I can’t do with films.

For foreign readers curious about Vautrin’s style, I would recommend to check out the sample on Amazon, you’ll see what it sounds like.

The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg

November 25, 2018 13 comments

Our Book Club had picked The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg for October. It’s the first volume of the Erica Falck series. We are in Fjällbacka, during the winter and Alexandra Wijkner was found murdered. She was discovered by Erica Falck, a former classmate who is back in her hometown to tidy her childhood home after her parents were killed in an accident. Erica is a writer of biographies. She’s on a deadline to finish her book and working in Fjällbacka, far from the distractions of Stockholm works for her. She doesn’t have any family left there, her only sister lives in Stockholm too.

The plot centers around the personality of the victim, her loveless marriage to Karl Erik, her relationship with her parents and the strange events that happened in her early teenage years. Erica and Alexandra were best friends until her family suddenly moved out without telling goodbye to anyone. Has Alexandra’s murder anything to do with her past and how is the powerful Lorentz family involved in this story? That’s the murder plot.

The police in charge of the investigation is led by an insufferable chief called Bertil Mellberg and the inspector actually doing the ground work is Patrik Hedström, also a former schoolmate of Erica’s. He used to have a huge crush on her when they were younger.

Erica gets involved in the investigation, while finishing her book, starting to write a new one about Alexandra’s murder and dealing with her sister’s problems and her terrible brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Patrik and Erica get reacquainted and their relationship hops on an uncontrollable sleigh of soppiness, with fluttering hearts, ovaries in overdrive and cooking-is-the-way-to-a-man’s-heart seduction moves.

I found the story easy to read, not very original but entertaining even if I have guessed a key element in the mystery. And believe me, this is not a good sign because I never try to solve the murder when I read crime fiction, I have more fun enjoying the ride. The mystery part was OK but déjà vu, in my opinion.

The other elements around the investigation have been done before too. Erica’s sister is victim of domestic violence and the romance is too cheesy for my tastes. I guess it’s so successful because you can relate to Erica who is an average citizen. The only fun character is the awful chief of police. For the rest, I had the feeling that it lacked characterization and that the plot was too weak. It doesn’t compare well to other series like the ones written by Anne Perry, Louise Penny or Fred Vargas.

I’d say it’s good for a train journey or a plane trip but nothing to write home about.

Now a word about the French translation. I thought it was weird. Sometimes the syntax leaped out of the page. But what surprised me most were old-fashioned expressions like se lever à l’heure du laitier (to get up with the milkman), the use of baise-en-ville to describe the overnight bag Erica takes for her date with Patrik. tata instead of tatie (auntie), casse-croûte instead of sandwich. The translators are Lena Grumbach and Marc de Gouvernain. I’ve already read translations by Lena Grumbach since she also translates Katarina Mazetti but I never noticed anything about her translations, so I wonder if this old-fashioned vocabulary was in the original. Strange.

The Dry by Jane Harper

July 31, 2018 13 comments

The Dry by Jane Harper (2016) French title: Canicule.

After reading the second volume of Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series (see my billet), I decided to read the first one as well. Good for me because The Dry was even better than Force of Nature.

The main character is Aaron Falk, a federal police officer working in the financial division. He’s usually after white collar criminals. When the book opens, Aaron Falk is in Melbourne and he’s about to go back to his hometown Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his childhood friend Luke Hadler, his wife Karen and their son Billy.

Kiewarra is a rural town, Luke was a farmer and all farmers are struggling to survive because of a terrible drought. The town is dying, the lack of income from the farmers affect the local shops and this drought seems endless. Luke was apparently at the end of his rope and killed himself and his family. Only baby Charlotte escaped the slaughter.

Falk hasn’t been home for twenty years and he goes back reluctantly. When he’s at the funeral, a picture of Luke, him, Gretchen and Ellie appears in a slide show. It brings back the year when he was 16, the year Ellie was found dead in the river, the year he was wrongly accused of the murder, the year his father and he had to leave town and settle in Melbourne.

After the funeral, Luke’s parents, Barb and Gerry come and talk to Falk. They want him to investigate Luke’s death, they don’t believe that their son committed suicide. Barb wants Falk to investigate Luke’s finances, to see whether he was so close to bankruptcy that he’d kill his family. Gerry wants to know whether it has anything to do with the unsolved mystery of Ellie’s death. Indeed, when she died, a piece of paper with FALK written in her handwriting was found in her pocket. Why? Aaron didn’t have a witness to confirm his alibi and Luke and he decided to lie about where we were and be each other’s alibi. They said they were together. Gerry knows they were lying and now he wonders if his son killed Ellie back in the day.

Aaron agrees to investigate and takes a few days off. He’d love to go back home, to his orderly life in Melbourne. But he stays because of all the good times he spent at the Hadlers’ when he was a kid, for all the warmth and affection Barb gave him freely, something he needed, having lost his mother at birth.

