Life is a Dirty Business by Janis Otsiemi (2014) Original French title: La vie est un sale boulot.
Janis Otsiemi is a crime fiction writer from Gabon who writes in French. He was invited at Quais du Polar last year and he will attend this year too.
Life is a Dirty Business opens with Chicano being released from prison in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. He was convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. It happened when he and three accomplices tried to rob a store and one of them ended up shooting down the owner of the shop. Chicano was arrested, went on trial and was condemned to several years of prison. He kept his mouth shut and never denounced the real culprit. What good would it have done? It was like becoming a living target for people who would have avenged for the man he would have put in prison. Better to be alive in prison than dead. Chicano is quite surprised to be released, actually, because he hadn’t done his time in prison. He got to understand that they set him free because of an administrative mess-up; somehow his name came up in the list of prisoners pardoned by the president of Gabon.
Chicano is not turning down this chance and he’s decided to live an honest life now. He’s heading to town to find out what his former girlfriend Mirna has become and start a new life with her. Unfortunately, she has moved on and is pregnant with another man’s child. When Chicano went to her neighborhood, he met his former friends and accomplices. They are working on a new robbery and are missing a person to do it. Their aim is to steal the pay of soldiers in a military camp when it arrives by truck on payday. They explain to Chicano that they have inside information, that it’s an easy job and easy money. And Chicano could use money to start his new life, so he accepts to participate.
rOf course, things don’t go as well as expected and for Chicano, life in prison was an easiet life that the one he just set himself up for.
The plot is classic noir fiction, with a guy with a shady past who tries to turn a new leaf but succumbs to one last fatal crime. It is the same kind of plot as in Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella. Efficient and time-tried.
I wanted to know how things would end up, even if I wasn’t optimistic for poor Chicano from the start, but the most enjoyable part of La vie est un sale boulot was discovering Libreville. Unlike Dernier refrain à Ispahan, this book is written by a local writer and it’s not written for a Western public. I loved the language and it was a fantastic opportunity to explore the variety of the French language offered by the Francophone world. You all know that French from Québec is different. French from Africa is different as well and I loved seing my language alive and vivid under Otsiemi’s pen. The French publisher, Jigal Polar added useful footnotes to explain words and expressions that a French reader wouldn’t understand. I don’t know much about African literature and it made me want to explore this part of Francophone literature.
Crime fiction is also often a good way to write about the unpleasant side of a country. It deals with crime and its darker side. La vie est un sale boulot is no exception. If what Janis Otsiemi describes is real, then there’s no need expecting anything good from the police. Here, they are corrupt and part of the crime world. They don’t really fight against crime, they take advantage of their job and status to benefit from crime. I’ve seen books where the police look the other way not to disrupt organized crime because somewhere they’re linked to the power in place. But here, they make money the same way that the criminals they’re supposed to chase do. Incredible and sad for the Gabonese people if it’s as bad as what Otsiemi describes. It was eyes-opening for the sheltered Westener that I am, another reason why it was worth reading.
While La vie est un sale boulot is not exceptional, Otsiemi does a good job and I’m glad a French publisher brought him to our attention. I’m sorry but this is not available in English. If you can read French, it’s worth trying out.
Last song in Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian (2012) Original French title: Dernier refrain à Ispahan.
I bought Dernier refrain à Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian at Quais du Polar last year. It is a crime fiction novel written by a Franco-Iranian author. Naïri Nahapétian left Iran in 1979 when she was 9 and when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran. She came to France with her family and became a journalist. She goes back to Iran regularly and has started a crime fictions series set in Iran. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is the second book of this series.
The book opens with a crime. The singer Roxana is murdered in a theatre in Ispahan. Women are not allowed to sing in public in Iran and Roxana is back in her hometown after living for decades in the US. She was a very popular singer when the Shah was still in power and moved to California after the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded. She was secretly working on a show with two other singers, Shadi and Nadia. There’s a good chance that her death is linked to this project.
