The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) French title : Les trente-neuf marches.
Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the velt, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.
Boredom is a dangerous feeling for it can lead you to rash decisions and that’s exactly what happens to Richard Hannay. He’s at home one night when one of his neighbours drops by and starts telling him a farfetched tale about spies and war conspiracy. His visitor whose alleged name is Scudder has just staged his own death to vanish from the sight of his enemies. Hannay finds him entertaining and only half listens to him. He doesn’t pay attention to details and doesn’t quite believes him. Hannay accepts to hide Scudder even if he thinks he might be slightly unbalanced.
Four days later, Hannay comes home to a corpse: Scudder has been murdered in his flat. Hannay is between a rock and a hard place: Scudder’s murderers might find him and the police might not believe his story or in his innocence. He eventually makes a decision:
It took me an hour or two to think this out, and by that time I had come to a decision. I must vanish somehow, and keep vanished till the end of the second week in June. Then I must somehow find a way to get in touch with the Government people and tell them what Scudder had told me. I wished to heaven he had told me more, and that I had listened more carefully to the little he had told me. I knew nothing but the barest facts. There was a big risk that, even if I weathered the other dangers, I would not be believed in the end. I must take my chance of that, and hope that something might happen which would confirm my tale in the eyes of the Government.
The rest of the novel is about his flight and I won’t go further into the plot, a lot of readers have probably read this or seen the film by Hitchcock.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is a page turner, a wonderful chase across the country. The suspenseful storyline is enough to keep reading but Buchan’s style amplifies the pleasure. His sense of humour lightens the atmosphere and makes the reader smile even when the hero is in a delicate position with his foes on his heels.
That was one of the hardest job I ever took on. My shoulder and arm ached like hell, and I was so sick and giddy that I was always on the verge of falling. But I managed it somehow. By the use of out-jutting stones and gaps in the masonry and a tough ivy root I got to the top in the end. There was a little parapet behind which I found space to lie down. Then I proceeded to go off into an old-fashioned swoon.
This is the essence of the book: adventure mixed with humour. Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a seminal work for crime fiction. Hannay is a man who’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. A bad decision –to welcome Scudder in his flat—throws him in the middle of a dangerous game, one he’s not armed for, one that could be fatal. He’s a character with a strong moral compass. His patriotism pushes him to try to save the world and risk his life. He could be Charlie Hardie’s great-grand father. It would be too long to point out all the details that show how significant it is for the history of crime fiction. I’m sure there are excellent thesis about that. Instead, I’ll finish this post with a question. I read The Thirty-Nine Steps in English and came across this passage:
The trouble is that I’m not sober. Last nicht my dochter Merran was waddit, and they danced till fower in the byre. Me and some ither chiels sat down to the drinkin’, and here I am. Peety that I ever lookit on the wine when ist was red!
So puzzling that my note was “Is it Scottish language or drunk language?” If someone could enlighten me…
Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon (1913) French original title: Maria Chapdelaine.
Maria Chapdelaine is a classic from Québec, written by Louis Hémon. It was published in France as a feuilleton and was supposed to inspire young French people to move to Québec. It is a rural novel, the story of a peasant family in Québec, in Péribonka, on the bank of the Lac Saint Jean.
Maria is 18 and three young men want to marry her: François Paradis, a trapper, Eutrope Gagnon, a fellow pioneer and Lorenzo Surprenant who emigrated to Massachusetts to work in a factory. Each represents three possible futures.
Maria Chapdelaine is a book with a purpose not a literary entreprise. It describes the life of early settlers near the Lac Saint Jean. Maria’s story is just a prop to describe their life and fate. It could be compared to My Antonía by Willa Cather except that Cather is a gifted writer and her characters are far more complex than Hémon’s.