Luckily, Raco, the newly appointed police chief of Kiewarra thinks that the Clyde police force in charge of the case was all too happy to file it as a suicide. For Raco, details don’t add up. The way Karen was found sprawled in the hallway of their house, the way Billy was killed after what looks like a chase in his bedroom, the way Luke’s body was lying in his truck. And why spare baby Charlotte? And why use different cartridges than the usual?

Raco and Aaron join their forces to start an unofficial investigation. Did Luke killed his wife and son before turning his shotgun against himself? If he didn’t, why were they murdered and has the killing anything to do with Ellie’s death?

Aaron’s presence in Kiewarra is not welcome and his coming back stirs hatred and brings back old secrets. What happened to Luke and his family? What happened to Ellie? Will this new drama allow Falk to have some closure about the terrible events that changed his life?

I loved The Dry. Jane Harper created an atmospheric novel. It shows a small town with secrets and festering hatred, a town where news travel fast, where strangers remain strangers for years, where things remain under wraps because they all need each other at a time or another, so why stir trouble and risk being an outcast and out of the town’s support system? The drought exacerbates everything because this rural community suffers from the lack of water and farmers risk to lose their farm. Things could blow up any time.

Highly recommended.

Please find Bill’s very informative review about The Dry here.

PS: Follow up of my Australian English chronicles. On Goodreads, a question about The Dry was “What is a ute and what is a huntsman” I’m happy to report I know what they are and that I have passed a new stage with pokie, arvo, aggro and ammo. 😊 Unfortunately, I don’t understand why the book is entitled The Dry and not The Drought. Any help with that?

This also qualifies for the AWW Challenge. See here.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

July 16, 2018 13 comments

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2017) French title: Sauvage

Force of Nature is the second volume of the Aaron Falk crime fiction series by Jane Harper. Five men and five women from the company BaileyTennants are sent on a company retreat in the Giralang Ranges. The two groups have to hike during several days, looking for banners, going from one campsite to the other until they make it to the arrival.

The problem is…only four women come back and Alice Russel has disappeared. Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are worried about this because Alice was the whistleblower in the case they’re working on. Daniel and Jill Bailey, the managers and owners of this family business are involved in money laundering for wider criminal networks. Falk and Carmen are only cogs in a giant investigation and they were about getting crucial documents from Alice about the Baileys’ business.

Does her disappearance have anything to do with their case?

Jane Harper weaves a masterful net of relationships between the women. They are mismatched. The group leader is Jill Bailey, as a member of senior management. Alice Russel, the one who disappeared is here with her assistant Bree McKenzie. Lauren Shaw went to a special boarding school with Alice Russell and they’ve known each other for thirty years. The last participant is Beth McKenzie, Bree’s twin sister.

All have a specific relationship with Alice. Alice is known as an ice queen bitch, so the others might have her reasons to wish for her disappearance. Jill muses:

Being around Alice was like owning an aggressive breed of dog. Loyal when it suited, but you had to stay on your toes.

There’s some resentment between her and Lauren, she tends to bully Beth. Jill’s side business in the firm is threatened by Alice’s interactions with the police. The book is constructed in such a way that the reader alternates between following the police investigation and the rangers’ researches to find Alice in the bush and following the women’s hike and discover how things went wrong. At the beginning, the device bothered me a bit but it proved excellent because it broke the monotony of the investigation and broke the palpable tension I felt when I was following the women’s hike. The bushland setting contributes to the tension of the story as it is rife with dangers. In a way, it talks to our deepest fear, the ones we heard of in fairy tales when we were little, the fear to get lost in the forest.

It was strange, Jill thought, how much the bushland started to look alike. Twice she’d spotted something – once a stump, the other time a fallen tree – which she was sure she remembered from earlier. It was like walking in a semi-constant sense of déjà vu.

The bushland is another character, it’s not human but it sure helps move the plot forward and add on the feeling of urgency and of threat.

It’s a clever crime fiction novel, one I’d recommend as a summer read. Harper’s style is efficient, to the point but not very literary. There are better crime fiction books than this one, as far as literature is concerned. However, it’s an excellent reading time.

On last note, I bought a copy in the original and it gave me another opportunity to work on my spoken Australian English, after Anita Heiss and Marie Munkara. And I am puzzled by the Australian habit to shorter words like bikie or barbie. I’m getting used to the short words with an “ie” as a suffix though. However, I had to google spag bol because I couldn’t figure out what they were eating. (It doesn’t help that visually, bol is bowl in French)

Force of Nature is another contribution to the Australian Women Writer Challenge.

What Stays in the Forest by Colin Niel

June 24, 2018 12 comments

What Stays In The Forest by Colin Niel (2013) Original French title: Ce qui reste en forêt. Not available in English.

What Stays In The Forest is the second volume of the crime fiction series written by French author Colin Niel and featuring Capitaine Anato. Here’s my billet about the first book, Les hamacs de carton. This series is set in French Guiana and it’s a great part of its appeal.

