Archive for the ‘France’ Category

I am reading The Night Manager by John Le Carre, and after watching the excellent first episode on Tv have decided to postpone watching further episodes till I have finished the book. 

Viewers of Happy Valley, the award winning TV series, have already seen a promotion when James Norton went from playing psychopathic rapist and murderer Tommy Lee Voyce to playing the dashing Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace. With Happy Valley series two now on our screens Norton is demoted back to Tommy Lee Voyce. Happy Valley is a brilliant  program that has kept the excitement and high standards of series 0ne.

The Night Manager also involved a considerable change of status as glamourous French actress Aure Akita played Sophie, the mistress of crook Freddy Hamid, only to move on to play Gabrielle Tackichieff, Madame Secretary General at the Elysee Palace, in the second series of Spin [Les homme de l’ombre].  

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AmblerCrime fiction not only can cover today’s important topics, such as immigration [The Defenceless by Kati FurstHiekkapelto], but also take the reader into the past to discover what went wrong, and why. 

Two very different books  published seventy four years apart both deal with the subject of the methods by which Nazi Germany degraded France’s will to defend itself. Spies, payments for influence, threats of violence, and ruthless exploitation of weakness were the methods used. 

In Eric Ambler’s 1938 classic thriller Josef Vadassy, a Hungarian refugee and language teacher in Paris, is holidaying in a small hotel on the French Riviera. When he takes his holiday photographs to the chemist to be developed he is arrested as a spy, the photographs show Toulon’s naval defences. Vadassy has picked up the wrong camera in his hotel lounge. Beghin, a sweaty individual from the Surete Generale attached to the Department of Naval Intelligence sums up the situation.

“The Commissaire and I agreed”, he said at last, “that you were one of three things-a clever spy, a very stupid one or an innocent man.

I may say that the Commissaire thought you must be the second. I was inclined from the first to think you are innocent. You behaved far too stupidly. No guilty man would be such an imbecile.”

One of the other guests at the hotel, or the owner or his wife, must be the spy. Vadassy is sent back to discover who among the twelve suspects is guilty in an Agatha Christie type, who did it investigation. He is not a master detective or even a passable one and his blunders make for an interesting story as he surreptitiously gathers information about his interestingly varied fellow guests. Each of them has a secret and we learn something about the Europe of the 1930s. One of the guests tells him about post -war German social-democracy…

Its great illusion was its belief in the limitless possibilities of compromise. It thought that it could build Utopia within the Constitution of Weimar……

Worst of all, it thought you could meet force with good will, that the way to deal with a mad dog was to stroke it. In nineteen-thirty-three German social-democracy was bitten and died in agony.

Mission to Paris by Alan Furst, is much more of a modern style political thriller but also set in the corrupt France of 1938.

…but a small bureau in the Reich Foreign Ministry undertook operations to weaken French morale, and degrade France’s will to defend herself…..

Or rather German money. A curious silence, for hundreds of millions of francs-tens of millions of dollars-had been paid to some of the most distinguished citizens of France since Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933.

Frederic Stahl, an emigre from Europe, now an American movie star is sent to Paris to make a film. Frederic had spent the Great War in the Austro-Hungarian legation in Barcelona after having run away to sea at seventeen. The Nazis want to use his Austrian ethnicity as a propaganda weapon, and make various efforts to recruit him. The narrative moves rapidly and Stahl’s love affairs, clashes with German agents ,and meetings with American diplomats lead him to get more involved in very dangerous situations.

‘Excuse me , sir’ she said to Stahl in French, ‘but there is finally good news. Very good news.’

‘Hello, Inga,’ Renate said. ‘Hello, Klaus.’

‘They’ve made a deal with Hitler,’ Inga said, now back in German. ‘He takes the Sudetenland, but promises that’s the end of it, and he signed a paper saying so.’

In another quote from the book, but something that many people thought at the time, 

You appease a thug like Hitler, it just makes him greedy for more, because he smells fear.

Have we learned anything from the past?

I don’t think so our politicians still allow vast amounts of foreign money to enter the country. They “kowtow” to foreign leaders, who run various forms of dictatorships, and appease loud minority groups, while ignoring the silent majority. Recently the Labour Party members and their associates voted in a leader, who advocates a “kinder gentler politics”. His “friends” and those who he has gone the extra mile to support over the years have a somewhat different agenda, and are not kinder gentle people.