For this reader, Maria Chapdelaine has no interest from a characterization and plot point of view. It was still interesting as a testimony of life at the beginning of the 20thC by the Lac Saint-Jean. It shows the typical harsh life of the settlers. It depicts the long winters, the short and brutal summers and as often in peasant novels, the dependency on the whims of the weather. It is hard work in isolated places. The men and women work, work, and work and the outcome is not a given. Hémon describes the family’s life. In the summer, they font de la terre meaning that make land. Basically, they take the trees out, clean up everything (trumps, roots,) to be able to cultivate the land. Tough job. The women make preserve and prepare diner for the men. In autumn, the women caulk the walls with newspapers to prevent the wind from entering into the house. The men stock up wood. In winter, the two older sons go away to work as lumberjacks. The rest of the family stays in the house, with the father briefly going out to take care of the animals. The only distraction is when their only neighbour, Eutrope Gagnon, comes to visit. And the occasional trip to the church but that’s not too often because it’s too far away. From what I gathered of the history of Québec, it’s accurate and a good testimony of the times.
Personally I don’t see how Hémon hoped to entice young French people to leave cozy and temperate France to come and clear land in Québec. I totally see why Lorenzo Surprenant left for the USA.
The tone of the book is a vibrant plea for simple and rough life of peasants and the benefits of Catholicism. Maria expresses a naive faith in God, in the Catholic church and the local priest has a real hold on people’s lives. I thought it was too much and that Hémon wrote as a sanctimonious conservative. Not my cup of tea. Plus I don’t particularly like rural novels that glorify agriculture and describe urban life as miserable and corrupt. As I always say, if working in fields were that gratifying, please explain to me why there was such a massive rural exodus in Europe after WWII.
The only literary merit of the book is the language. Not that Hémon’s prose is imaginative, it’s as plain as his characters. Hémon wanted to show his land and his people. Their identity is intimately linked to their native language. They are a francophone community surrounded by Anglophones. In his attempt at picturing the rural community of the time, he gives back their Canadian-French or Québécois. And that was fascinating to me.
It’s probably outdated, like the French from the early 20th century is. But still. Some words sound old-fashioned, coming directly from the 16th or 17th century. Some words are a literal translation from the English, like vue animée for motion pictures instead of cinematographe used in France. I also noticed une couple d’heures for a couple of hours where a French would say quelques heures. Sometimes, Hémon uses English words, saying une fille smart or un foreman instead of un contremaître, or des hommes “rough”. What puzzled me was une job. In French from France at the time, nobody used the word job in French. It came in the 1980s, I’d say. In France we say un job, masculine, not une job, feminine. I don’t understand how “job” became feminine in Québecois. The notion is covered by words in masculine form: un travail, un emploi, le labeur, un boulot, un métier. If anyone can enlighten me, I’d love to hear the reason behind this.
All in all, I’m glad I read Maria Chapdelaine more to read in Québécois and about the life by the Lac Saint-Jean because I was travelling there. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s meant to be in my pantheon of books-you-must-read-before-you-die. I hope it’s not a mandatory read in Canadian schools, that’s not a way to warm students to literature…
The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras (1950) Original French title: Un barrage contre le Pacifique
The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras is semiautobiographical novel. Duras was born in Indochina, near Saïgon in 1914. Indochina was a French colony then. She left Indochina in 1931 to come back to France.
The Sea Wall is the story of an unnamed mother (in the whole book, she’s called la mère) and her two grownup children, Joseph and Suzanne. The husband and father died a long time ago, leaving his family behind without a source of income. The mother put food on the table by playing the piano in a local cinema. She saved money to buy a concession, land allocated by the French authorities to settlers. She put all her savings in it and the land proved to be impossible to cultivate because it is flooded by the ocean every year. The local French authorities knew it. Several families had already been allocated this piece of land and each of them was evicted because they couldn’t pay their debts anymore. The Sea Wall denounces the corruption of the French civil servants sent there. They exploited the ignorance of settlers, making them pay higher than the market for bare land and then evicted the families without a second thought when they could cultivate the land and pay their debts.
