Today, the weather wasn’t as nice as yesterday and we started our crime fiction fun fest in the rain. Marina Sofia and I attended a conference entitled “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”, according to the famous word by Flaubert. David Young (UK), Ron Rash (US) and Caryl Férey (France) were in this panel as writers of books featuring women as central characters. The journalist in charge of this discussion was Michel Abescat and he was well prepared. He had obviously read several books of each writer and had imagined a series of question around the theme. In my opinion, Caryl Férey and Ron Rash were the most fascinating of the three to describe their creative process.
Ron Rash explained that he started to write Saints at the River with a male narrator but ended up making of Maggie the narrator. He said that after 40 pages into the novel, the man’s voice wasn’t convincing and Maggie’s voice imposed itself. Landscapes play an important role in his books and he confided that he viewed them as feminine. This reminded me of the discussion we had about the quotes by Jim Thompson I published recently.
He also talked about how he writes. He doesn’t find himself interesting enough to be the clay of his novels. He’d rather write about less boring people and he aims at creating memorable characters. The characters are the central piece of his books, before the story. He sees himself as some sort of phone tower that would capture stories that are in the air and that would plug on the right frequency to catch the voices of the characters. His characters inhabit him and express themselves through his pen. He said he’s “feeling, thinking their thoughts” and that he tries to wipe himself away in order to give himself totally to a character. In the end, he writes to understand what it feels to be human, what it means to be in this world.
Caryl Férey is a genuine guy who has a great sense of humor, a lot of presence on stage. He’s the antithesis of PC, which I love. He explained that he now prefers to write scenes that involve women. He also wants to write about oppressed people and since women are often among them, he’s interested in creating strong female characters. He was a bit provocative and said that men are more cavemen and that introducing female characters in his books obliged him to write with more finesse. And since his heroines wouldn’t fall in love with douchebags, he had to draw more sensitive male characters too.
Caryl Férey also talked about his creation process. He travels a lot. People he met through his travels influence his characters. His description was a lot like listening film directors when they explain the choice of an actor or an actress for a role. They often say “As soon as he/she entered the room, I knew he/she was the incarnation of the character”. Férey agreed with Rash about being inhabited by his characters during the writing of the book. He becomes a medium to pour them onto the page. He went as far as saying that he once fell in love with one of his characters, “as stupid as it may sound”, he acknowledged.
About first person narratives vs third person narratives. Both said it is more powerful to write first person narratives. Férey says that he rarely does, he’d rather write third person narratives and alternate narrators. Each narrator has their own style which may be a problem for Férey as a writer. When several third-person narrators meet, whose voice shall take over and tell the scene?
He also said that as a writer, he’s never off the clock. Musicians might think in sounds, painters in colors, he thinks in words and stories.
Both Rash and Férey are fond of poetry and they say it influences their writing. Rash explained that the last editing of his book consists in him listening to the sound of his sentences and polishing their sound, their rhythm. He wants to add another layer to his writing to enhance the reader’s pleasure. Férey pointed out that since poetry is not expected in crime fiction, he likes adding some to the mix.
To be honest, David Young seemed a little off compared to the others. His answers were interesting but his creation process seemed less artistic and less interesting to me.
This was a very good conference and you can watch it on replay on the Quais du Polar website, if you’re interested.
After that, I decided to attend a literary concert about Marcus Malte’s novel, Les harmoniques. This consisted in Malte being on stage with a jazz singer and a guitarist/double bassist.
Sorry, the picture isn’t good but at least, it gives you an idea of the setting.. Marcus Malte is on the left.
Malte told excerpts of his novel and between these excerpts, the musicians played songs related to the book. Les harmoniques, which I haven’t read yet, is deeply linked to jazz music. There’s a playlist at the beginning of the book and part of this playlist was played on stage. What a treat, really. Malte was well-prepared. He almost knew his text by heart and his narration was perfectly in tune with his words, with the music. The music agreed with the words, the words agreed with the music. Being there was a chance, a gift these talented artists gave to the public. It was set in the amphitheater of the Opera, away from the crowd, in a soft atmosphere. Jazz and crime fiction have a long common history and this literary concert was a marvelous experience. I can’t tell you how lucky the public was to attend such a performance, and for free. You can listen to it in replay here. It seems to be a very atmospheric book and I can’t wait to read it.