Two recurring characters of the series become involved in solving the crime. The first one is Narek, a Franco-Iranian journalist who was staying in Iran for professional reasons. The second one is Mona. She was Roxana’s friend, they grew up in the same neighborhood and were good friends. Mona is a midwife and she operates a clinic who helps women with gynecological issues and everything around that. Her mission includes helping prostitutes.
The modus operandi of the murderer mirrors the lyrics of one of Roxana’s most famous song:
|Dans un royaume où les ignorants son trois, un homme a volé la voix des femmes. Il a emporté leur chant, semé des tulipes sur leur chemin ; et la joie s’en est allée.||In the kingdom where ignoramuses are kings, a man stole the women’s voices. He took away their singing, scattered tulips in their wake and joy deserted the place.|
This intrigues Mona and pushes her to dig further.
Out of the two characters, Mona has the strongest voice and is the most likeable. I found Narek a little thin. Mona raises her teenage daughter alone and doesn’t know if her husband is alive or not. He was summoned to the police station one day and never came back. Her work is her way to express her feminism and we discover the condition of women through her eyes. Her life in unconventional for her country and it’s not easy to keep living it. She’s a bit of an outsider, just like Anne Perry’s character Hester in her William Monk series. (Hester runs a shelter for prostitutes in Victorian England).
In his review about Three-Card Monte by Marco Malvaldi, Max from Pechorin’s Journal wrote something I totally agree with “Some crime novels are about the crime. Some only have a crime to give the characters something to do.” Dernier refrain à Ispahan belongs to the second category. The plot is suspenseful but the context of the murder and the setting were the most interesting parts. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is a window on the Iranian society and the condition of women. Naïri Nahapétian shows all the little things that are controlled to ensure that men are not in contact with women who are not their wife. I’ve always thought that the concept of hiding women not to trigger men’s lust was terribly offensive for men. The underlying idea is that they cannot interact with a woman without getting horny, as if they were only animals in heat. Isn’t that insulting?
Despite all its qualities, Dernier refrain à Ispahan remains a book written by a Western writer. Sure, Naïri Nahapétian gets the ins and outs of her country of origin. She knows Iran well, she understands its culture and I’m sure that what she writes is accurate. We do have a good sense of place, contrary to Alexis Aubenque’s rendition of Alaska. But her book is written for a French readership. It’s not the same as reading a translation of an Iranian book who was written for a local audience. It’s not as genuine and for me, it is French literature set in Iran and not Iranian literature. And that makes all the difference. So if you can recommend an contenporary Iranian novel, please leave a message in the comment section.
Recent political events pushed me to take this novel off the shelf. Tony from Tony’s Reading List had the same urge with Iraqi’s literature and you can find his review about Iraq +100 – Stories From a Century After the Invasion by Hassan Blasim, here. Reading books from these banned countries seems futile and yet, if literature weren’t powerful why would dictators always ban books?
Dernier refrain à Ispahan is not available in English. If someone’s interested in everyday life in Iran, there’s this wonderful film, Wadjda, about a girl who wants a bicycle even if girls are not allowed to have one. A good movie to show to our Western teenagers.
A New York Christmas by Anne Perry (2014) French title: Un Noël à New York. Translated by Pascale Haas.
Something strange happens with recurring characters of crime fiction series. They become like long term colleagues or distant relatives. You see them getting married or divorced, become parents, have their children grow up and sometimes become grand-parents. You hear or see of their family. All this procures a sense of closeness, as if these characters were real, as if reading a new volume of the series was a mean to keep in touch with them. Isn’t that powerful of a writer to create such a bond between their readers and their characters?
