Noir

Irish Stew: a heady recipe.

A review by Daniel Magennis, PhD Student at Queen’s University Belfast.


41bc8cb4mdl-_sx300_bo1204203200_

Chers lecteurs … Prenez garde : vous avez bu le seul poison qu’il est impossible de recracher. Les images et les idées que j’ai semées dans vos têtes feront leur chemin, à votre insu. Elles vous investissent sournoisement. Vous ne leur échapperez pas. Vous êtes infectés. [p. 235]

Dear readers … Take care; you have drunk the only poison that is impossible to spit out. The images and ideas I have sown in your minds will burrow deep, treacherously and without you knowing. You will not escape them. You are infected.

Although less well known to international readers than his old friend and occasional co-author Jean-Patrick Manchette (the brooding Godfather of French Néo Noir), the writer, screenwriter and film director Jean-Pierre Bastid has created many remarkable works , in his long, prolific and multimedia career.  His 1999 novel Irish Stew, published by Méréal, is a fascinating French take on the Irish Troubles thriller. Bastid’s serial-killer noir novel, set in 1970s Northern Ireland, does more than simply take the reader through the horrific deeds of the protagonist Tomas Shepherd, a cunning and sadistic killer who masquerades as a seemingly unremarkable accountant at a factory. In retelling Shepherd’s (known to the police as Gugusse – the Joker) terrorising of the small, fictitious town of Providence, the skilfully crafted narrative schools the reader in the art of the obscene as it propels them through a seemingly inevitable succession of scenes of torture and murder. But Bastid does this in such a way that they become aware that their participation, simply through the act of reading, makes them complicit as the basest of voyeurs.

This complicity is perhaps unavoidable given that the novel’s structure results in its conclusion being revealed at the beginning – curiosity cannot be invoked as a motive to excuse the reader-accomplice. The above quotation reveals the protagonist’s revelling at his easy debasement of the reader. The bulk of the novel is a manuscript penned by Shepherd. But this is preceded by a note from the editor, as well as a forward from Superintendent O’Hara, the novel’s all too peripheral RUC inspector, who reveals salient facts of the case.

The political and civil strife of the Troubles in Northern  Ireland serves as a smoke screen which allows Shepherd to operate with impunity. Although he claims he is from a Catholic background, Shepherd does not discriminate along religious lines when it comes to choosing victims.

Shepherd derives distinct pleasure from the infectious nature of violence, the fact that man, woman and even child are only a small degradation away from becoming the sort of monster they might ordinarily detest and fear. This is one of the lasting messages of the novel. In a country such as Northern Ireland in the 70s, the veneer of civilisation is a thin one indeed.

Ô Irlande ! il faut que tu sache que mon œuvre est un rond dans l’eau qui va, toujours s’élargissant, jusqu’à se perdre enfin dans le néant. A toi de comprendre ce qu’il y a au centre de ce tourbillon quelle vérité, et quelle chimère. [p. 219]

Oh Ireland! Know that what I do is a ripple, ever-widening until it loses itself in nothingness. It is up to you to decide what at the centre of this whirlpool is true, and what is false.

Shepherd wraps his appalling crimes in a cloak of artistry and ceremony. The book’s sections open with an ominous quotation from the traditional Catholic, Latin Tridentine Mass, each heralding the coming of a new victim. Shepherd’s creativity and cruelty, which increase with each murder, cannot hide the fact that his crimes are brute acts of power – he himself does not even buy into the mystique and esoterism of his acts. He is a classic example of a sociopathic and untrustworthy, if not compelling, narrator.

Published as part of the series ‘Black Process’, with evocative yellow and black covers, Irish Stew is currently available only in its original French. It is nevertheless a fascinating, if gruesome, addition to a corpus of French crime fiction dealing with the conflict in Northern Ireland. The health warning of sorts given by the book’s blurb (“L’avertissement est éminent, ce livre n’est pas à mettre entre toutes les mains” [“The warning is plain, this book is not to be put into every hand”], looks for a change to be well deserved – this is not a book for the faint-hearted.

Crime under the Channel

Petel.PNG

 

Gilles Pétel – Under the Channel (translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken), Gallic Books, 2014. Original title Sous la Manche, 2012.

A book review by Eugen Kontschenko

 

In Under the Channel, Gilles Pétel tells the story of Roland Desfeuillères, a French police officer, who is assigned to investigate a murder inside the Channel Tunnel on a Eurostar train ride from London to Paris. Experiencing several hardships in his marriage, he takes the opportunity to flee from his troubles with his soon to be ex-wife, and travels to London to find out more about the mysterious victim. As he tries to uncover and understand the secrets of the victim, he also begins to discover a different side of himself.