So this family is stuck on their “property”. The mother is embittered by their situation. She tried to build a sea wall to contain the Pacific and make things grow behind the wall. But of course the ocean was stronger. The children are left with no future. The property is a rotten place, they are bored to death but it’s all they have. Leaving would mean abandoning the mother’s dreams. It would mean giving up. It would crush her even more. She’s a central character in the novel, a tyrannical figure who controls her universe and her children. She’s abusive, physically and verbally. Joseph is stronger than her now and she doesn’t dare touching him. But Suzanne, younger and weaker, is a prey.
They barely survive on this desolated land. The days go on and Suzanne is waiting. She’s dreaming of a car who would come with a man in it. She dreams of escaping this place through marriage. And the mother is ready to sell her for fresh cash.
When Monsieur Jo notices Suzanne and starts courting her, her mother sees a moneybag ready to spend cash on her daughter. She pilots Suzanne, ordering her around, asking her to request gifts and most of all forbidding her to sleep with Monsieur Jo without a ring on her finger.
Suzanne obeys but reluctantly. Like the girl in The Lover, she tries to distance herself from the scene. Joseph observes her dealings with Monsieur Jo, torn between jealousy, disgust and blind obedience to the mother.
They make a sick trio, really. I pitied Suzanne. She’s stuck on a dead-end property. Her beauty is her asset. She doesn’t have access to a proper education and marriage resembles more to legal prostitution than to the union of two people in love. And yet, she’s ready to settle for so little. She’s so disillusioned already.
Joseph loves hunting, loves his guns and he has a rather fusional relationship with Suzanne. It felt almost incestuous to me.
The Sea Wall is a great piece of literature on several accounts. Duras did an amazing job on characterization. The way the three main characters are depicted, the way they interact and leave some imprint on you. These are characters you don’t forget. You can picture them in the flesh.
The descriptions of Indochina are also fantastic. The landscapes, the people, Saïgon. It’s so vivid. She mentions the Indo-Chinese and their way of living. They’re dirty poor, with a lot of children who hardly survive. The climate is unforgiving and the land is not rich enough to feed all these humans.
I found the descriptions of the workings of the colony fascinating. On the one hand, I wondered at the mother’s naïveté. How could she think about becoming a farmer without a single hint of how to do it? She was a primary school teacher and then a pianist, for heaven’s sake! How could she be stupid enough to think she could build a sea wall without construction skills? On the other hand, I was horrified to see how men from the French administration took advantage of her. She might have been a silly fool but they were the con men who made her buy this concession.
The Sea Wall was published in 1950 during the Indochina war. (1946-1954) Her novel was nominated for the Goncourt prize but it was given to Paul Colin for Les jeux sauvages. I’ve never heard of this book or this writer. Time made its choice. The Sea Wall is excellent literature, one of my best read of the year, one I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.
For another review, have a look at Guy’s outstanding take on this gem of literature.
PS: As you can see it from the second cover of the novel, The Sea Wall was recently made into a film. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t tell you whether it’s good or not. I’m just surprised to see Isabelle Huppert cast as the mother. She looks thin and regal on this picture. And the mother is worn out. I could picture Yolande Moreau playing the mother. She has the physique and the intensity to incarnate this character. I suppose Yolande Moreau is less bankable than Isabelle Huppert. So, after being a redheaded Madame Bovary (a heresy in itself), she’s now a classy woman from the colonies in lieu of a woman who’s at the end of her rope. Sad.
Zulu by Caryl Férey (2008) Original French title: Zulu
I picked Zulu by Cary Férey in preparation to the crime fiction festival Quais du Polar. He was invited again and I wanted to try one of his books. Other readers warned me that Zulu was rife with violence. It is, especially towards the end. For some reasons, it bothered me less than the violence in 1974 by David Peace. Perhaps it’s because I braced myself for it after the comments other bloggers had left. Or perhaps it’s because I expected violence from a book set in South Africa in 2008.