My worries about this man becoming Prime Minister are lessened by the fact that he and his crew appear from recent events not to be able to run a bath, yet alone a Gestapo or a Stasi. 

But our present Conservative government can not be trusted to look after my budgie, or even the British steel industry, and I fear for the future. 

Eric Ambler and Alan Furst are always worth reading, and these two books are excellent examples of their work.  

childsI read Personal by CWA Diamond Dagger winner Lee Child as a bit of light relief after the dark Nordic angst of The Silence of the Sea. It would perhaps be impertinent of me to review a book by the author of so many best sellers, and this is only the second Jack Reacher I have read.

But here are a few comments……….

That first Reacher I read was not particularly memorable, and this one after a great start faded away and the ending was rather weak. 

I also found it amusing that Personal seemed to be written for an American readership who know next nothing about England. 

‘Don’t you think? MI5 could trace it.’

‘To a cash payment in Boots the Chemist. Doesn’t help.

‘ ‘What’s Boots the Chemist?’

‘Their pharmacy chain. Like CVS. John Boot set it up in the middle of the nineteenth century. He probably looked just like the guy who built the wall around Wallace Court. It started out as a herbal medicine store, in a place called Nottingham, which is way north of here.’

Do American CIA/state department agents operating in England not know where Nottingham is, and do they need a geography and history lesson every few pages?

….then I saw the arch of a big soccer stadium, which meant we had made it to a place called Wembley.

Jack Reacher, an American, actually seems to me to be descended from a long line of British thriller heroes such as Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond and James Bond. The style of the narrative, action packed reminded me a lot of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond books although obviously without the xenophobia, that distinguished those novels. For Sapper anywhere west of Godalming was bandit country.

In Personal Reacher sets out to save the ministers of the G8 from a sniper. There are only a few men in the world who could hit a target from 1,400 yards, and Reacher knows one of them personally. He sent him to prison years before. The reader is taken from Arkansas and Paris to exotic Romford, with Reacher leaving bodies in his wake, and we learn the unfortunate truth.

The problem with Personal is that any book that starts with the attempted assassination of a French President is going to be compared, by readers of my age, with The Day of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. Perhaps not a fair comparison one is a great crime fiction thriller, the other a pleasant read for a couple of sunny afternoons.

Lee Child is great fun to read if you treat the books as enjoyable beach novels that don’t strain the intellect too much. 

 

CamilleAnne Forestier, the beautiful new woman in Commandant Camille Verhoeven’s life is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is severely injured during a violent robbery at a Paris jewellery store in the Galerie Monier.

Camille is distraught and gets the case assigned to him in breach of regulations failing to tell his superiors of his relationship with Anne. The story of the hunt for the perpetrators is told from multiple perspectives in a sharp frenetic narrative, with very vivid descriptions of the violence. The reader is taken through the thoughts and actions of the unnamed villain, and this is contrasted with Camille’s  efforts to track down the man identified by Anne from photographs of criminals with a similar modus operandi.

This is a dark police procedural with the difference that Camille breaks every rule risking his career in an attempt to protect Anne from further injury, or death. 

Every time he thinks about her, Camille cannot help but wonder what she sees in him. He is fifty years old, almost bald, and most important he is barely four foot eleven. 

When a book contains descriptions of violence it has to have in my opinion a redeeming feature to put it at the highest level. Alex, Pierre LeMaitre’s International Dagger winning novel had a brilliant plot twist, unfortunately the plot twist in Camille is rather obvious from the beginning.

I wanted to rate this book as a potential winner of the International Dagger, after all as a reader of below average height I feel a certain affinity and a lot of sympathy for Camille. His character dominates the novel, but surely after the murder of his wife, Irene,  the man has taken enough punishment. 

But despite the wonderful swift pace of the narrative I was slightly disappointed with Camille, which I thought was slightly let down by the fairly obvious plot twist. 