 

What makes a novel dealing with a crime a good crime novel?  Certainly, Pétel succeeds in evoking various elements of the genre. The premise, reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s 1934 classic Murder on the Orient Express, as well as dozens of other murder mysteries set on a train, is promisingly enough considered from the angle of an international police procedural; a dead body found between two international police jurisdictions. There are also many other thrilling ingredients such as an unusual method of murder that leaves almost no traces and a victim surrounded by one too many secrets, which all seem to make for an engaging whodunit. On top of this, we have a highly experienced police lieutenant, who in his private life is struggling with his marriage and a cross-border police investigation destined to create tension and suspense due to clashing cultural and national sensibilities. Despite these promises, the novel is marred by issues which distract the reader, and will probably even leave her somewhat dissatisfied.

 

The novel loses itself in superfluous details. Desfeuillères’ failed marriage could provide more depth to the character and serve as an intriguing side plot. Instead, the author seems to use this backstory unnecessarily and excessively, constantly falling back to mentioning pieces of it when it contributes little to the story. The same could be said for Desfeuillères’ efforts to make sense of the case as well as to make sense of his personal problems: while his descent into a growing midlife crisis makes for interesting noir soul-searching, it seems to overshadow the crime story instead of complementing it. The book as such appears to be not primarily a crime novel, but a drama about a cop trying to discover his true identity.

 

Even dramatic episodes do not necessarily grab the reader as the book does not provide any positive characters with whom readers can identify. Every character has a negative and immoral side, which often seems disturbing. Desfeuillères has many issues, beyond the marital ones and he fully neglects his superiors and children during his stay in London, while engaging into various sexual activities and alcoholism. His wife, meanwhile, begins an affair with his subordinate. Other side characters are unsavory: the elderly couple who finds the body on the train does not want to report it at first, but change its mind in order to get into the newspaper. The French police, instead of pursuing the case, presume the couple to be drunk tourists and forcefully arrest them for disturbing the peace. It seems as if that the novel oversteps the mark in the attention it pays to the portrayal of morally ambiguous characters.

 

All these issues are amplified by the slow pace of narration. Every character seems to be inexplicably waiting for something, whether it will be the victim waiting for the train in the beginning of the novel, or Desfauillères waiting for appointments in London. This needlessly lengthens the novel while lessening the motivation of the reader. While the slow pace might appeal to some readers who would relish the picturesque descriptions, it does make finishing the novel more challenging than it needs to be.

 

Despite having a great premise, the novel should not be seen as a typical crime novel. Bringing many subplots into it makes it lose focus, transforming the book into a character-driven drama with crime elements. Even though this mixture could prove to be interesting and engaging, it is hindered from being so by despicable characters and a slowly progressing plot. Under the Channel tries to be many things at once, but just ends up too entangled in its promises.

 

The Eskimo Solution

ESKIMO

Pascal Garnier – The Eskimo Solution (translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken), Gallic Books, 2016. Original title La Solution Esquimau, 2006.

A Book Review by Eugen Kontschenko

 

“He kills people’s parents the way Eskimos leave their elders on a patch of ice because … it’s natural, ecologically sound, a lot more humane and far more economical than endlessly prolonging their suffering in a dismal nursing home.” (Page 11)

The Eskimo Solution by the late Pascal Garnier was a great success in France and has since acquired a cult status, together with its author. The novel tells two stories: One is about an unnamed crime author who, seeking motivation for his writing, retreats to a house in a small town on the Normandy coast. There he begins to tell the story of Louis, a man struggling financially to maintain his lifestyle. Inspired by the Eskimo ritual which gives the novel its title, Louis begins to violently help himself and the people around him to an early inheritance. As the stories progress, the plot of Louis’s novel intertwines with the author’s real life.

 

In this book Garnier plays with a macabre speculation : wouldn’t it be better for the next generation, if there were no seniors? Not only would the inheritance benefit the youth, but also retirement costs would be nonexistent. Just like in Eskimo legends, the elders would leave the community with their dignity in place instead of becoming a nuisance. This would be a benefit for everyone, or wouldn’t it?

 

Garnier’s outlook in this novel is almost Beckettian in its minimalism. His author’s bleak and nihilistic lifestyle befits his writing of a story exploring questions of morale and death. Despite having rented a house to have as few distractions as possible, he keeps distracting himself by staying in bed, watching TV or walking along the beach. Realizing how meaningless everybody and everything around him is, he struggles to make sense of life and existence. He only seems to find meaning in pragmatic ways, like finishing writing his book. The novel, through the complex characterization of a writer at work, becomes a study on authorship and the auctorial function.