That’s exactly how I feel about the characters of Anne Perry’s two series, the William Monk one and the Thomas Pitt one. A New York Christmas is a side volume of the Thomas Pitt series. It features his daughter Jemima, whose birth I remember from an early volume of the series. And my thought was “Wow, Jemima is already 23, I remember of her when she was born and when she was a child.” See? Exactly like friends or relatives you don’t see very often and it seems like their children grew up overnight when in truth you’re just getting older.
Well, we’re in 1904 and Jemima Pitt is now 23. She’s chaperoning a young bride, Delphinia on her trip from London to New York, where her fiancé is waiting for them. Delphinia will marry Brent Albright, a rich young man who belongs to a powerful family from New York. Delphinia’s father couldn’t accompany her for health reasons and her mother left them when she was a little girl. When Jemima and Delphinia arrive to New York, Brent’s older brother Harley embarks Jemima in an odd mission. He has heard that Delphinia’s mother was in town and they need to find her before she crashes the wedding ceremony and embarrasses her daughter and her future in-laws. But Jemima senses there’s more to the story of Delphinia’s mother than just someone who abandoned her child. Where is she and what were her reasons to leave everything behind?
For those who’s never read the Pitt series, you need to know that Thomas Pitt is a policeman who was educated as a gentleman and who married in a higher social class than his. Charlotte married him against her parents’ wishes. She was a feisty young woman who wouldn’t play by good society’s rules and wanted to use her brains. She is fascinated by her husband’s job and she always gets involved in her husband’s investigations, going to places a policeman couldn’t go. Jemima is her parents’ daughter, ie, she’s thrilled to help solving a little mystery.
Unfortunately, she’s not as savvy as she thinks and Harley might have ulterior motives…And that’s all I will tell you about the plot.
Let’s face it, it’s not the novella of the century but I still enjoyed it. I read it as quickly as you watch an entertaining film. It was what I was looking for when I picked it up and it met my expectations. Given the ending, I wonder if there will be a third series with a spinoff of the Pitt branch in New York. It might be nice to have a new source of comfort read.
PS: I put the two covers from the English and the French editions. They are not the same but look alike.
A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (2007) French title: Sous la glace.
I know everybody’s doing end-of-year posts and all but I’m not quite ready to let 2016 go yet. 2017 is still one week away! So, I’m writing another billet.
Last year I read Still Life by Louise Penny and enjoyed it so much that I bought the second instalment in her Armand Gamache series, A Fatal Grace. Armand Gamache is the head of the investigation department in the Sûreté du Québec. As in Still Life, A Fatal Grace is set in the fictional village of Three Pines. It’s located in Québec, in the Eastern Townships, the part of Québec between Montreal and the American Border.
The villagers are preparing Christmas in quaint Three Pines and the festivities include a traditional curling tournament on a frozen lake. A newcomer to Three Pines named CC de Poitiers is murdered during this tournament, electrocuted on the lake. CC de Poitiers had managed to alienate the village against her, her spineless husband and her neglected and unhappy daughter. CC neglects her daughter and openly treats her bad. She has a lover, Saul, that she brought around Three Pines for the holidays. She just wrote a self-help book and is convinced she will be famous and successful. She doesn’t hesitate to trample on everyone who’s on her way to success. But nobody ever thought she could be murdered, especially in these circumstances.
No. It was almost impossible to electrocute someone these days, unless you were the governor of Texas. To do it on a frozen lake, in front of dozens of witnesses, was lunacy. Someone had been insane enough to try. Someone had been brilliant enough to succeed.
Armand Gamache comes from Montreal to solve the case. He’s accompanied by his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Gamache is rather happy to visit Three Pines and reacquaint himself with Clara and her husband Peter or Gabriel and Olivier, the gay couple who operate the B&B.
It is a classic whodunit but the setting does everything. It’s Christmas time and the descriptions of Québec at this time of year make you want to hop on the next flight and see it by yourself.
Everyone looked alike in the Quebec winter. Like colorful marshmallows. It was hard to even distinguish men from women. Faces, hair, hands, feet, bodies, all covered against the cold.