Art the end of the book there is a useful translator’s note about the judicial system in France [and much of Europe], which is so very different from that in the UK and USA. I remember a documentary about the International serial killer Jack Unterweger, when Florida police travelling to his trial in Austria were slightly confused by the absence of a jury. 

Camille is a good crime fiction read, but not in my opinion as good as number two in the trilogy Alex, or Deon Meyer’s Cobra or Leif G.W. Persson’s Free Falling As If In A Dream, the two other contenders for the International Dagger that I have read.

The catalogue of his lies is becoming dangrously long. But it is not this that terrifies Camille. It is knowing that Anne’s life is hanging by a thread. And he is utterly powerless.

 

 

My previous post about Philippe Georget’s second book in the Inspector Sebag series said that it had a promising beginning. That promise was definitely fulfilled and my dettaglio_282interest was maintained throughout the entire 430 pages. The three strands of the plot are cleverly interwoven with back stories of the murderous activities of an OAS group in Algeria in 1962, the hunt, lead by Gilles Sebag, for the murderer of elderly former Frenchmen from Algeria [Pied-noir], and the intriguing family life of the detective who is constantly worried by thoughts that his beautiful wife Claire has had an extra marital affair.

The reader is also given insights into the mind of the elderly murderer although we don’t get fully informed about his motives until the conclusion. Although the interactions between the team of detectives are quite well done this book concentrates more on the character of Gilles Sebag, a man perhaps too nice to be a policeman. He listens to the Pied-Noir and it is pointed out that not all were supporters of the OAS.

The politics of France have always been complex and you would need to be a Talleyrand or a Mitterand to stay on the right side of history.

Our France was the France of the 1930 centenary celebration of the conquest of Algeria. At that time, the colonization of Algeria was the glory of France, and the colonist was seen as a courageous and hardworking man, a hero, a veritable cowboy of the Far South. Those of us who lived in Algeria saw things that way in the autumn of 1954, when the war began, and we still did in 1962, when the war ended………

For the metropolitan French, we were no longer heroes but rich exploiters, unjust and racist. The glory of France had become its shame.

And this biased view became the historical truth.

The Algerian War 1954-1962 was a vicious conflict, and since independence hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have died in Algeria’s disastrous civil conflicts. I think Philippe Georget managed this incendiary subject rather well  in Autumn All The Cats Return and gave readers something to think about because some of the world’s present conflicts date back to the age of colonialism when France and Britain drew lines on maps to create nations without much thought as to the ethnic makeup of those countries. 

Parts of this novel reminded me of Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal as Sebag and his team hunt for the elderly killer on both sides of the Franco-Spanish border  from the rugby playing towns of Southern France to the soccer territory of South Catalonia. Jacques Molina, Sebag’s colleague, is a rugby fan, and ….

Sebag was looking at the photos that Jacques had put up behind him. They all dated from June 2009, the year the local rugby team had finally won its seventh national championship after fifty-four years of trying. One of the pictures particularly impressed Sebag. It showed the team’s return to Perpignan the day after its victory: an enormous dense crowd of fansin red and yellow was massed in front of the Castillet………

On that day…………he’d been sorry not to be a Catalan.

The author wrote that in 2012 and in a bittersweet reversal of fortune Perpignan, champions of France in 2009, in 2013 were relegated to the second division of French professional rugby. 

This book is an excellent read, a contender for the CWA International Dagger, and you don’t have to be an historian or a rugby fan, Sebag isn’t, to enjoy the story of the hunt for a geriatric assassin. The character of Sebag is compelling and I will hopefully read the next book in the series to discover what secrets Claire may be hiding from Gilles.  

dettaglio_282The almanacks say that Summer ends on 31 August so it was with impeccable timing that Daniela Petracco, director of Europa Editions London office, recently sent me Phillipe Georget’s new Inspector Sebag mystery, Autumn All The Cats Return [French title- Les violents de l’automne].

This is the sequel to Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored which was one of my five favourite  reads of 2013.

When an elderly Pied-Noir is found murdered and the letters OAS left scrawled in black paint on the door, Gilles  Sebag and Jacques Molina must investigate whether the motive for the crime dates back to the Algerian War.

Pied-Noir, literal translation Black-Foot. A French person born in Algeria before it gained independence.

