The Paris Lawyer by Sylvie Granotier; translated by Anne Trager, publisher: Le French Book (July 2012), ISBN: 978-0-9853206-0-7 (Kindle), First published in French (La Rigole du Diable, Editions Albin Michel, Paris), winner 2011 Grand Prix Sang d’Encre. Source: publisher
The Paris Lawyer is, as the title suggests, a legal procedural. Catherine Montigny, a young woman just beginning her career as a criminal defense attorney, takes on a pro bono case defending Myriam Villetreix, an Gabonese immigrant who is accused of murdering her significantly older husband Gaston. The novel takes place both in Paris, where Catherine works, and the region of Creuse, a rural area where Myriam lives. Running parallel to the trial preparation is the story of Catherine trying to discover more about her mother, who was murdered when Catherine was a young child. This aspect of the book is more of a psychological thriller than a procedural. Catherine’s memories of her mother’s murder are sketchy, and her father refuses to discuss the unsolved murder of his wife, so Catherine is really working with only bits of memories and one photo of her mother as she tries to piece together what happened to her.
The character of Catherine is refreshing: she’s a competent lawyer who’s learning more and more about defense work as she embarks on her first felony trial. Though she’s a bit at sea because her father only allowed her to ask questions about her mother on one day as a teenager (and she’s approaching the age her mother was when she died), her quest isn’t totally subsuming.
The novel does not shy away from thorny ethical issues about criminal defense work, especially as Catherine confronts the issue of whether she believes in her client’s innocence. I also liked seeing the scenes of Catherine and her boss Renaud in court because I’m not familiar with the French legal system, and my own legal experience is in the civil arena. Catherine and Renaud are thoughtful criminal analysts.
The storyline about Catherine’s mother’s murder was not as appealing to me as the legal procedural was. It was a bit maddening– intentionally so– because it begins with flashes of Catherine’s memory as a toddler witnessing her mother’s murder. Her father refused to talk about his wife’s unsolved murder, so Catherine basically begins her investigation with only a photo of her mother. The reader is in the same place as Catherine: we’re trying to piece together her story with very, very little information. Complicating matters is that all the main characters are keeping secrets: Catherine, her lover Cedric, and her father. Granotier’s strength is portraying the minds of her main characters.
The Paris Lawyer is the first book of Granotier’s to be translated into English, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.