So what is Zulu about? Ali Neuman is a black man, now chief of the homicide branch of the Cape Town police. As a child, he was traumatized by what he witnessed during the war that the Inkatha militia led against the ANC. Even his mother, the only other survivor of his family doesn’t know what he endured.
As an adult, he represents the law in a society at war against violence and battling against the AIDS epidemic. The starting point of the novel is the murder of a young white girl, Nicole Wiese. She was slaughtered after ingesting a drug with frightening powers. The investigation will lead Neuman and his two colleagues Dan Fletcher and Brian Epkeen on the path of greed, madness and unadulterated violence.
Férey describes a society undermined by gangs who are heavily armed and ready to anything to defend their territory and their power. The country may have initiated a reconciliation process but the criminals from the past didn’t all pay for their crimes, nor did they change their mindset. The mental Apartheid still exists. Some methods from the past survive and have been passed to others. Drugs are a way to control the mob. We follow the investigation in the poor neighborhoods where kids are snatched in drug trafficking, where too many of them are orphans because of AIDS. It also shows the violence against women.
Neuman is a flawed character with one redeeming quality: he’s a good son. His mother is ageing and he tries to protect her as much as he can. But she’s a free spirit, she goes wherever she wants in her unsafe neighborhood and even when she’s mugged, she’s still not afraid. She puts her nose where it doesn’t belong and Neuman rightfully worries.
Brian Epkeen is also a tortured soul. He has a grown-up child, David but they don’t get along. His ex-wife Ruby divorced him a while ago and he still loves her. It doesn’t prevent him from being a womanizer. His past functions during the Apartheid regime gave him useful skills for his current job.
Neuman and Epkeen are reckless. They have nothing to lose. They know violence, it’s part of their bones. Dan Fletcher is the one with the wife and kids, the one who needs to stay alive and come home to his kids and wife, the one who has fear gripping his guts when he’s on dangerous grounds. And he’s right to be afraid.
Férey pictures a brutal city, in a country where the authorities struggle to contain violence. There’s so much misery, so many basic needs to fulfil in poor neighborhoods (education, drinkable water, safety). And yet, nature is magnificent, a reminder of the stupidity, the vanity and the evanescence of human activities.
Some of the violent patterns had me thinking about reconstruction after a time of violence, be it on the national territory or abroad. It reminded me of France after colonial wars, WWII and of the police force in 1974: what do you do with policemen who were on the wrong side or policemen who used to be in the military and used methods like torture in Africa during colonial wars? If you fire everybody, then you don’t have a working police force anymore. How do you eradicate racism from them, how do you make them drop these methods? How did it work in Argentina or Chile after the dictatorships fell? And in general, what does the new power do with the people who supported and lived off the previous regime?
Caryl Férey is French. So yes, the legitimate question is: how much of this is accurate? At Quais du Polar, he explained how he writes his books. He moves for a while to the country where the book is set. Then he reads, a lot. Thesis and essays. He said that he read a thesis about AIDS and women in South Africa. Some of the second characters were inspired by the interviews used as material for this thesis. He joked saying that beyond the doctorate’s teacher and family, he’s probably the only other reader of some of those thesis but that he loves them for the goldmine of information that they are. He also researched the politics, the history, the customs and the culture of the country. The book gives explanations about the fight of the ANC and the militia they faced against them. It was a quasi-civil war. Férey gives information about zulu rites and the different ethnic groups in the country.
Does is work? Well, I’ve never lived in South Africa, so I’m not sure my opinion matters. I’ll give it anyway because why write a blog if you can’t force-feed others with your opinion through a post? I think Férey’s book is amazing. It is extremely violent but I don’t think this violence is gratuitous. And I shudder to think he might not have invented all of the violent things he describes in Zulu. The sense of place, the pace, the description of neighborhoods, of behaviors, it all rings true. It’s dark, awful but strangely, it doesn’t sound as hopeless as 1974.