Armand Gamache is an engaging character, a middle-aged chief inspector who’s been married to his wife for a few decades.
They’d both swelled since they’d first met. There was no way either would get into their wedding clothes. But they’d grown in other ways as well, and Gamache figured it was a good deal. If life meant growth in all directions, it was fine with him.
Thankfully for him, his private life is stable and he’s good at solving crimes. However, he made himself enemies in the Sûreté du Québec in a previous case. These bigwigs are still after him and not against using inside intelligence and underhanded methods to undermine his reputation. This plot thread started in Still Life, goes on in Fatal Grace and is not solved. This is something Louise Penny shares with Anne Perry: a brilliant and humane investigator in a stable relationship but not always in the good graces of his hierarchy. Gamache is one of these intuitive investigators that make the salt of this brand of crime fiction.
Gamache was the best of them, the smartest and bravest and strongest because he was willing to go into his own head alone, and open all the doors there, and enter all the dark rooms. And make friends with what he found there. And he went into the dark, hidden rooms in the minds of others. The minds of killers. And he faced down whatever monsters came at him. He went to places Beauvoir had never even dreamed existed.
Louise Penny writes in English but her prose reflects the geography of her novels and a lot of French words are laced in her English prose. And for a French speaking reader with English as a second language like me, it’s a delight. You find expressions like a one-vache village (in full English, a one-cow village) or sentences like I don’t mind tea,’ Clara raised her mug to them, ‘even tisane. (tisane means herbal tea) or they drove over the Champlain bridge and onto the autoroute (autoroute means motorway) I don’t know how Anglophone-only readers deal with this but for me, it’s a pleasure and it reflects how closely interlaced the two worlds and the two languages are in this part of Québec. But some habits are definitely French:
Gamache held the chair for Em and looked after the young man going to the cappuccino machine to make their bowls of café au lait.
They’re drinking café au lait in bowls. Typically French and French Canadian, apparently. Last Christmas, we had an Australian student at home. She was glad to see that, as she had learnt in French class back in Perth, we really do drink coffee and tea in bowls in France!
A Fatal Grace is a good read for a winter afternoon around Christmas and I’ll continue with the series.
Acceptable Loss by Anne Perry (2011) French title : La fin justifie les moyens. Translated by Florence Bertrand
Acceptable Loss is the eighteenth volume of the Monk series created by Anne Perry. I’ve read them all, they’re part of my comfort reading diet. Set in London in the second part of the 19th century, the main characters are Monk, his wife Hester and their friend Sir Oliver Rathbone. Monk has lost part of his memory in a cab accident years before. Hester used to be a nurse in the Crimea war and she now manages a clinic that helps prostitutes. Sir Rathbone is a famous barrister.
In the previous volume, they had solved an ugly case of children prostitution. Monk is now commander of the River Police. He’s called to the banks of the river Thames when Orrie Jones finds the body of Mickey Parfitt in the water. Monk thinks he’s been murdered, which is confirmed by the legist. Worse: Parfitt was strangled with a knotted expensive silk scarf. The murder was premeditated. Parfitt owned a ship moored nearby on the river Thames and it was used as a secret club for members of the good society. Parfitt provided these gentlemen with sex shows involving little boys.
Monk is horrified by this traffic. On the one hand, he’s not keen on finding the murdered as he thinks Parfitt deserved his fate. On the other hand, this is the second case involving children trade and the last one was somehow unfinished. He wants to find out who financed Parfitt, helped him set up the boat and brought new clients. Parfitt didn’t have the means or the connections to start this business on his own.
Monk investigates, Hester meddles and Rathbone is in a difficult position as his father-in-law might be involved in this nasty business.
Acceptable Loss met my expectations. I picked it to be entertained the way you watch a film. Mission accomplished. Anne Perry manages to renew herself and to keep things interesting for her long time readers. I’ll read the next one when I need comfort read.
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…
Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella. (2001) Not available in French.
