Irène by Pierre Lemaitre

ireneIrène by Pierre Lemaitre, translated by Frank Wynne

MacLehose Press, December 2014

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher

Book 1: Commandant Verhoeven

I read Irène without knowing much about it. I’ve had the second book in the trilogy but first to be translated book, Alex, in my TBR folder on my Kindle for ages, I know Lemaitre’s books tend to be quite violent, but other than that I went into the book blind. But while I went into the book blind, I unavoidably have to talk about what to expect.

Irène involves the short Commandant Verhoeven with a very pregnant wife, Irène, leading the investigation into a series of killings inspired by crime novels. The murders are quite brutal, and I admit that I skimmed some gruesome sections in order to get on with the story. I admit that I missed some of the resonances because I’ve only read one of the books that inspired one of the murders, but that particular section was a very good homage to the original.

The rest of the story focuses on the dynamics within Camille’s team, and they are an interesting bunch. I’m also particularly interested in their police interrogation techniques because I recently read an old New Yorker article about the Reid interrogation technique in the United States and how it may contribute to false confessions. Seeing a different approach in fiction in France was a good antidote to that approach.

The book feels very indebted to other crime novels, and not in a disturbing way like the serial killer’s homage to those fictional murder scenes. But there is a major twist in the story that explains why the violence is so incredibly brutal in the majority of the book, and for that I’m inclined to give Lemaitre a pass for the horrible murders. I’m a bit reluctant to do so  despite the twist and despite the explanation. See also Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool. It’s hard to get involved with a story that seems to be so much about proving a point about violence (or misogyny in Koch’s case) because I’m still reading a very violent or misogynistic book. I’m still unsettled by the book.

Act of Passion by Georges Simenon

act of passionAct of Passion by Georges Simenon, translated by Louise Varèse

Originally published 1947 as Lettre á Mon Juge

This edition: New York Review Press Classics, 2011


Act of Passion is the most disturbing book I’ve read this year. It’s one of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels, ones he called romans durs. It’s also rare in Simenon’s novels because it’s a first person story.  Dr. Charles Alavoine after being found guilty of manslaughter (the act of passion in the title), writes a letter to the examining magistrate explaining how actually he planned the murder. The letter is his plea to be understood, and it’s pretty obvious that someone who wants to declare how he planned murder is not the most easy character to read.

It’s a book about a criminal’s mind, and the story gets worse as it goes along as we approach the recap of the murder. Alavoine’s view of women is quite horrid, and his crime is quite horrible as well. I couldn’t stop reading in part because this book is such a contrast to the Maigret series and because I mistakenly thought the narrator would have a flash of insight.

A few things in the novel place it in 1947 for me:  (1) the focus on psychoanalysis; (2) Alavoine’s journey from the provinces to a larger city strikes me as particularly of the period; and (3) the mention of tubercular husbands..

It’s not a pleasant book. Alavoine is  not a sympathetic main character. And it’s a book where the main character’s rationalizations do not make sense to me either. I don’t feel like a psychoanalyst, but I do feel like a gawker by reading this very unsettling book.

Finally, a couple suggestions for further reading: first an interesting conversation in the comments about recommended Simenon novels see Asylum, and this lengthy piece in Open Letters Monthly discusses the romans durs along with a spoiler-laden discussion of this particular novel.

I borrowed the book from the library.

Rough Trade by Dominique Manotti

rough tradeRough Trade by Dominique Manotti

Translated by Margaret Crosland and Elfreda Powell

Arcadia Books, 2001

Originally published as Sombre Sentier, 1995

I borrowed my copy from the library.

I was eager to read Dominique Manotti’s first novel after loving The Lorraine Connection earlier this year, and my verdict is that The Lorraine Connection is a tauter, more interesting novel than this, her first. Rough Trade begins with a very violent murder of a young Thai prostitute, and the investigation is led by Theo Dauquin of the Paris Drugs Squad. It’s an investigation that begins with a couple characters “on the fringe of a very complicated case,” (p. 88) that quickly becomes very far-reaching, and it frankly was a bit too complicated for me to enjoy. The novel is quite violent, the plot is very involved, and the crime syndicate Daquin investigates is involved in about every kind of unsavory criminal activity I could think of. It’s not my favorite Manotti because it feels more sprawling than The Lorraine Connection. That’s not to say that the pacing was slow or that the writing wasn’t good: it’s just a very relentless crime story.

The setting for the novel is the Sentier neighborhood, center of the garment industry in Paris, in 1980. The political backdrop is the push by Turkish immigrants to get legal working papers, and one of their leaders is also a police informant having a personal relationship with his handler, Daquin. Manotti’s background as a trade unionist came into play in this story. The tone of the story is very dry and reads a bit like a reporter’s diary of the case and the environs where the story takes place: there are lots of stories inside the general assembly of the undocumented workers as well as in several workshops manned by undocumented workers.