Zulu was made into a film by Jérôme Salle. Forrest Whitaker is Ali, Orlando Bloom is Epkeen and Conrad Kemp is Dan Fletcher. I haven’t seen it and I don’t plan to. I won’t be able to stomach the violence I’ve read if I see it on screen.
Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien (1990) Translated into French by Elisabeth Guinsbourg, revised by Hélène Cohen.
I read Leaving Las Vegas last December and it’s still vivid in my mind. That in itself means something. How many times do we struggle to remember a book we read a few weeks ago? Leaving Las Vegas didn’t fade away, it left a lasting impression on me. Now if you wonder if it has anything to do with the eponymous film with Nicholas Cage, the answer is yes.
The novel opens with Sera, sitting on a sidewalk on Las Vegas Boulevard.
Sucking weak coffee through a hole in the plastic lid of a red and green Styrofoam cup, Sera sports a place to sit down. She has been walking around now for at least two hours and wants desperately to rest. Normally, she wouldn’t dare hang around this long on in front of a 7-11, but the curb looks high, and having recently accumulated a fresh coat of red paint, not too dirty. She drops down hard on the cold curb and hugs her knees, bending her head into the privacy of the dark little crave created by her arms. Her eyes follow the stream of light running between her two thighs, down to where it concluded in black lace, aptly exposed by her short leather skirt.
She throws back her head, and her dark brown hair fans around her shoulders, dances in the turbulence created by a passing Sun Bus; a window framed profile begins to run and vanishes in a cloud of black exhaust. In the red gloss of her recently applied lipstick there is a tiny reflection of the glowng convenience store sign, its cold fluorescent light shining much too white to tan or warm the beautiful face appealing beneath it. She modestly lowers her knees, only to have the black blazer fall open as she leans back in her elbows, revealing her small breasts under a sheer lace camisole. Making no effort to cover herself, she turns her head; her dark green eyes, protected by long mascara-laden lashes, scan up and down Las Vegas Boulevard.
Tadatadatacheeda tacheek tacheek sheeka she catches on her lips an unrefined tune, already in progress. All but inaudible, composed clumsily out of fragments overheard in casino lounges, it nonetheless seems to guide the passing traffic, coercing the rumble and whine of the street to perform in symphony with the slide and twirl that exist in her head. Across the street—not yet over the shiver, nor to the goods—a dormant construction side, populated with skeletal cranes raising adolescent towers, stands smugly, silently, and in dubious approval. It wears the gree and blue hues of the night. It knows not whence it came. It will lend her the benefit of the doubt. It will accompany her on the long, hard, painful ride in a car filled with chums. Sera’s arms are weak, but her pulse is strong. She smacks shut her lips and waits for a trick.
It’s a long quote, I know but it’s the only one I’ll be able to include in this billet, since I have the book in French and thus rely on the English kindle sample for original quotes. But apart from this practical issue, it serves my purpose. Now you know why I was hooked from the first page. Sera sits there, the city bustling around her and she wants to hide for a moment but can’t. She’s a hooker and dresses accordingly: she can’t hide. Either her top is revealed or her bottom. She’s so surrounded by the noise, the lights, the music that they become part of her and she becomes part of the city.
The first chapters are dedicated to Sera, her life as a lone prostitute in Las Vegas. The night we meet her will leave her bruised and battered both physically and emotionally.
Then we’re leaving Las Vegas for Los Angeles where we get to know Ben. He’s an alcoholic and he’s about to move out to Las Vegas for purely practical reasons: there, one has access to alcohol round the clock. He knows it’s the end of the road for him and he wants to spend his last weeks as easily as he can.
Ben and Sera meet and find in each other the compassion and human warmth they both need. Sera doesn’t try to save Ben. She doesn’t judge him. She stands by him. And Ben is past judging anyone. He knows what she does for a living and sees her as a human being, as an equal. That alone is a gift for Sera. Her life story is heartbreaking but what impressed me more was O’Brien’s description of alcoholism.
