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Crossing the Line by Frédérique Molay

August 22, 2014 2 comments

Crossing the Line by Frederique Molay

Crossing the Line by Frédérique Molay (Le French Book, 2014) originally titled Dent pour dent (the biblical phrase, “a tooth for a tooth” which I can’t help but feel is the better title) translated by Anne Trager. It’s coming up to Christmas in Paris and Nico Sirsky, Head of the Paris Criminal Investigation Division has now perfected the relationship with Caroline (love really is more than skin deep) which has the approval of his son Dimitri (his ex-wife has gone AWOL, possibly seeking treatment for depression). He’s strengthening the leg where he was shot and is now back at work full-time, where he’s supposed to be focusing on solving one of the biggest jewellery heists France has ever seen. Meanwhile Dr Patrice Rieux is about to begin demonstrating the removal of a wisdom tooth to a class of students. They use “heads” donated to science. This particular head, only twelve days old, has a note inserted into a molar. It reads, “I was murdered”. Everyone wants this investigated in a way that exonerates the Paris Descartes University from blame, i.e. this is a real murder and not a prank by one of its students. The immediate problem, of course, is that when bodies are donated, they do not stay in one piece. The head goes to the schools of neurology, opthalmology, and dentistry for students to work on. The soft tissues and bones go to other units. Carefully preserved in cold rooms, the parts are available for use for several months depending on the storage temperature. The body, when whole and alive, belonged to Bruno Guedj. Fortunately, there’s a bullet wound in the head so it could be murder or suicide. But why, then, was there no autopsy? Why was a body with a bullet wound to the head deemed an unsuspicious death?

Frédérique Molay

Frédérique Molay

In every respect, this is a most pleasing mystery. Why should a man preparing to commit suicide, have his dentist implant a message in one of his teeth saying he was about to be murdered? The answer would normally be to persuade the life insurance company that his suicide was a murder. But, in France, the standard anti-suicide provision only applies during the first twelve months of the policy. Thereafter, the insurer pays out on death, no matter what the cause. Then there’s the uncertainty of the means of transmitting the message. What was the point of leaving his body to science on the off-chance the message would be found when it would be so much easier just to leave an explanatory note with his lawyer or someone else reliable? I could go on, but this series of questions should indicate the quality of the puzzle to be solved. More importantly, it also flags up the problem of how precisely to investigate the “situation”. When looking through a period of time, how do you tell what’s significant and might have triggered this man’s belief his life was in danger? The answer to this immediate problem comes slowly but surely. Except, when it arrives, it’s obvious that this is just the top of quite a substantial iceberg.

This type of murder mystery is always a delight as our seasoned detective leads his team through all the procedures necessary to investigate and collect the information, some of which may prove to be relevant evidence. This being a French mystery, we’re immediately cast into their fairly Byzantine legal system which is riven by jurisdictional rivalries and political constraints. Fortunately, the team that eventually comes together has the mutual trust and the confidence to follow the trail to wherever it leads (no matter how inconvenient that might be). The ending comes just in time for it to be a Christmas present for Nico Sirsky and his family, producing the right seasonal feelings without it being overly sentimental. Putting everything together gives you a highly entertaining and intellectually stimulating read. Crossing the Line is unreservedly recommended.

For the review of the first in the series by Frédérique Molay, see The 7th Woman.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Deadly Tasting by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

August 13, 2014 4 comments

Deadly Tasting

Deadly Tasting by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen (Le French Book, 2014) (translated by Sally Pane) is the fourth in the The Winemaker Detective Series. This time our expert in wine is taken in hand, first by his wife who’s insistent he loses some weight, and then by Barbaroux, his local police inspector, who has a crime scene mystery for him. The first act of submission is going to require Benjamin Cooker temporarily to sacrifice his bon vivant lifestyle and substitute one of these boiled cabbage diets the overweight inflict on themselves when they want to feel virtuous in their quest to shed some weight (even his loyal assistant Virgile is in on the conspiracy to fight the flab). The second takes our amateur detective into a kitchen where an old man has been murdered (the murder deters him from thinking about food). In one corner is a table set up with a wine bottle and twelve glasses. One of the glasses has what the inspector assures him is unadultered wine (do we trust the local CSI and their rapid tox-screen?). All our expert has to do is identify it. Remarkably he offers a region, label and approximate age even though he claims never to have tasted it before. It’s a Pétrus from Pomerol and about sixty years old. Then a few hours later, a second old man is discovered dead. This time, two of the twelve wine glasses have been filled with this rare wine.