Finally I want to mention that the translation felt a bit stiff to me. The translators kept referring to the “rag trade,” instead of the garment industry, and at one point mentioned “a man of straw,” instead of a straw man, and those phrases felt like clunkers to me.

Other reviews appear in Euro Crime, and I enjoyed this lengthy interview with Manotti and her translator Amanda Hopkinson.

Maigret and the Black Sheep by Georges Simenon

maigretMaigret and the Black Sheep by Georges Simenon
Translated by Helen Thomson
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983
Originally published as Maigret et les braves gens, 1962

I chose to read this book to meet a couple of my personal reading challenges for the year: it’s a book I already own, and it’s an older crime novel. It’s my first Maigret novel, and it definitely won’t be my last. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a quick police procedural, and I have 74 other novels to choose from. It also felt a lot lighter than more contemporary crime novels, which was refreshing.

Maigret investigates the murder of a former cardboard box factory owner Rene Josselin, who is found shot in his armchair at home by his wife and daughter when they return from a night at the theater. The investigation stalls for a bit as Maigret feels the deceased family is withholding information. I don’t want to say much more about the plot because it’s such a brief book, but it feels a bit like a futile warning because thetranslated title of the book as well as the description on the back give away a great deal of the story. The motive is the main surprise of the story.

Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti

LConnectionLorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti
Translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz
Arcadia Books, 2008, originally published in 2006
2008 International Dagger winner

Lorraine Connection is one of the books that stands out in my reading life: it’s not a typical procedural or PI novel, it’s not a typical conspiracy thriller, but it’s a little of all of those things. The story begins with a horrible industrial accident at a Daewoo factory in the former steelworks region of Lorraine, and the accident as well as the firing of a popular worker lead to a strike and fire in the factory in the first section of the book (The cover of the book gives away that last plot point). The action gradually broadens to include companies vying to buy out the French military electronics company Thomson, and there are more horrifying crimes along the way. It’s a dark book full of political crimes and murder. I don’t read many crime novels that capture racial, class and sexual discrimination so well. Also, Manotti’s background as an economic historian is evident here.

This is not a book about characters as much as it is about a series of coverups and crimes, and though some of the characters seem typical (Montoya the private investigator with a troubled past), Manotti manages to round them out a bit, which is quite a feat because there are quite a few characters in a book under 200 pages. My one quibble with the book is that Manotti is very fond of changing the point of view in the middle of paragraphs, and it’s something that took me a significant portion of the book to get used to.

This book is darker than what I usually read, and it feels a bit strange to say I enjoyed reading a story this bleak, but I did enjoy it. This is an impressive first book of the year for me, and it will be on my list of favorites at the end of the year.

I bought my copy of this book.

Other favorable reviews appear in EuroCrime, The Game’s Afoot, and Petrona.

A Very Profitable War by Didier Daeninckx

AA-Very-Profitable-War-235x300 Very Profitable War by Didier Daeninckx, translated by Sarah Martin
Melville International Crime, December 2012
originally published as Le der des ders, 1984, published in English in 1994
Source: library copy

Didier Daeninckx is a writer I first heard about in Rich’s review of Murder in Memoriam, the only other Daeninckx available in English, and the political element of his writing caught my eye. But besides politics, A Very Profitable War deals with the life of a private investigator: René Griffon, a World War I veteran who’d like to forget about the war completely is hired by Colonel Fantin, a war hero, to track his unfaithful wife in Paris in 1920. Of course Griffon uncovers much more than an unfaithful wife (blackmail, political exploitation, and more), and Griffon and Irène, his partner and girlfriend, are surprised by the dangers of the investigation.

I don’t read historical crime fiction much, but this book strikes me as exceptionally evocative of the industrial, residential, and political landscape of Paris after World War I. There is also, of course, lots of information about World War I since Griffon remembers his service and what he’d like to forget about, but it’s handled in an interesting way. It’s much less confusing than the war sections of Nesbø’s The Redbreast, for example. It does, however, slow down the action in the first third of the book.

Though Daeninckx has lots of sympathy for René and other war veterans, especially in a scene in a sanatorium, it strikes me that he doesn’t flesh out the rest of his characters.  Irène, especially, is an idealized figure without much to do, and the villains are a bit flat. That being said, it’s an interesting and brief read with some surprises along the way despite the few things that bothered me, i.e. the female characters, Griffon’s obsession with his Packard automobile, and lots of descriptions of driving directions.

Other reviews appear in The Complete Review and Reviewing the Evidence.

Only two Daeninckx books have been translated into English, and the third, Nazis in the Metro, is scheduled for publication in February 2014.

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

ghost riders

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas, translated by Siân Reynolds
Penguin, June 2013
Originally published as L’armée furieuse, 2011
Commisaire Adamsberg book 7

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss.

I’m a fairly new fan of Fred Vargas. I read The Chalk Circle Man about a year ago and liked it quite a bit, but I haven’t read any of her other books before picking up The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, the seventh installment in the Commisaire Adamsberg series. While I liked this book a great deal too, I feel a bit conflicted about liking it.