If you weren’t convinced that alcohol is a drug, read Leaving Las Vegas. We’ve all read books with drunkards as main characters. Post Office by Bukowski or Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry are examples. Even if these books don’t shy away from the ugliness of alcoholism, none of them pictures the sheer physical dependency on alcohol the way Leaving Las Vegas does. Think more about books and films about heroin addicts. This is how John O’Brien paints alcoholism. Ben needs an alcohol fix at regular intervals. His life in Los Angeles revolves around alcohol. Which one to drink first thing in the morning without throwing it up. How to deal with an upset stomach and make it accept the substance. Where to drink in the mornings without catching too much attention. Where to drink in the afternoons. Where to drink at night. How to hide drunkenness not to be thrown out of the bar. Where to buy alcohol at night before it is forbidden by law. How to judge the quantity of alcohol to have at home to go through the night once it’s not allowed to buy some more until the next morning. It’s awful. Terrifying.
Ben lets himself die of alcoholism. He’s like a person with terminal cancer. Nothing can be done for him anymore and he just wants to end it as best he can. Las Vegas is that place for him. And Sera is his last companion.
Leaving Las Vegas is the gut-wrenching novel of two lost souls. They are swallowed by an artificial city whose main occupation is amusement and thriving on activities that are illegal in other States. Las Vegas is like the cupboard where you push all the mess in an attempt to let your guests think your apartment is clean and tidy. But Ben and Sera also find acceptance in Las Vegas. Here, in the cupboard of America, nobody pays attention to them. Nobody judges them. They have a right to be.
John O’Brien would know about Ben’s addiction. He was destroyed by alcoholism and committed suicide in 1994.
Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1819-1820) French title: Lettres à Fanny. Translated by Elise Argaud.
As far as they regard myself I can despite all events but I cannot cease to love you.
I knew Keats by name but had never read him. I’m not used to reading poetry, even in French. And in English, well, it’s very difficult. Reading his letters to Fanny was an opportunity to read about Keats, his life, his untimely death. What a waste of talent, like Pushkin or Petőfi. It’s disgruntling to think of all the poems he could have left us if he had had more time. It pushed me to get a bilingual edition of a collection of his poems. I read them after the letters and I thought there was a contrast between the sheer ethereal beauty of the poems and the relative plainness of the letters. We’re talking about Keatsean plainness, which means it’s still beautiful literature for anyone else.
These letters have the usual moans, angst and happy moments that you expect in love letters. Looking for signs. Playing his own game of she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not. Keats complains about giving away his heart and freedom and not liking it.
Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom.
These letters seem written by someone insecure, someone who’s not sure his love is requited. If the foreword hadn’t told me that Keats and Fanny met almost daily at the time, I would have sworn that they were apart. There is no mention of their meetings, their story sounds mostly epistolary when it was not.
The most moving aspect of Keats’s letters are his declining health. He’s ill, most of the time. It cripples him and gets in the way of his love, his happiness and his relationship with Fanny. He’s not well enough to party and he doesn’t want to imprison her, to deprive her of the fun she deserves at her age. (She’s only 18)
I would never see anything but Pleasure in your eyes, love on your lips, and Happiness in your steps. I would wish to see you among those amusements suitable to your inclination and spirits; so that our love might be a delight in the midst of Pleasure agreeable enough, rather than a resource from vexations and cares.
We reader know that Keats will die soon. And we read his letters knowing his fate while he suspects it but obviously doesn’t know the actual term of his life. It adds to the emotion and to the impression of fleeting moments that need to be cherished.
My edition of the letters includes an informative foreword by Laurent Folliot. He explained that when they were published in 1878, it was a scandal. The letters showed a side of Keats that the Victorian society wasn’t ready to see. He’s needy, in love and this love is not just cerebral and poetic. Fanny is not a poet’s muse. She’s disconnected from poetry and Keats doesn’t want their love to be a literary relationship or more precisely, a relationship based upon her admiration for his poems.