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

It’s not so much the financial value of the wine that’s intriguing — the earlier wines are not so expensive by contemporary standards — it’s the reason for the murderer choosing this particular vintage which, on tasting, is not outstanding. The fact two glasses have been filled at this murder scene suggests the killer intends ten more victims. This is a challenge to the powers of formal and amateur law enforcement. Can our hero work out the symbolism of the wine and catch the killer before too many more crimes are committed? A shared tasting with another wine expert confirms the vintage is not particularly good and probably dates from 1943 or thereabouts, i.e. it’s a wine produced during the occupation. When a grave is desecrated, it confirms a motive buried (pun intended) in the past.

Because of my familiarity with France, this was a fairly predictable story. The only question was who was responsible. There’s a slightly unexpected element at the end but, for this most part, this is a by-the-numbers plot based on the residual “bad feelings” over the atrocities committed under the Vichy Government. Some of the detail about the treatment of the winemakers during the occupation was new to me and illuminating, but once we get past the set-up, the overall effect is not very exciting. That said, the themes explored in stories like this remain culturally significant in France itself. Indeed, there’s considerable shorthand involved when discussing the forced labour, the treatment of the Jews, and what happened after liberation. So, at this length, such stories are successful in French terms because it’s easy to read between the lines and infer the background. But I worry whether “foreigners” coming relatively cold to this part of French history, will understand the passions it continues to raise. A straight translation such as this leaves the plot a little bare. Curiously, several books by both British and American authors have been published on this theme during the last five years and they are, to my mind, more successful for “foreigners” to read because they take the time to lay the groundwork and explain some of the cultural pressures that remain effective and would motivate crimes like those described in this novella. As Deadly Tasting stands, I suspect it will appear a little superficial to those not aware of this part of French history. I’m also faintly suspicious of the title because there’s no suggestion any of the victims actually drank or were invited to taste the wine. Other than that, the novella is a reminder of the need to keep people on a crash diet distracted and motivated to get through to the end of the treatment.

For reviews of other books in the series, see:

Grand Cru Heist
Nightmare in Burgundy
Treachery in Bordeaux.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Grand Cru Heist by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

April 6, 2014 2 comments

grand-cru-heist-cover

I’m returning to The Winemaker Detective Series with Grand Cru Heist by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen (Le French Book, 2013) translated by Anne Trager (again, I like the French title Pour qui sonne l’angélus i.e. “For whom the angelus tolls” as a reference to the phrase coined by John Donne and adopted by Ernest Hemingway). This begins with one of the more terrifying of urban possibilities. The driver, in this case Benjamin Cooker, has stopped at a set of red traffic lights. The door is not locked. He takes no notice as a man briefly appears by his window. Then before he can react, the door is open, there’s a knife at his throat and the car is gone. Later when he wakes in hospital, he discovers he’s been cut and quite severely beaten. Lucky to be alive, the hospital staff say. What makes the car-jacking all the worse is the loss of his notes. All his memories accumulated over the years, gone in a moment. While he’s waiting for his body and mind to heal, a hundred bottles of the 1989 Angélus premier grand cru classé are stolen. His wife, Elisabeth, and Virgile, his assistant, do their best to lift his spirits, but he decides to go away on his own for a little rehabilitation therapy in the Touraine region where there are many vineyards to visit.

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

He stays in an otherwise empty hotel as it prepares to close for the winter. It’s surprising to everyone when a couple appear as guests. It impresses Cooker that the Englishman, Morton, should be driving a Morgan, one of his favorite sports cars. It’s even better when the man proves to be a wine broker and a lover of good cigars. They enjoy a meal together. Then Cooker gets a call from the man who lost the Angélus wine. It seems someone has sent him a taunting letter. After eating, Morton discovers he’s been abandoned by the woman he was with, and drives off in his high-profile car. In short order, Cooker’s car is found in Germany, the body of a young woman turns up strangled, and the concierge at the hotel goes missing.

