The 7th Woman by Frédérique Molay
The 7th Woman by Frédérique Molay (Le French Book, 2012) (translated by Anne Trager) is a French police procedural with a variation on the “invisible man” idea as in G K Chesterton. Let’s meet Nico Sirsky, Head of the Paris Criminal Investigation Division who can stare down criminals armed to the teeth but goes weak-kneed in the presence of an attractive woman, particularly if she can insert a camera into his stomach and take photographs of potential ulcers. You see he has a stressful job and with stress comes health problems. But before he can start training his stomach wall to smile for the camera, he gets called in to a murder. Marie-Hélène Jory, an assistant professor at the Sorbonne has been tortured before death came as a merciful release. The first impression is that this is a highly organised, not to say, professional killer. Not only did he take his time, but stayed behind afterwards to stage the crime scene and remove all traces of his presence.
This is a novel that obeys the unity of time as a serial killer starts his sequence and the police try to play catch-up as the second identical killing is discovered. To show how serious he is, the killer leaves a message. He’s going to kill a total of seven women in seven days. But, with the third victim, the killer makes it personal by leaving another message, this time addressed to Nico. Worse Nico’s brother-in-law is involved. Even at the best of times, the politics of investigation in France is complicated. The idea of a vendetta against Nico and/or his family is therefore viewed very seriously. After some thought, Nico is allowed to retain management control over the case for the police side of the investigation. He’s expected to be professional enough to ignore the potential conflict of interest. When other senior officers are implicated, the deviousness of the plot become apparent.
I’m not quite sure about the translation. I think it slightly literal rather than being edited into a more flowing English style. As a language, French tends to be a little more detailed in the way it presents ideas. The text we have here matches that with a slightly dense prose style. Worse, there’s quite a significant cast of people to meet so the first half of the book is relatively slow moving as everyone is established and their relationships explained. As an irrelevant aside, there’s a certain class uniformity here. All the characters, including the victims, are middle or upper middle class, prosperous, occupying pleasant homes and fashionably stylish. With the exception of Nico’s son, there’s also a fairly narrow age range between late thirties and early fifties. That means this is a fairly unrepresentative sample of life in Paris. I’m not raising this as a criticism, but it does say something about the author’s view of the world. This being the first of three books featuring Nico Sirsky, our hero also turns out to be something of a workaholic paragon. Although a man, he’s empathetic — described as a feminine characteristic — faithful to his ex-wife but innocently romantic when he meets the doctor who’s going to check out his ulcer. Within days, he’s decided he’s in love again, not something I find very credible in an obsessive man like this while he’s in the middle of a bloody serial killer case.
So where does this leave us? After a slow start, the pace picks up, more bodies appear, and we race into a moderately clichéd confrontation at the end. Although I think it’s obvious who’s responsible, the author plays a very elegant game in trying to distract us. For this, she deserves praise. When there’s only one person who could have done it, it’s something of a triumph to keep making us doubt the obvious. As a police procedural, I think it better than average, but it’s not for everyone as we have fairly graphic descriptions of the torture both from the killer’s point of view and during the autopsies. This is not to say The 7th Woman is in any sense a horror novel. The descriptions are not sensationalised or written in a way likely to raise strong emotional responses. But such factual explicitness may not be to everyone’s taste.
For a review of the next in the series, see Crossing the Line.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.