 

On a generational and societal level, the representation of Louis’s transformation into a sort of twisted vigilante serving the interests of people who are his age against their elders is fascinating for its moralism.  It is out of a sense of duty and Kantian morals that Louis fights for financial justice against the elderly. Louis’ story is very straight-forward, but the two stories complement each other in a superb way. While Louis becomes more and more creative in relieving society of old people, the author is confronted with this exact issue in real life and is forced to face the moral side of these actions. Here Garnier explores the connection between creator and creation and life imitating art.

 

Both stories balance out well, with the author trying to make sense of his remaining life, a depleted existence full of bleakness and antisocial tendencies and Louis’ entertaining, and even funny, struggle for blood and wealth. Viewed individually, Louis’ story would lack some depth, as his actions have no effect beyond financial benefit; the police is not mentioned once and no one seems to question the many deaths surrounding him. Nevertheless, contrasted with the author’s story and his personal views on society and life, it gains more universal, existential significance and symbolism, making The Eskimo Solution a perplexing yet entertaining read.

The King of Fools

Frédéric Dard – The King of Fools (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie), Pushkin Vertigo, 15.05.2017. Original title La pelouse, 1962

King of fools

A review by Eugen Kontschenko

“What was better? To be a murderer or a gullible fool?” (Page 145)

The King of Fools by Frédéric Dard begins in the sunny Côte d’Azur, where the story’s protagonist Jean-Marie Valaise spends his vacation after another break-up from his ex-girlfriend Denise. Due to an apparent small mishap, he meets Marjorie, a married Englishwoman, to whom he feels immediately drawn. Despite only having met her briefly, he senses she is unhappy with her husband and foolishly decides to follow her to Edinburgh. But when Jean-Marie arrives in Edinburgh, he realizes that Marjorie has secrets which are as twisted as the dark streets of the city, and equally as liable to ensnare. Continue reading

The Wicked go to Hell

Wicked

Frédéric Dard – The Wicked go to Hell (translated by David Coward), Pushkin Vertigo, 06.08.2016. Original title Les salauds vont en enfer, 1956

A review by Eugen Kontschenko

 

“I hope the good Lord above will be with you… Either the good Lord… or the Devil, because hell is where you’re going!” (Page 14)

 

The novel The Wicked go to Hell by Frédéric Dard has had a long journey. First written as a play, it was later adapted as a movie and only after that became a novel. It tells a gritty story about an undercover cop who is sent to jail to gather information from a spy. In order to get closer to and befriend each other, they are forced to share a cell. Sensing an upcoming opportunity, the two inmates named Frank and Hal plan an escape. Even though each is suspicious of the other, they form a bizarre bond as they flee from prison in search of a suitable hideout. But who is the cop and who is the spy? Continue reading

Crush

Frédéric Dard – Crush (translated by Daniel Seton), Pushkin Vertigo, 6 October 2016

(Original title :  Les Scélérats, 1959)

A book review by Eugen Kontschenko 

How low  would you be willing to fall to live  the American dream ?

Frédéric Dard’s novel Crush takes us to Léopoldville, a bleak and turbid industrial town in 1950s France. The residents of Léopoldville are mostly factory workers living simple lives. This is also the case for the novel’s protagonist Louise Lacroix, a 17-year-old girl who lives with her mother and drunken stepfather and, unsatisfied with her work at the factory, aspires to a fancier lifestyle. As she walks home after her shift, she passes by the house of the Roolands, an American couple considered wealthy in contrast with the others, due to the husband’s employment with NATO. Impressed by their house, their garden and especially their car, Louise is fervently drawn to them, envisioning an escape from her dreary life. Her wish seems to come true when the couple employs her as their live-in maid. But before long the American idyll begins to crumble. Continue reading

The Executioner Weeps

Frédéric Dard – The Executioner Weeps (translated by  David Coward, Pushkin Vertigo, 09.03.2017, original title Le bourreau pleure, 1956)

A BOOK REVIEW BY EUGEN KONTSCHENKO

“And then suddenly everything had changed. Yes, everything, and all on the account of that supine figure which had come out of the night and leapt into the bright lights of my car.”  (Page 10)

Thus begins the highly popular French crime noir author Frédéric Dard’s prize-winning novel The Executioner Weeps. The book follows the story of Daniel Mermet, a famous French painter, who is on vacation in Francoist Spain when he accidentally hits a young and beautiful woman with his car. The woman survives, but Mermet soon discovers that she has lost her memory. Taking care of her, Daniel falls in love with the mysterious stranger and goes on a quest to France to gather information on her past – a past full of lies and vice and horror, which would be better forgotten. Continue reading