I rushed to the Chapelle de la Trinité, grabbing a sandwich on my way to meet with Marina Sofia and attend a conference entitled Exiled, locked away, tortured but alive: when pens become one with the wind of freedom. The participants were Víctor del Árbol (Spain), Marc Fernandez (France/Spain), Zygmunt Miloszewski (Poland) and Qiu Xiaolong (Chine)
All write about oppression and the dark corners of their countries. Miloszewski decided to write a book about domestic violence against women. Qiu writes about China. Fernandez wrote a novel about the stolen children of the Franco regime, a similar story to what happened in Argentina. Del Árbol writes about the hidden wounds of the Spanish Civil war and the Franco years. Miloszewski declared that patriotism means loving the glorious pages of one’s country’s history and being ashamed of his dark pages. Nationalism forgets to be ashamed of the dark pages. Del Árbol wants to address the issues that have been swept under the carpet to give the defeated a voice. He says that the vanquished, here the Spanish Republicans, were ashamed to have lost and had to stay silent. They were forgotten. Qiu explained that in China in the 1980s, graduate students from university were given jobs that they had to accept, whether the job was their cup of tea or not. This is why his main character, Inspector Chen reluctantly became a police officer. People have their future stolen by dictatorships or as Imre Kertesz perfectly described it, they became Fateless. The discussion was interesting, never going into actively promoting one’s last book but genuinely building on their work to foster the debate.
This was my last conference of the day. I then went into the giant bookstore. I wanted to talk to Jacques Côté, whose book I’ve just finished. I was glad to have answers to some questions I had about his book. I had books signed by Ron Rash, Megan Abbott and Víctor del Árbol. I bought a bande dessinée for my husband and books to give to other readers. And went home, tired but happy.
1974 by David Peace (1999) Translated by Daniel Lemoine.
Edward Dunford is a rookie journalist, just hired as North of England Crime Correspondent at the Yorkshire Evening Post. The book starts on Friday 13 December 1974. Eddie’s father has just died and he’s attending a press conference at the Millgarth Police Station, Leeds. Little Clare Kemplay has been missing since the day before on her way back from school. Soon, her body is found in a nearby alley. Edward makes a connection between this murder and the murders of two other little girls. Jeanette Garland missing since 1969 in Castleford. Susan Ridyard missing since 1972 in Rochdale, in 1972.
Eddie starts digging. His colleague Barry Gannon is on a big case that he calls the Dawsongate. He’s investigating shady transactions in the construction business owned by John Dawson. He’s on the verge of getting the evidence he needs. He gets murdered on December 16th. Eddie inherits of his material.
Who is the link between the three murdered little girls? What was Barry about to reveal?
Ambitious Eddie will follow leads and from informative phone calls, to strange visits and police tips, he will start his journey to hell. Corruption is wherever you look. Among the police. Among the press. Among the powerful men of the territory. Eddie will be in the cross-fire between the three, trying to save his career and his life while attempting to discover the truth about these horrible acts.
Everything happens between December 13 and Christmas Eve. David Peace installs the nervous pace of his literary style from the first paragraphs:
‘All we ever get is Lord fucking Lucan and wingless bloody crows,’ smiled Gilman, like this was the best day of our lives:
Friday 13 December 1974.
Waiting for my fist Front Page, the Byline Boy at last: Edward Dunford, North of England Crime Correspondent; two days too fucking late.
I looked at my father’s watch.
9 a.m0 and no bugger had been to bed; straight from the Press Club, still stinking of ale, into this hell:
The Conference Room, Millgarth Police Station, Leeds.
The whole bloody pack sat waiting for the main attraction, pens poised and tapes paused; ht TV lights and cigarette smoke lighting up the windowless room like a Town Hall boxing ring on a Late Night Fight Night; the paper boys taking it out on the TV set, the radios static and playing it deaf:
‘They got sweet FA’
‘A quid says she’s dead if they got George on it.’
Khalil Aziz at the back, no sign of Jack.
I felt a nudge. It was Gilman again, Gilman from the Manchester Evening News and before.
‘Sorry to hear about your old man, Eddie’
‘Yeah, thanks,’ I said, thinking news really did travel fucking fast.
‘When’s the funeral?’
I looked at my father’s watch again. ‘In about two hours.’