When the book opens, the scientist Serge Feuerstein is found drowned near the research station he worked for. It is set in the heart of the Amazonian forest and it’s a very remote location, accessible via helicopters. Scientists have been settled there for a few years and they are now surrounded by illegal gold-washers. Indeed, this part of the Amazonian forest is full of gold and poor people from Brazil come illegally to French Guiana to work in ad-hoc and illegal gold mines. It’s a cat-and-mouse game with the French gendarmerie but they’d rather be caught on the French territory with its milder police methods than in Brazil.

Colin Niel creates an interesting set of characters among the scientists living in close quarters at the station. How was Serge Feuerstein killed? Did he disturb illegal gold-washers who decided to eliminate him? Does his death has anything to do with the strange discovery of a dead albatross in French Guiana, a place not frequented by these birds, and incidentally the ones Feuerstein chose as a topic for his PhD.

The crime investigation is well-crafted and Colin Niel describes life in Cayenne very well. It’s a strange mix of exoticism and familiarity with all the French organization of society (police,…) and the natural setting which is totally foreign for a French from mainland France.

Captain Anato is an interesting character. He’s from the Maroon community in Guiana but was raised in the suburbs of Paris. He has asked to be transferred to French Guiana after his parents die. He’s trying to get his footing at work while getting reacquainted with his family. He needs to understand his personal history. His parents were tight-lipped about their reasons for moving to Paris. He’s slowly meeting with his family and discovering where he comes from. We also learn more about the personal lives of his two colleagues Vacaresse and Girbal.

I enjoyed everything about this book: the setting, the murder investigation, the explanations about illegal gold-miners in Amazonia, the descriptions of Cayenne and Anato’s internal turmoil. What Stays In The Forest was our Book Club choice for April (I know, I’m late again) and we all loved it. We all enjoyed the style, the story, the fascinating discovery of a piece of France we know nothing about. Anato is an enjoyable character, full of nuances and personal hurts.

Call it literary serendipity but the issue of gold mining in the Amazonian forest has recently made the headlines in France. The governement wants to grant authorization to set up a giant gold mine in the heart of the forest, discarding ecological consequences or the ones for the indigenous people living off the forest on the Maroni river. See an article here.

Sorry for foreign readers, this is not available in English. For French readers, it’ll make a wonderful summer read.

There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette

June 4, 2018 12 comments

There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette (2016) Original French title: Il reste la poussière. Not available in English.

La vie n’attend pas qu’on ait envie d’y mettre les mains. Life doesn’t wait for you to be ready to put your hands in it.

In There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette, we are on a small farm in Patagonia at the beginning of the 20th century. Rafael is the youngest of four boys and has always been bullied by his brothers. Their father disappeared one day, never came back and the mother runs the farm with an iron fist.

Her sons are working slaves not better treated than mules and horses. She knows her older sons mistreat their little brother but she doesn’t care. They’re like a pack of dogs, she feeds them, lets them live under her roof but lets the pack find their own leader. She doesn’t give them any affection and Rafael finds solace in his horse and his dog.

Their life is tough, their farm is isolated and only the oldest sons, the twins Joaquin and Mauro are allowed to go to the nearest town with their Ma. The third son, Steban, doesn’t speak and tries to remain neutral between the twins and Rafael.

It’s a hard book to sum up because a lot of it is spend in everyday life and peering into the brothers’ minds. I felt closer to Rafael but also sorry for the others, to live in such dreadful conditions with such a hard mother. Their world is changing fast, there’s less and less room for small farms and they always struggle with money. One event will change their life but I can’t tell more without spoilers.

There Will Be Dust is a very atmospheric novel. It has an incredible sense of place. Sandrine Collette has a style that talks to all your senses. You can imagine the wind, the sun, the rush of riding a horse, the smell of the country. Her descriptions of sheep farming and sheep shearing ring true. She writes about the noise, the smell, the behavior of the sheep.

She takes you to this hard world, into this desperate family of hard working farmers. There’s a lot of violence in their life and Rafael seems to be their only hope for a different vision of life. But how to escape the yoke their mother put on their necks? How will they have a chance to life in a different light and let warmth seep into their interactions instead of the coldness ingrained by their heartless mother?

Their mother is like a dark spider, controlling everything and everyone. She’s a witch with economical and emotional power that she uses freely. Rafael’s natural temper is different and he’s incredibly resilient. His brothers and mother bully him and it should make him change. But he remains softhearted and hopeful and trusting in human nature. He’s their gift, his brothers’ chance at breaking their mother’s spell on them.

It’s an extremely powerful read. It’s a bleak family story in an unforgiving environment. In a way, it belongs to the same family as The Hands by Stephen Orr. Translation Tragedy

Update in January 2019.

Il reste la poussière is now available in English. It’s entitled Nothing But Dust and is published by Europa Editions.

Claire from Word by Word has read it and her review is here.

 

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