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The Summer of Katya by Trevanian – Thriller in the Basque country

August 25, 2019 10 comments

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian (1983) French title: L’été de Katya. Translated by Emmanuèle de Lesseps.

But despite the physical and emotional parallels between today and that distant summer, I find it difficult to express my memories lucidly. The problem is not in the remembering; it is in the recording; for a while I recall each note clearly, they play a false melody when I string them together. And it is not only the intervening years that distort the sounds and images; it is the fact that the events occurred on the other side of the Great War, beyond the gulf of experience and pain that separate two centuries, two cultures. Those of us whose lives are draped across that war find their youths deposited on the shore of a receding, almost alien, continent where life was lived at a different tempo and, more important, in a different timbre. The things we did and said, our motives and methods, had different implications from those they now have; therefore, it is possible for a description of those things to be completely accurate without being at all truthful.

When the narrator of The Summer of Katya by Trevanian says this, we are in August 1938. Dr Jean-Marc Montjean is 45 as he recalls his summer of 1914, just before the Great War started.

In 1914, he’s 21 and he’s back in the French Basque country after studying medicine in Paris. Dr Gros took him in as assistant to his clinic where he specializes in the “discomforts” associated with menopause. Jean-Marc is skeptical about the clinic’s patients, doesn’t hide it from Dr Gros but he took him in anyway.

Jean-Marc meets the Treville when Katya comes into the village to fetch a doctor because her brother Paul hurt his shoulder. They are twins and look very much alike. They live with their father in a remote rented house. Their father is buried in books, a history buff who only comes out of his office from time to time.

Jean-Marc is soon fascinated by Katya and strikes an odd friendship with Paul. The young man seems to play a game of push-and-pull with him, sometimes letting him in as a friend and sometimes roughly pushing him away. Katya is the same, apparently torn between going further with him and rejecting him for reasons he has yet to discover. Jean-Marc is on a constant roller-coaster of emotions with these two. Paul and Katya have warned him off: their father must not think there is any kind of love relationship between Katya and Jean-Marc. Why?

A feeling of unease rapidly invades the reader’s mind. Why are the Treville in Salies-Les-Bains? What are they hiding from? What scandal pushed them to flee from Paris? Why did Katya decided to change her name from Hortense to Katya? They share a heavy burden, but what is it?

Paul keeps telling Jean-Marc that he must not fall in love with Katya but you can’t avoid falling in love. The atmosphere thickens and the reader knows from the start that there will be no happy ending, we just wait for the drama to unfold before our eyes.

Besides the story between the protagonists and the thriller side of the book, The Summer of Katya is a fine piece of literature. Trevanian has lived in the French Basque country for a while and you can feel it in the descriptions of Salies-les-Bains, of the countryside and the village feast the Treville and Jean-Marc attend. As you heard it in the quote before, his language has a melancholic musicality. Jean-Marc never married after that summer, the one of Katya, the last one of his youth, before History hit him with the Great War and he had to recover from the aftermath of Katya. It was the end of a civilization and the end of his world.

I had never read any book by Trevanian before this one. I understand that The Summer of Katya is different from his other novels and that his most famous one is Shibumi. Has anyone read him before?

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun – Not everyone can be Agatha Christie

August 4, 2019 4 comments

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun (1994) Original French title: Meurtre chez Tante Léonie

If you’ve ever read Proust, you know all about Aunt Léonie, Combray, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way. Murder chez Proust by Estelle Monbrun is set in Illiers, the village that inspired Combray and where Proust’s aunt used to live. My recent visit to the Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann prompted me to pick up this cozy crime novel.

When the book opens, the Proust Association is about to welcome Proust aficionados in Illiers for a tourism & literature stay. Unfortunately, Emilienne, the cleaning lady in charge of Aunt Léonie’s house finds Mrs Bertrand-Verdon, the president of the Proust Association, murdered. As we get acquainted with the VIPs of the conference, we realize that each of them has a good reason to dislike Mrs Bertrand-Verdon.

Her secretary, Gisèle Dambert, is writing her PhD thesis about Proust. She inherited of a treasure, Proust’s famous 1905 notebooks that his governess Céleste Albaret had to destroy. Gisèle had informed Mrs Bertrand-Verdon of this important discovery and now regrets it.