‘Jesus. Hadden still taking his pound of bloody flesh, then.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, knowing, funeral or no funeral, no way I’m letting Jack fucking Whitehead back on this one.
‘I’m sorry, like’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
It’s a long quote but it gives the atmosphere of the novel in a nutshell. The ingredients are there. Eddie mourning his father but in competition with the star journalist Jack Whitehead. The fake camaraderie between the journalists. The show delivered by the police. The interdependence between the police and the press. The demands of Hadden, Eddie’s boss.
The loose use of punctuation gives a staccato rhythm to the book and it will follow us for the whole ride. I have to admit: Thank God I had this one in translation. I was already fairly lost in French, I can’t even imagine what it would have been in English. It’s a first person narrative, so we’re with Eddie the whole time. It’s violent because the methods of the police are made of beating and torture. There’s an urgency to the story that keeps you breathless. We’re walking in the dark with Eddie, trying to weave the threads of information together to create the tapestry of events. Not easy before computer and cell phones times.
I know that Nineteen Seventy-Four is loosely based upon the real case of the Yorkshire Ripper. I’m French and was still in diapers in 1974. I know nothing about this case. Just like I knew nothing about the Lucan case when I read Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark. I did a bit of reading on Wikipedia. This serial killer murdered prostitutes, not little girls. Fiction is mixed with facts. Edward Dunford is from Osset, like David Peace. The investigation on the Yorkshire Ripper was done by Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield who was highly criticized for his handling of the case. Here, George Oldfield is the name of the Chief Superintendent in charge of the investigation. I’m sure there are other parts of the novel that borrow to the real case. Does that bother me? Not really because it is not a novel about this case. It’s a novel about a similar serial killer and Peace probably used the information about the Yorkshire Ripper to give back the atmosphere of the time, the way the police worked and how the whole intelligentsia of West Yorkshire holds themselves together through shared secrets.
Nobody had interest in shaking the whole system and Eddie is a willing pawn. He’s not a likeable character either. Women are means for sex, however damaged they might be, he’s in this mainly for his own advancement and his competition with Jack Whitehead for the title of best crime journalist. He’s not a noble character fighting to right wrongs in a corrupt world. And yet he continues.
This is Noir, very very Noir fiction and Peace’s style makes it worth your time. Granted it’s not an asset for the Department of Tourism of West Yorskshire, even if it is set 40 years ago.
For another review, have a look at Max’s excellent post here.
Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson. 2012. French title: L’enfer de Church Street. (translated by Sophie Aslanides)
I purchased Hell on Church Street at Quais du Polar as I was intrigued by the writer and it’s published by Gallmeister which is starting to be a way to pick American literature with eyes closed and without thinking. Remember what I wrote then: In the booklet advertising Quais du Polar, each author presents themselves with a short biography and mentions their favourite book, film and writer. Jake Hinkson said that he was raised by Christian fundamentalists in the mountains in Arkansas, that he used to snuggle banned crime fiction books in Bible camp. He added that if Jim Thompson had knocked up Flannery O’Connor in a sleazy motel in Ozark, he’d be their offspring.
The starting point of Hell on Church Street is original. We have a typical ex-con trying to lie low in a job but his temper gets the better of him. He needs to get away from town and decides to steal a car at a gas station. He chooses Geoffrey Webb’s car because all he sees is a fat man unable to fight back. It’s an easy theft. Fatal mistake.
Geoffrey Web has nothing to lose and he needs to unburden his conscience. While he drives with the man’s gun pointed at him, he locks hard to the left and makes his aggressor understand that he too has their lives between his hands. He starts bargaining: if he lets him drive them both to Little Rock, Arkansas and tell his story, he will give him the three thousand dollars he has in his wallet. The ex-con accepts the deal and Geoffrey Webb starts talking. He will relate a tale of sex, murder and criminality set in the community of the Higher Living Baptist Church in the southwest section of Little Rock.
Geoffrey is hired as the youth minister of the church and he’s a perfect psycho Tartuffe. He spouts on passages of the Bible like he means them while he actually recites them as a salesman delivers their pitch. He’s the kind of youth minister who blabbers chaste messages about love, Jesus and being good while keeping porn tapes for his evening fun and lusting after the pastor’s teenage daughter.