“Diane thinks it’s a mid-life crisis,” Eddie said. “At least that’s what her therapist tells her. I can hardly tell anymore who’s doing the talking, whether it’s Diane or her therapist.” “Maybe it is a mid-life crisis,” Tommy said. “I admire you for having one. Guy like me, in the shape I’m in now, I can’t afford to have a mid-life crisis.”
Eddie Senta has a problem: he’s married to a successful corporate executive, Diane, whose biological clock is ticking. She wants a baby and Eddie, who already has a son from his first marriage, doesn’t want another kid. Diane keeps badgering him with motherhood and Eddie keeps resisting. On top of his problems at home, he’s questioning his professional future. Eddie leads a double professional life. By day, he works as a temp in offices to input data in IT systems. It’s a tedious job but he’s a model employee and temp agencies find him jobs regularly. By night, he breaks into office buildings to find cash and steal computers. His day-job is a smoke screen for his nightly activities and money wise the jobs complement each other. The days are dull but the nights provide the thrill he craves for.
But now, Eddie seriously thinks of quitting his work with the mob to please his wife and be a better role model for his son. The thrill of his illegal activities has also worn off. However, he wants to do a last score before explaining that he’s ready to leave this world. His friend Sarah has given him inside information about her office and the gold that her bosses keep there. She was assaulted by her boss and wants out. Eddie hesitates, his gut feeling says that this job might be dangerous. So here he is in a bar with his friend Tommy, who’s supposed to give him a hand with the job:
I’m waiting for a vote of confidence. Something to tell me to go for it.” “Like a sign from God or something?” Eddie shrugged. “Something like that.” “Because I do a mean Charlton Heston as Moses,” Tommy said. “You ever see me do that one?” He sucked in some air, furrowed his eyebrows and spoke in a deep Charlton Heston-like voice. “I am the Lord thy God. Go for it.” “Heston played Moses,” Eddie reminded him. “How about a voice in the night then? Because if that’s all you need, you got it right here. I’m not God or nothing. Let’s face it; I’m a nobody. But it is dark outside, and I do have a voice. I can sure use something right about now, if that counts for anything. I’m a guy in need of miracles. Trust me.”
Tommy is not the brightest bulb in the set and Eddie knows it. They’ve been friends since childhood and Eddie’s nothing but loyal. They both need the money and Eddie wants to help Sarah. They eventually go for it and find themselves involved in murders. Both the NYPD and FBI are investigating. Eddie’s world might collapse like a house of cards.
Eddie’s World mixes noir and mid-life crisis problems. It’s a daring move but it works, mostly because the humorous style ties the two plot strands together. We follow the murder case and wonder how things will turn out for Eddie. The crime fiction strand is well conducted and plausible. It follows the codes of noir: a man who goes for easy money and is confronted with something bigger than what he can manage. He feels that things could go wrong but a woman’s interests make him go for it anyway. The mob is involved, as is the FBI and the lines between right and wrong are blurred. Sometimes the FBI finds it convenient to forget moral rules. Sometimes the mob is more decent than expected.
And besides the crime strand, we have the mid-life crisis strand. We learn about Eddie’s qualms. Quitting his night job isn’t an easy decision to make because he doesn’t know if he’ll fit in his day work’s world.
“And maybe I can’t fit into one or the other,” Eddie said. “I can’t give up the street stuff and do what my wife wants, which is to play ball with the office world, get a steady computer job, and take the Long Island Railroad every morning. And I can’t see myself running coffee errands for wiseguys I don’t respect. What’s that, like lost in the middle someplace? Definitely lost.”
His head is full of questions. Am I ready to settle with a normal life? How can I be a better father? Is my marriage salvageable? Do I want to make this marriage work? His hesitations could cost him more than what he bargained for.
Eddie’s World is good entertainment. I read it thanks to Guy who reviewed it and gave it to me. Thanks Guy!