Professor Verdaillon, Gisèle’s PhD supervisor is about to publish a complete edition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. What would be the value of this edition is the 1905 notebooks were to reappear? M. Desforges works for the publisher who will market this edition. He used to be Mrs Bertrand-Verdon’s lover and his credibility has faded away recently. He can’t afford this edition to be a failure. M. de Chareilles was about to marry Mrs Bertrand-Verdon. He’s a traditional nobleman and it’s not certain that he knows all about his fiancée’s background. Professor Rainsford is an American academics who has been in contact with Mrs Bertrand-Verdon too. He seems to have things to hide as well.

All the important people of this literary microcosm have something to hide or a good reason to fear or dislike the victim. She was quite manipulative and had the upper hand on their future. So who did it? Commissaire Jean-Pierre Foucheroux and Inspector Leila Djemani are in charge of the investigation.

Estelle Monbrun is the penname of Elyane Dezon-Jones, a teacher of contemporary French literature in the USA. (Barnard College and Washington University in St Louis) She’s a specialist of Proust and Marguerite Yourcenar. Murder chez Proust will be nice for Proust nuts. It’s full of literary nudges about In Search of Lost Time and Proust’s biography. It’s fun to track them in the text.

Estelle Monbrun also knows how to write and how to describe the quiet French countryside. Her book sounds timeless. If you put aside the Proustian details, the village and the villagers reminded me of St Mary Mead. The best characters are the police, with a commissaire who limps after an accident and mourns his wife and a female inspector of North African origins who has a lot to prove to herself.

BUT. I’m sure you were waiting for the but. Even if Estelle Monbrun ticks all the right boxes to write an Agatha-Christie branded whodunnit, it doesn’t work. It’s bland like a poorly executed imitation.

This is where you see that crime fiction is a noble genre too. You may know how to write, how to assemble plausible details and use a believable setting for a cozy crime, it’s not enough. You need talent to create a story with interesting police characters, with characters that feel like flesh-and-blood people and with actions that are believable.

Back to Michael Connelly and how I thought that The Black Echo was perfectly executed. Connelly has the craft to do that, and even if he’s not a literary writer the way Chandler is, he has a huge talent as a storyteller. Here, the ingredients are there on paper but Estelle Monbrun didn’t manage to cook a good story. Storytelling is a talent per se and excellent crime fiction is an art as difficult to handle as more literary genres.

Black Run by Antonio Manzini – crime fiction in the Italian Alps

August 2, 2019 10 comments

Black Run by Antonio Manzini (2013) French title: Piste noire. Translated from the Italian by Samuel Sfez

Rocco Schiavone had an entirely personal hierarchy up and down which he ranked the pains in the ass that life senselessly inflicted on him every day. The scale actually started at 6, which covered anything that had to do with keeping house: grocery shopping, plumbers, paying rent. The number 7 included malls, banks, medical clinics, and doctors in general, with a special bonus for dentists, and concluded with work diners or family diners, though all his living relatives, thank God, were down south in Rome. An 8 on the hierarchy began, first and foremost, with public speaking, followed by any and all bureaucratic procedures required for his job, going to the theatre, and reporting to chiefs of police or investigating magistrates. At number 9 came tobacco shops that weren’t open when he needed a pack of cigarettes, cafés that didn’t carry Algida ice cream bars, running in anyone who wanted to talk and talk endlessly, and especially stakeouts with police officers who needed a bath.

Topping the hierarchy, the worst and the most dreaded, was a rating of 10. The top, the worst, the mother of all pains in the ass: the investigation he wasn’t expecting.

Translated by Antony Shugaar

Black Run by Antonio Manzini is an Italian crime fiction novel set in the Italian Alps, near the French border, in the Valle d’Aosta. Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone is the one who has the scale to rank up pains in the ass in life. This quote describes his grumpy self. He’s been sent from Rome to this valley against his will and he likes nothing there. The weather, the people, his staff, the atmosphere, everything rubs him the wrong way.

Black Run starts with a dead body found on a ski slope. Amadeo Gunelli drives a snowcat and prepares runs for the upcoming ski weekend at the Champoluc ski resort when he collides and drives over a corpse. Needless to say, the body is hard to recognize after that.