When Father Card, the pastor of this church hired Webb, he didn’t realize he was letting a wolf enter into the sheepfold. Geoffrey Webb is not only a nut job, he’s also a ticking bomb waiting to explode. And all it takes is a threat issued by the local sheriff and his pushing Webb to do something illegal to set everything in motion.
I don’t want to tell too much about the plot. I always try harder than usual to avoid spoilers in crime fiction billets. You’ll have to discover the rest by yourself.
I was warned that Jake Hinkon’s books were known to be violent. Well, Hell on Church Street is violent but not more than Drive by James Sallis or The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Hinkson respects the codes of the genre. The originality of his novel is the setting and the relentless vitriolic remarks he makes about the Higher Living Baptist Church. He portrays a hypocrite being accepted in the community as long as he says the right things and apparently behaves with propriety. He destroys the illusion that with people, what you see is what you get –if anyone still nurtured that illusion. He shows power games within the community leaders and how people who think they are holier than the Pope –well, not exactly since they wouldn’t want to be associated with the Pope or any papist—are actually very common people with any many flaws as anyone.
I had a good time reading Hell on Church Street. Hinkon’s style is punchy and even if it wasn’t always comfortable to be in Webb’s head, it was a hell of a journey.
Le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons by Sébastien Gendron. 2014. Not available in English
|Chaque jour a son lendemain et à force de vivre, on devient tous le connard de quelqu’un.||Each day has its tomorrow and simply by being alive, we all become someone else’s jerk.|
Let’s start with a little bit of French. In French, le tri selectif des ordures refers to the sorting of waste in order to recycle it. But an ordure is also a scumbag. And a con is an asshole. So basically, le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons means the sorting of scumbags and other assholes. Now that you’ve been enlightened about the title, the book.
Imagine you’re a democratic hitman and you want to bring your useful services to the masses. After all, rich people are not the only ones to have someone in their life that they’d love to get rid of. That’s the idea. So Dick Lapelouse, hitman extraordinaire, decides to start a business in Bordeaux. See the content of his flyer:
|GENS DU PEUPLE, RELEVEZ-VOUS, CAR VOICI POUR VOUS SERVIR LA TREPANATION A 56€ TTC, L’ACCIDENT DE VOITURE A 79,99€ (VEHICULE NON FOURNI), L’ENTERREMENT EN MILIEU FORESTIER A 100€ TOUT ROND (HORS FRAIS DE DEPLACEMENT ET DE TEINTURERIE) ET LE FORFAIT MENACE + GRANDE PEUR + ASSASSINAT DANS RUE DEGAGEE, POUR 250€ SEULEMENT.||WAKE UP GOOD PEOPLE BECAUSE HERE IS TO SERVE YOU TREPANS FOR 56€ ALL TAXES INCLUDES, CARS ACCIDENT FOR 79,99€ (CAR NOT INCLUDED), BURIAL IN A FOREST FOR 100€ (TRAVEL AND DRY CLEANING EXPENSES NOT INCLUDED) AND THE PACKAGE THREAT + BIG FEAR + MURDER IN A CLEAR STREET FOR 250€ ONLY|
He goes to a banker to get a loan, settles down in an office near a psychiatrist, builds the IKEA catalogue of the various ways to kill someone, including options, advertises his services in the local newspapers and waits for clients to come. Things roll well for a while until he gets a job that cannot be performed according to plan. He is threatened by his client, his office is trashed. Who is after him?
Le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons plays with the code of Noir and is a highly humorous book. No one should take this seriously; it’s a parody. That kind of novel is a risky business, it canhttps://bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=5423&action=edit&message=10 be very good or terrible. Here, I think Gendron won his bet. He’s obviously knowledgeable in the Noir department, his imagination runs wild and he manages to create a crazy and yet plausible story. I laughed a lot, reading this story about the Easy Jet of contract killers and the impact of his business on the market of murders is irresistible.
Gendron’s style is better than you’d expect and it reads easily with dialogues that remind me of Michel Audiard.
|– Les vrais salopards ont des gueules d’ange et c’est ça leur principal talent.- Vous trouvez que j’ai une gueule d’ange ?- Non, je vous ai dit, vous avez une gueule de tueur à gages.||– Genuine bastards have an angel face and that’s their main talent.– You think I have an angel face?– No, I told you so, you have the face of a hitman.|
It’s a light read, you need to be in the right mood to enjoy his off-the-wall sense of humour but it’s worth the ride. Provided you can read in French.
Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes. 1946. French title: Pendez-moi haut et court.
He was wondering what in hell he was mixed up in. An ex-cop who ran a gambling joint in Reno and a New York attorney. A woman, with class written all over her, who was somehow tied in with Parker and who didn’t hesitate to sell out the man she worked up. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all. He wasn’t coming out of this untouched. That was certain. For the first time in his life he felt helpless. Not afraid—because he couldn’t find anything to be afraid of.
That’s it in a nutshell. Former PI Red Bailey is spending a bucolic life in Bridgeport, California. He runs the gas station, goes fishing and has a loving relationship with the young Ann. In this sweet opening chapter, everything seems peaceful except that Red doesn’t want to commit himself to Ann because of his past. He’s sitting on a time-bomb and he knows it.
Precisely, Guy Parker, a ghost from his past, comes back in his life and blackmails him into flying to New York to get a line for him about the lawyer Lloyd Eels. Parker is now shacked up with the siren Mumsie McGonigle. She was involved with Red ten years ago and is part of his muddy past as a PI. Red doesn’t want the job but doesn’t have a choice. Either he does it or Parker uses the information Mumsie has given him about their common past to turn Red to the police.
So Red leaves for New York, only to realise that there is more to this job than it appeared. He’s in such a trap that it seems impossible to come out of it unscathed.
As a reader, I took side for Red, even after discovering what he had done to be in such a predicament. I wanted him to have a way-out although what he has done is condemnable. It’s a strange thing to root for a character when you perfectly know that in real life, you wouldn’t support someone who has committed such a crime. His choice for a quiet and honest life seems to redeem himself. But still. Isn’t it normal that he pays for what he’s done?
I enjoyed the plot, the characters and the descriptions of the places. I was in the mountains with Red and Ann when they went fishing. I thought the picture of the popular New-York quite lively, like here:
The hockey players had departed, but Forty-Eighth Street wasn’t quiet. Women yelled at each other across the narrow way or screamed for their offspring. The offspring paid little heed. Two girls traded witticisms with a man in a delivery truck. A crap game was in progress on the sidewalk in front of a small grocery. The woman who ran the place stood in the door watching the boys roll the cubes against a brick wall.
This book has been in the “upcoming billets” box of my blog for a while. I procrastinated and waited a long time to write my billet, mostly because I’m not comfortable with writing about crime fiction. I have said this before and unfortunately, I’m forced to acknowledge that my skills don’t improve. When I write about literary fiction, words come easily. For crime fiction, it’s laboured. I never know where to stop writing about the plot without giving away too much information. I have difficulties to analyse the characters without mentioning spoilers. I doubt my billet conveys how much I enjoyed this book and what a great read it is. So it goes. It is highly recommended and if you still hesitate about reading it, pay a visit to Guy’s blog and discover there his excellent review about it. Finally, as you can see from the book covers, Build my Gallows High was made into a film, Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum. I haven’t seen it and this one I want to watch.
Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest by Jean-Patrick Manchette. 1976. English title: Three to Kill.
I bought Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest at the crime fiction festival Quai du Polar. I’ve had Manchette in mind for a long time and decided to try this one. I was hooked by the cover and intrigued by its title, but more of that later. Let’s read together the first paragraph of the novel.