OAS [Organisation armee secrete] A dissident paramilitary organization that sought to prevent Algeria from gaining independence from French rule during the Algerian War [1954-1962]

Sebag has also promised his 13 year old daughter Severine that he would look into the scooter accident that caused the death of Mathieu one of her friends from school. A small van driven by Pascal Lucas a man who had been drinking, and who claimed he was forced to swerve by a white Renault Clio that ran a stop sign. Sebag does not have much confidence in the head of the Accidents group Lieutenant Esteve Cardona, who dislikes Gilles because he is a Parisian, and a considerably better detective, and they argue about Sebag’s interference.

“Cardona’s as stupid as he is nasty. But what can I say? He’s not even a real Catalan. His father came from Andalusia!”

The tale of a criminal investigation with an intriguing political and historical background, blended in with the  story of Gilles marriage to the beautiful Claire, and his love for his children Severine and Leo promise to make this a great read.

The reader is given glimpses of the past in narrative flashbacks to Algiers 1961, with accounts of the murders perpetrated by the OAS. Of course the OAS would claim they were responding to FLN attacks. [FLN- Front de Liberation Nationale founded in 1954 to end French rule of Algeria].

“As a Catalan, how would you feel if you’d had to leave your native country?”

“You can’t make that comparison, it’s completely different!”

“Is it? Why?” 

“Algeria wasn’t their country!”

“They were born there, and their parents and grandparents, too, sometimes.” “Maybe, but that doesn’t change anything: it wasn’t their country. It couldn’t last. The crusades didn’t last either. They should have known that.” 

Quite a bit to think about in that passage. 

How long does a conquest have to last before the conqueror claims the land as their own? What happens when the original people of the land want it back? I am only on page 109 so I may have more to say when I have finished reading this very promising book.   

51wV+VzQqbL._February 1987. Filippo a petty criminal escapes along with his cellmate Carlo, a Red Brigade activist, from an Italian prison through the rubbish shute. They separate when Carlo goes off with some associates, and as Filippo makes his way north he reads in a newspaper that Carlo has been killed during an attempted bank robbery in Milan.

Fillipo goes to Paris where he meets up with Lisa Biaggi, Carlo’s girlfriend, whose address he has been given. Fillipo is given an apartment to rent owned by Lisa’s friend Cristina, and he gets a job as a night security guard. 

The time for tears is over. He dreams of conquering the two women, the way you conquer a land, for the pleasure of conquering, and then leaving for pastures new.

Fillipo partly to impress these two women, who respect politicos like Carlo, but look down their pretty noses at him, writes a novel inspired by the words and stories related by Carlo, while they were in prison. The narrative tells the story of the jail break, but he embellishes the subsequent events giving his character a key part in the bank robbery. The novel is a stunning success, and while Lisa rages at the situation trying to prove Carlo was lead into a trap, Filippo becomes the darling of the Italian diaspora and the intellectual elite in Paris. But he is in danger because the police, the security services and even his publishers begin to believe his mostly fictional novel is a true account of events.

Like most of Dominique Manotti’s books Escape is short, 160 pages, hard hitting and very thought provoking.  I would suggest that the gulf between the intellectual activists and the real working class is sharply drawn in this story. Most revolutionary movements are started by red wine radicals, and France and Italy are no different. Real working people are usually too busy.

Escape is an original novel about the dangers of writing a novel, and while not Manotti’s best work certainly well worth the read. You will learn something about the terrible traumas Italy suffered during the ‘Years of Lead’ as the Red Brigades, Fascists and Mafias battled for control of the country.

Filippo is ashen, he feels mounting panic. He stares at the floor. Adele continues undaunted: ‘Let me be clear. If you’re possibly a cop-killer, that makes you an attractive young hoodlum. But if you are a declared cop-killer and proud of it, then you become a criminal no one wants to be associated with. It’s a delicate balance.    

51U8X7q1IhL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_I suppose after reading a lot of books by Fred Vargas I should be used to that very Gallic quirky crime fiction of which The Cemetery of Swallows is a good example.

The multitalented author Jean-Denis Bruel-Ferreol writes under the pseudonym Mallock, and his detective is Superintendent Amedee Mallock, a tactic that throws the reader slightly off balance. I assume this is the first book in a series to be translated into English, because we are told in the narrative about the police superintendent’s detective team operating from “Fort Mallock”, and Amedee’s personal tragic loss of his wife and son, Thomas. 