I must confess, that (since I am on that subject) I love you more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.
Fanny is not a Laure, a Beatrice or an Hélène. She’s a flesh and blood love. She’s wife material; meaning she sees him fully. Not just the poet façade or the thrill to be associated to a poet. He wants to be loved for himself. I find this consideration very modern. It is a pity that Fanny’s letters are lost to us. Keats destroyed them. I wonder who she was, what she looked like, how she moved. I wonder about her wits, her conversation or her dispositions.
I’m not comfortable with writing about Letters to Fanny Brawne and I hope I didn’t write anything stupid. Since I know nothing about poetry at the time, I’m sure I’m missing their invaluable worth. I can’t read between the lines and connect one detail or the other with a poem or an element of Keats’s life. For me, it was a reconnaissance, images and information to store and use for further exploration of his work.
Next billet will be about my experience with reading the actual poems and till then let’s read Bright Star, a poem allegedly written for Fanny. Enjoy.
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.
The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson (2005) French title: Little Bird. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.
When The Cold Dish opens, it’s fall in fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. The sheriff Walt Longmire is watching geese through his office’s windows when his assistant Ruby comes in and announces that Bob Barnes is on line one, reporting a dead body. It’s so unusual that Longmire doesn’t believe he has an actual stiff to take care of.
She leaned against the doorjamb and went to shorthand, “Bob Barnes, dead body, line one.”
I looked at the blinking red light on my desk and wondered vaguely if there was a way I could get out of this. “Did he sound drunk?”
“I am not aware that I’ve ever heard him sound sober”
So Longmire is convinced he’ll go all the way to the scene to discover some dead sheep. But what he finds there is the awfully damaged body of Cody Pritchard. Killed by a rifle. It doesn’t seem like an accident. Longmire knows Cody as he was involved in a previous case, the collective rape of a Native American teenager, Melissa Little Bird. He was the main instigator of the crime and did it with three friends, George and Jacob Esper and Bryan Keller. The court condemned them to light charges compared to the crime and the Cheyenne community won’t mourn him.
Is Cody’s death a murder or a hunting accident? If it is a murder, does it have anything to do with Melissa Little Bird’s rape?
The Cold Dish is the first installment of the Longmire series. It sets the décor, the characters and made me want to spend more time in their company. The sheriff’s staff is composed of four people. Deputy Ferg, who works part-time because of his passion for fishing, Ruby, the office’s assistant I mentioned before, another deputy that nobody likes and Vic, the latest deputy on the team. She comes from the East coast and landed in Wyoming when she followed her husband who got a job there.
Vic was a career patrol person from an extended family of patrol people back in South Philadelphia. Her father was a cop, her uncles were cops, and her brothers were cops. The problem was that her husband was not a cop. He was a field engineer for Consolidated Coal and had gotten transferred to Wyoming to work at a mine about halfway between here and Montana border. When he accepted the position a little less than two years ago, she gave it all up and came out with him. She listened to the wind, played housewife for about two weeks, and then came into the office to apply for a job.
She’s used to a lot more action than what she encounters in Wyoming and will be valuable on the case.
Walt Longmire is over fifty, not looking for any excitement in his job. He wants to be re-elected to quietly hand over the position to Vic. He’s engaging, he reminded me of Adamsberg, Fred Vargas’s Commissaire or Gamache, Louise Penny’s Chef de la Sûreté. Longmire has been lonely and depressed since his wife Martha died four years ago. His daughter is a lawyer who lives far away and he’s always waiting for her to call. Not so long before Martha’s death, they had sold their house to settle out of town. So now, he lives in an unfinished house with basic comfort, no decoration and he doesn’t care, although he doesn’t lose his sense of humor.
I don’t know what the exact physical dynamics are that cause a shower curtain to attach itself to your body when you turn on the water but, since my shower was surrounded on all sides by curtains, I turned on the water and became a vinyl, vacuum-sealed sheriff burrito.