|Et il arrivait parfois ce qui arrive à présent : Georges Gerfaut est en train de rouler sur le boulevard périphérique extérieur. Il y est entré porte d’Ivry. Il est deux heures et demie ou peut-être trois heures un quart du matin. Une section du périphérique extérieur est fermée pour nettoyage et sur le reste du périphérique intérieur, la circulation est quasi nulle. Sur le périphérique extérieur, il y a peut-être deux ou trois ou au maximum quatre véhicules par kilomètre. Quelques-uns sont des camions dont plusieurs sont extrêmement lents. Les autres véhicules sont des voitures particulières qui roulent toutes à grande vitesse, bien au-delà de la limite légale. Plusieurs conducteurs sont ivres. C’est le cas de Georges Gerfaut. Il a bu cinq verres de bourbon 4 Roses. D’autre part il a absorbé, voici environ trois heures de temps, deux comprimés d’un barbiturique puissant. L’ensemble n’a pas provoqué chez lui le sommeil, mais une euphorie tendue qui menace à chaque instant de se changer en colère ou bien en une espèce de mélancolie vaguement tchékhovienne et principalement amère qui n’est pas un sentiment très valeureux ni intéressant. Georges Gerfaut roule à 145km/h.||And sometimes what used to happen was what is happening now: Georges Gerfaut is driving on Paris’s outer ring road. He has entered at the Porte d’Ivry. It is two-thirty or maybe three-fifteen in the morning. A section of the inner ring road is closed for cleaning, and on the rest of the inner ring road traffic is almost non-existent. On the outer ring road there are perhaps two or three or at the most four vehicle per kilometre. Some are trucks, many of them very slow moving. The other vehicles are private cars, all travelling at high speed, well above the legal limit. This is also true of Georges Gerfaut. He has had five glasses of Four Roses bourbon. And about three hours ago he took two capsules of a powerful barbiturate. The combined effect on him has not been drowsiness but a tense euphoria that threatens at any moment to change into anger or else into a vaguely Chekhovian and essentially bitter melancholy, not a very valiant or interesting feeling. Georges Gerfaut is doing 145 kilometers per hour.Translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith|
Personally, I thought that was brilliant and it is Manchette in a nutshell. The style is precise, clinical, mixing descriptions of feelings or a state of mind with descriptions of the environment. I imagined the place, the orange lights of the Paris’s outer ring road, the Porte d’Ivry and its industrial landscape. It’s bleak and we don’t know Georges Gerfaut yet but we already know that something’s gone awfully wrong in his life. Then we just discover what kind of bad turn his peaceful life has taken.
Georges Gerfaut is a middle manager in an IT company. He has a wife, two children. He’s average, not particularly brave, a bit of a coward to avoid conflict. He has a good relationship with his wife. They’re about to go on holiday at Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, on the West Coast, near Royans. One night, as he’s driving, he passes near a car that was in an accident and brings an injured man to the ER. When he arrives there, he drops the man and leaves. This will prove to be a bad decision. As it happens, this man was involved in the crime world and now Gerfaut is a target. Two hit men are after him and they first attempt at killing him at Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, on the beach, or more exactly in the ocean. Gerfaut manages to get rid of them and takes off. Without thinking, he climbs in his car and leaves his wife and children behind and goes back to Paris. The rest of the book relates the game of hide-and-seek between Gerfaut and his assailants.
As you may have guessed from the quote above, Manchette is excellent. His style fits the genre and keeps the reader on edge. He’s a man of few words but his descriptions are striking. He’s not trying to imitate the great American masters. No, he’s better than that. You’re not reading a dubbed version of an American novel. You’re reading a French polar, a book which is totally French in its essence and its references but respects the rules of noir fiction. Manchette has read, has taken over the codes and have transposed them in a French atmosphere. Or perhaps he’s just following Simenon’s path and I didn’t notice it because I haven’t read Simenon yet, except for two Maigret.
The style sounds like a cold voice over and the plot is simple but gripping, I wondered if and how Gerfaut would get out of this. I wanted to keep on reading to know the ending.
The novel dates back to the 1970s and it’s rooted in its decade. Manchette refers to political fights and reminded me how violent these years were. Why doesn’t Gerfaut go to the police? Well, the police don’t have a good reputation in these years. Not after the métro Charonne or after Mai 68. It’s written in 1976, between the two energy crisis and France’s economy is in stagnation. The whole context pervades in the book and explains why Gerfaut is how he is. He’s a product of the French society. While I was reading, I was also reminded again how little privacy we have now. We’re used to it and we don’t notice anymore. I noticed how Gerfaut easily vanishes from his life. Nowadays, it would be almost impossible to move without leaving traces of your cell phone, your credit card or your way through tolls on the motorway. Even this first paragraph would be hard to write today: Georges would get caught by the CCTV on the outer ring road, he’d get an automatic fine for driving over the speed limit. The authorities would have known he’d been there. Inconspicuous is hard to manage these days.
As always when I write about crime fiction, I’m terribly dissatisfied by my billet. Somehow, I never manage to analyse properly a crime fiction novel. So I’m glad that you can read Guy’s post here or Max’s here, you will find excellent analysis of the literary merits of Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest or relevant comments about its political content.