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is a novel about the workings of Adamsberg’s brain as he investigates the appearance of the titular ghosts, who, according to legend, seize four people who have gotten away with crimes before they themselves die. He makes the trek to Ordebec after a scared older woman approaches him in Paris about her daughter’s vision of the furious army. The old tale is interesting, and it sets up an interesting discussion about the nature of justice. Is retribution the only way to get justice, basically, is the question. The investigation meanders: Adamsberg and his team interview lots of eccentric folks in the community of about 2,000 people, and the police officers are eccentrics as well. Besides the ghost rider investigation, Adamsberg is also investigating the arson murder of a steel magnate in Paris.

My main quibble with the book is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of action: Adamsberg develops his theories as he talks, and some of his theories are pretty convoluted and based on seemingly insignificant pieces of evidence. Because his theorizing stood out for me, the violence of the crimes they investigate in Ordebec seem to fade in importance, and that makes me uncomfortable. I think what it comes down to is that it doesn’t feel like Adamsberg and his team are grounded in the reality of the crimes they are investigating. I do really enjoy the writing, the humor, the characters, and the legend of the ghost riders, but the combination of the violent crimes with those more pleasant elements of the reading experience felt a bit off to me.

Reviews by people who are more up-to-date on the Adamsberg series appear in  Crimescraps and Crimepieces.

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

total chaos

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo, translated by Howard Curtis
Originally published as Total Khéops, 1995
Europa Editions, May 2013 (Europa World Noir Series)
Book 1 in the Marseille Trilogy

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss.

The first book in the Marseille Trilogy, Total Chaos introduces police officer Fabio Montale, a second generation immigrant living in the port city of Marseille who works in the Neighborhood Surveillance Squad where he functions more as a social worker to the young criminals in the projects than as a police officer. Fabio himself had a wayward youth: he and his friends Ugo and Manu committed a number of crimes before Fabio left his friends to join the Foreign Legion and eventually became a police officer. The story begins with one of his old friends commiting murder, and Fabio ends up investigating what happened to his friend as more related murders occur.

Fabio is an outsider cop without much power, which works to his advantage during the investigation that quickly becomes bigger and bigger as the violence increases and as the organized crime squad led by his nemesis, Auch, appears. The plot ends up being pretty convoluted as the book unfolds, but the main gist is that Montale is working in a very dysfunctional, dangerous system and city.

The main plot takes a back seat to a description of Marseille: its neighborhoods, its immigrants, its political problems, its development and redevelopment. This book is very rooted in its place, and it doesn’t shy away from the societal problems that the formerly strong industrial port city is facing. I live in a land-locked state that is far from the Mediterranean port of Marseille, but I do live in the Rust Belt with lots of immigrants from around the world and around the country, and I live with the collapse of the industrial economy, so there are echoes here for me. Finally, this book makes me realize how little I know about the Algerian War.

A few warnings about the book: the violence in this book is quite brutal, the female characters are not very developed, and Izzo’s outlook is pretty damn bleak. Reading the book as a woman in 2013, I’m annoyed by Montale’s relationships with women, especially the hooker with the heart of gold. That being said, I was interested in the book and want to know what happens in the rest of the trilogy. And I wonder if the trilogy as a whole ends as bleakly as this first outing does.

Marina Sofia reviewed the entire Marseille Trilogy in Finding Time to Write.

The Paris Lawyer by Sylvie Granotier


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.

See reviews by Karen at Aust Crime, Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, and MarinaSofia at Crime Fiction Lover.

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds

Penguin, 2009

Originally published as L’Homme aux cercles bleu, 1996

Source: library copy

The Chalk Circle Man does not begin with a dead body nor any crime being committed.  The opening chapter introduces an older woman who meets a younger blind man in a cafe in Paris, and the subsequent chapter introduces Commissaire Adamsberg, newly appointed to a post in Paris.  As the story develops, Vargas spends lots of her time on the characters as they become involved in the mystery of a series of blue chalk circles that appear on Paris sidewalks late at night.  After finding an assortment of object in the chalk circles, the police eventually find a dead body.

Vargas does not follow a standard police procedural format in this book.  In fact, one of Adamsberg’s first conversations with his detective Danglard is his justification of operating on hunches and letting facts wash over him as opposed to Danglard’s love of process.  The Chalk Circle Man is the rare first book in a police procedural series that takes its time showing us its main character’s investigative process from the inside, however circuitous that process appears to his colleagues.  Also rare is the time Vargas spends setting up the relationship between Danglard and Adamsberg.

Otherwise, the story progresses with a number of conversations with an assortment of intelligent, slightly eccentric people who aid the investigation:  a philosopher and an oceanographer among them.  The actual solving of the mystery happens quite quickly, with a few twists in the last section of the book, and, I’m happy to say, without a violent showdown between the police and the suspect at the end.

All in all, I was happily surprised by the pacing and characters in this book, and I look forward to reading more in the series.

For other reviews, see Shelf Love, Mysteries in Paradise, and Petrona.