He drinks a bit too much, he’s terribly out of shape and has been moping around for too long according to his best friend Henry Standing Bear. Henry has decided to take the matter into his own hands, hiring guys to improve the house, showing up at ungodly hours to drag Walt to running. Longmire’s struggles and his friendship with Henry give substance to the novel. They make quite a pair. Craig Johnson keeps it nuanced so it sounds real. Longmire has a wry sense of humor and he’s fond of literature, and sometimes mixes the two, like here when he reads the local newspaper:
I took a sip of y coffee, sat the folder on the counter, and began reading the newspaper. “In the cold, gray dawn of September the twenty-eighth…” Dickens. “…The sippery bank where the life of Cody Pritchard came to an ignominious end…”Faulkner. “Questioning society with the simple query, why?” Steinbeck. “Dead”. Hemingway.
The Cold Dish has all the ingredients of a great read and I loved the witty tone of Longmire’s voice. He’s touching, the plot is catchy, it’s informative about Cheyenne customs, the history of Wyoming and life in this State. The descriptions of the landscape and the community make you want to go there.
It was one of those beautiful, high-plains days, where the sky just blinks blue at the earth and you have to remind yourself to take it in. The second cuttings were all up and tarped, and the perfectly round shadows of bales looked surreal stretching across the disc-turned fields toward Clear Creek like stubble fields at harvest home. I didn’t pass a single car on the way into Durant. It was a little before eight when I got to the office, and Ruby already had five Post-its plastered on the doorjamb of my office. I spotted them when I came through the front door. “It’s a five Post-it day already?”
Ruby makes sure that Longmire stays in line, does his job and takes care of any task she communicates through her Post-its. There’s not much activity for the sheriff, so five Post-its early in the morning is big news. The volume of activity at the sheriff’s office is so low and mundane that everything is treated with minimum fuss and minimum budget too. The county’s jail has only two cells and the prisoners are catered with take-away food from the local eatery. It gives you a feel of small town life in Wyoming where the towns have few inhabitants, where everybody knows everything about everybody. There’s only one street in Durant:
“Vic’s down the street, directing traffic.”
“We’ve only got one street. What’s she doing that for?”
“Electricals for the Christmas decorations.”
“It’s not even Thanksgiving.”
“It’s a city council thing.”
It’s a tight-knit community and this is a very atmospheric novel. Time is not a problem. Johnson’s writing reflects that: he takes time to describe characters, to show us the landscape, to tell us about customs, to dig into the characters’ psyche. Don’t expect a fast paced novel, because it’s not. There’s a lot of action but not in the frenzied and noisy action-movie way. Johnson is obviously fond of Wyoming, where he lives himself. His love for the place seeps through his writing and it makes you want to visit Absaroka County and see it for yourself.
What’s not to like?
Craig Johnson won awards in France and he was at Quais du Polar in 2014, signing books, smiling, apparently happy to be there. He looks the part of the Wyoming writer, at least in the mind of a European. I have a copy in French and Sophie Aslanides’s translation is brilliant. I had the opportunity to compare passages to the original and it’s flawless. It sounds American only it’s in French. Johnson’s books are published by the excellent publisher of American literature, Gallmeister. The owner, Olivier Gallmeister, should change his name into Gemmaster. Because that’s what he is.
PS: The Cold Dish was not on my #TBR20 but I read it as soon as I received it. So technically, I didn’t cheat. Thanks a lot to my sister-in-law who gave me this and sent me most of the photos included in this post.
PPS: A last quote, for the road.
There were clouds at the mountains, and the snow pack reflected the sour-lemon sun into one of the most beautiful and perverse sunsets I had ever seen. The clouds were dappled like the hindquarters of an Appaloosa colt, and the beauty kicked just as hard. The head wind rattled the bare limbs of the cottonwoods as the longer branches swayed, and the remnants of grass and sage shuddered close to the ground. The buffeting of the wind against the truck reminded me that I had lost both of my jackets.