Mallock is sent to the Dominican Republic to bring back to France to face trial Manuel Gemoni, the brother of police Captain Julie Gemoni one of his detectives. One morning the mild mannered Manuel after viewing a documentary video travels to the Dominican Republic, and kills an old man who he has never met.

Mallock discovers that the old man Manuel killed was Tobias Darbier, a man who inspired fear and loathing. A man with a past full of violence and terror.

“His story [Darbier’s] is the same as the island’s. he arrived in 1946 and spent the first three years working for the dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo.”

He ruled by terror, torture, and political assassination.

The Cemetery of Swallows is not a “who did it mystery”, but a “why did he do it enigma”. As the story moves from the jungles, mountains, trigger happy gunmen and voodoo of the Caribbean island to the frozen streets of Paris Mallock tries to connect a story of terrible Nazi atrocities that occurred before Manuel was born, but of which he has detailed knowledge, to the killing of Darbier. 

The book is well written with interesting characters, and a clever but predictable plot in which clues are presented to  the detectives, but ignored as more bizarre explanations are pursued. I should warn that when authors write about men like Darbier, Trujillo and the Nazis you have to be prepared for descriptions of extreme violence, and the tactics of terror, but nothing more than we can read in our newspapers every day.  

Mallock, the author, provides his readers with little snippets of wisdom, in a very dark story.

Master Long is not at ease in France. He always resented Western intellectuals, Sartre and his dirty hands and his pathetic imitators gulping down champagne when the Khmer Rouge entered Hanoi. Lenin, Mao, Stalin: the radiant “past” of communism consisted of at least a hundred million dead.

But this is a French crime story set partially in Paris so we also see a different side of  Amedee Mallock.

Around 7 P.M., Amedee decided to prepare his bass.

He cleaned the fish and filled it with sprigs of fennel, peppercorns and salt before frying it on bothsides. Then he wrapped it in foil and let it cook while he opened a bottle of Pouilly-Fume. After taking off its aluminium carapace, he sprinkled the fish with a mixture of vinegar, finely sliced papper, olive oil and sea salt.     

I can recommend The Cemetery of Swallows if you want a crime fiction book that is original, and gripped this reader from the first page.    

Invitation_MarcDugain51zVCIgQ9bL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_This is just the sort of event that makes me wish we still lived in London.  

At one of the panels I attended during Crime Fest 2012 it was suggested by a panellist that when the Scandinavian crime fever had blown over French detective fiction would be the next trend. Perhaps the trend is already here as Fred Vargas, Dominique Manotti and now Pierre LeMaitre have been getting the attention of CWA judges for several years….. now we have Phillipe Georget, Olivier Truc and Marc Dugain making waves. 

The French are coming and this is obviously an event not to be missed.

51DiUU6W8XL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_Robert Harris has won the 5th Annual Sir Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction with his account of  that great miscarriage of justice the Dreyfus Case; An Officer and A Spy.J_accuse

I reviewed this brilliant book last year here and named it among my best reads of 2013. 

I cannot understand why it was not shortlisted for the CWA Endeavour Historical Crime Fiction Award, but I hope winning the Walter Scott Prize will bring it to an even wider readership. 

You could say that the divisions in French society exacerbated by the Dreyfus Affair would re-emerge and contribute to the collapse of the Third Republic in 1940 and the German Occupation.  

How ironic that the country of  Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité became the country that incarcerated the innocent Jew Alfred Dreyfus on Devil’s Island, and the country of the murderous collaborationist Vichy Regime.  An Officer And A Spy should perhaps become compulsory reading in our schools and universities by academics as well as students, because some people never learn the lessons of history.

When entries that did not make the shortlist come from writers such as Laura Wilson, Joe R. Lansdale, Robert Harris [the superb An Officer And A Spy], Robert Goddard, Michael Ridpath, Patrick Easter and John Lawton, I wonder if my status as an amateur historian and apprentice reviewer is under threat. 

[from my post about the Endeavour Historical Crime Fiction Prize]