Schiavone is woken up in the middle of the night to drive up in the mountain and go to the crime scene. That’s were we learn about his rating of life’s pains in the ass and his methods to lead crime investigations.

I will not write about the plot itself, it’s a straightforward police investigation with financial and love interests intermingled in a close-knit community. The case was OK but I was only looking for entertainment when I bought this book.

My problem was that I totally disliked Schiavone. He’s obnoxious. He’s unhappy to have to go to the mountains and cares more about style than practicalities. That’s why he walks around in Clarke shoes in a ski resort: he wouldn’t want to be caught wearing ugly snow boots. He truly despises his team and treats them like they are morons.

He’s callous with women, objectifying them, flirting with everything that has a skirt and that he finds relatively attractive. He always appraises their worth according to their looks. This macho attitude could be tolerable from a writer born a century ago but not from a contemporary writer.

And, he’s also a corrupt cop, having illegal activities on the side. He had his own personal drama when he was still in Rome but I didn’t like him enough to care.

I know that you don’t have to like the characters of a book to enjoy it. But it’s different with crime fiction series. You need to like the main character enough to want to stick with him or her and follow him or her in her other investigations. Here, I didn’t like Schiavone and I won’t be reading any other book from this series.

Has anyone read a book with Schiavone too? If yes, what did you think about it?

The Black Echo by Michael Connelly – Perfectly executed

July 29, 2019 9 comments

The Black Echo by Michael Connelly (1992) French title: Les égoûts de Los Angeles.

Michael Connelly was the star at Quais du Polar this year. I attended two events where he was a guest star, a film about LA and Connelly’s writing and a wonderful jazz & literature session with him and James Sallis. I saw him on the street, simply having a sandwich at the terrace of a bakery. I liked his attitude, he didn’t behave like he was a big deal and yet he is, if you consider the number of books he has sold. It made me want to read one of his books and I picked The Black Echo, the first opus of his famous Harry Bosch series.

Harry Bosch is a detective on the LAPD homicide team and he has just been demoted. The Internal Affairs are after him. When he and his partner are sent on a scene where a dead body was found, he’s the only one not to dismiss this death as an overdose. Something doesn’t sit well with him. And then he realizes that he knew the victim. It’s Billy Meadows, a fellow veteran who fought alongside him in the Vietnam War. There is no way Harry will let this case alone, despite all the roadblocks on the path: he has enemies in the LAPD and he crosses the FBI’s path. It’ll be a dangerous case for Harry’s career and even physical integrity.

I wasn’t sure that I’d like Connelly’s books but I did. Harry Bosch is an attaching character and The Black Echo is polished debut novel. Bosch is fully formed, believable and Connelly’s knowledge of police procedure and LAPD’s ways is precious and accurate. Bosch’s quotidian sounds real, like here:

Two hours of typing and smoking and drinking bad coffee later, a bluish cloud hung near the ceiling lights over the homicide table and Bosch had completed the myriad forms that accompany a homicide investigation. He got up and made copies on the Xerox in the back hall.

The reader believes that Harry is a real detective, a maverick among his peers and that make him interesting. Details about the Vietnam War ring true too, a black echo was a soldier who went into tunnels, in search of Vietcong soldiers. Connelly doesn’t give useless information about the war but only the ones relevant for the plot and the reader’s understanding of Bosch’s past.

Connelly describes himself as a storyteller and that’s an accurate description. His prose is good, efficient. The Black Echo is an excellent page turner, I was eager to continue, to see how it would end. I liked Bosch and was totally engaged at his side during the story. It’s captivating and everything is well done: the LA setting, Bosch himself and his interactions with his colleagues, the atmosphere of the police investigation. It’s efficient, like Stephen King, only in a different genre.

Connelly is a wonderful and engaging writer but not an artist like other literary authors, which is not something he claims to be. From what I see in The Black Echo, the Bosch series is an excellent source of reliable, good and entertaining reads. We do need this kind of books because reading is above all a pleasure. And sometimes, literary books are interesting or challenging but not all that pleasurable.

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

June 16, 2019 11 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson – Boston crime

May 30, 2019 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott – Aspartame Noir.

April 6, 2019 5 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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