Now about the title. The English title, Three to Kill is the translation of the French subtitle, Trois hommes à abattre. The French title, Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest, is difficult to translate. It has different meanings and I didn’t know what it meant until I read the book. Manchette was a great amateur of jazz and so is Gerfaut in the book. The title can be translated as The little blues of the West Coast and there are indeed references to jazz in the book. And the West coast is where Gerfaut is on vacation the first time the killers attempt to murder him. Moreover, un petit bleu is a telegram and a telegram plays a key role in the plot. And last, un bleu is a rookie and that’s what Gerfaut is on the crime scene. See how many meanings Manchette managed to convey simply in the title of his book? That’s him. Not many words but much to ponder about.
PS: There’s a “cross-language” pun in the title of this post. For readers who’d need help, here’s a clue: go to a French-English dictionary and check out the French word for cufflink.
Matar y guardar la ropa by Carlos Salem. 2008 French title: Nager sans se mouiller. Not available in English, sadly.
Remember last week I mentioned I bought three crime fiction books at Quais du polar? Well, here is the billet about the first one I read, Matar y guardar la ropa, the second book by Argentinian writer Carlos Salem.
In the first chapter, we meet Number Three in the course of action: he’s killing a man in an elevator, in cold blood. Not surprising since Number Three is a professional killer. His real identity is Juanito Pérez Pérez and in appearance, he’s a successful but dull executive in a large corporation. He’ll turn forty soon, is divorced from Leticia and has two children Antonio (10) and Leti (15). After finishing his job in the lift, he’s on holiday, going to a camp-site with his children for he first time in two years.
On his way to pick up his children, Number Two, his boss in the Firm contacts him to send him on a surveillance job right away. Juan must watch the victim of a future job, the driver of a certain car in a campsite. Unfortunately, Juan knows the licence plates of the car since it belongs to his ex-wife. Unable to walk away from the job, he drives to the camp-site with Leti and Antonio, only to discover that they will be staying in the camping space right beside his ex-wife and her new lover, the judge Beltrán who shouldn’t be there without bodyguards since he works on touchy cases. Who is he supposed to watch? His wife or the judge? Anyone would be ill-at-ease in such delicate circumstances…especially when the campsite happens to be for nudists.
So here is our Juanito, on a job for the Firm, a job that possibly involves his ex-wife or a judge he admires for his valuable contribution to the justice of the country. And in the said ex-wife’s eyes, he’s just Juanito, boneless, boring corporate executive. When his childhood friend Tony, the one he injured twice while trying to protect him, shows up in the same camping with his lethal blondie of a girlfriend, Juanito thinks the world is kind of small. When he accidentally stumbles upon his co-worker Number 13 in the lavatories, he starts thinking these are two many coincidences to be true. Is he really on a job or did the Firm decide it was time to eliminate him?
In a way, Matar y guardar la ropa is the mid-life crisis of a professional killer. Juan regrets not finishing medical school, wonders about his unofficial job and is plagued with guilt about what he did to Tony. He’s in a stressful moment of his life. He’s mulling over the failure of his marriage, he doesn’t have a real connection with his children, he’s still haunted by the death of his mentor, the former Number Three, the one he was ordered to kill. When he meets young, beautiful and sexy Yolanda in the camp site, he turns into a horny teenager and starts re-assessing his life. Can he start a new relationship? Can he mend the broken bond with his children? He has trouble reconciling the official Juanito, a person who needs to be a wallflower to be invisible and cover his illegal activities with the efficient Number Three he has become for the Firm. It’s the first time he has to be the two persons at the same time under the eyes of his children and ex-wife and his two personalities permeating into one another. His conscience starts nagging at him about the people he killed, his life style. But is quitting his job at the Firm even an option?
Salem’s style has a steady pace, showing the events through Juan’s eyes. The absurdity of the location, the nudist camp site, is an opportunity to bring comic situations into the mix. How do you conceal a weapon when you have to go around stark naked? How do you behave when you’re ruining the romantic getaway of your ex-wife with her new lover and that you’re there with the children? It brings light moments in the heavy atmosphere, since after all, a life is at stake.
Salem’s novel is gripping in many ways. It’s a page turner as the reader wants to know the ending (What’s behind the surveillance? Who’s the real target?). I became engrossed with the personal anguish Juan feels and I wanted to know what was going to happen and what turn Juan’s life was going to take.
Highly recommended. Well, to those who can read in French or in Spanish…