This is the second of these novellas I’ve read and the pattern now seems clear. In part the series is an excuse to talk about good wine and the good food that can accompany it. As the man behind France’s leading guide to wines, Cooker can go anywhere and knows everyone important there is to know. This gives him access to many secrets about wine and, of course, means he has the chance to act as an unofficial type of detective when, for example, some wine of a top vintage is stolen. In the first of the series, he supplied confidential services that cleared up an outbreak of Brettanomyces. This time we have thefts of wine and what proves to be a double murder. On balance, I find this less successful than the first. Whereas the first distracts us from the outbreak of disease by a little mystery surrounding some artwork, this has a full-scale double murder in view. So at novella length, the first sustains itself without running out of steam, whereas this introduces what would, in most series, be a plot amply filling a full length novel. But then has only a few pages in which to solve it. The result is little mystery because we don’t have the time and space to explore the circumstances and identify all possible suspects. All we get is a few plot pointers, some conversations, and a solution. To say this is perfunctory would be an understatement. It’s a shame because the plot itself is not without possibilities at length. Any mystery or thriller writer of competence could have filled this out with interesting details and red herrings until we arrive at the solution. This effort is hobbled from the outset by the artificial imposition of word length. This is not to say Grand Cru Heist is not worth reading. It’s nicely written and elegantly translated. It’s full of interesting details about wine and food. It’s just a little undercooked.

For reviews of other books in the series, see:
Deadly Tasting
Nightmare in Burgundy
Treachery in Bordeaux.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Greenland Breach by Bernard Besson

August 27, 2013 2 comments

Greenland Breach by Bernard Besson

This book is rather like one of these slightly more upmarket chocolates. It has a thick outer layer and something completely different as a filling. As to the wrapping, it’s always interesting to watch the wheel turn. When I was younger, I cut my teeth on books like The Drowned World by J G Ballard with an increase in solar radiation melting the polar ice caps and flooding the low-lying ground. In those heady days of excited speculation, global catastrophe or apocalypse science fiction was in vogue with everything from alien invasions to our own nuclear wars sending us back to the Stone Age with a flick of the author’s pen. If we move across the Channel and into more modern times, we have books like Le Monde Enfin by Jean-Pierre Andrevon with a pandemic striking humanity down, and the spectacularly long series titled La Compagnie des Glaces by Georges-Jean Arnaud with climate change caused by the destruction of the moon to the fore — first we freeze in ninety-eight volumes then, in a mere twenty-four volumes, we melt — if you missed the books, there’s a chance to catch up with the video games, graphic novels, French-Canadienne television adaptation and a different but parallel Japanese anime series, Overmanキングゲイナー, which also explores the problems caused by monopoly control of the transport system.

Why, you ask, should people in different cultures be so interested in actual or potential extinction events? The answer, I suppose, is because they operate high up on the scale of awesomeness (in the American sense of shock and awe). We pass rapidly beyond one or two people finding it a problem to survive, say, an increase in wind velocity, and wipe out countries no matter what their political allegiance. Or, along strictly nationalist lines, we can give payback for past slights. I’m reminded of US criticism of France under the government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin for failing to prevent more people from dying in a heat wave. It’s therefore understandable the US should be the first country to feel the wrath of nature in The Greenland Breach by Bernard Besson (Le French Book, 2013) originally titled Groenland and translated by Julie Rose. Serves those climate sceptics right, says I.

Bernard Besson

Bernard Besson

In the best Gallic tradition, this section of the book is magnificently melodramatic. Even in translation, you can feel the enthusiasm of the author shining through as he channels the emotion of the moments as global warming causes a major slippage of ice and land into the sea. Yes, Greenland is less than it was before it cracked in half. Dumping that amount of solid and meltable material into the sea at high velocity causes a tsunami to die for (sorry, the preposition should be from) and before you can say Jacques Robinson, water levels are rising fast. These damn oceans are just so interconnected in this internet age. If you fill up one, the water must find its own level. Because this is a Francocentric book, we’re really only interested in what the French oil and minerals industry was doing before the crack appeared, and what the various official spy agencies and unofficial operatives do afterwards. À bas les autres pays. Quel domage! — which, loosely translated means other low-lying countries get flooded first, ha ha!

So as an extrapolation, we have the polar region melting and throwing out an increasing volume of methane which could cause a major shift in climate, i.e. the warmer bits of the Earth go cool and the polar regions heat up. As this area melts, it could uncover large deposits of rare earths. That would have major strategic importance, breaking the market dominance of the Chinese. As this novel unwinds, Canada is claiming these deposits using the Continental Shelf Doctrine. And that’s where the espionage filling comes in. Once we have the context, we’re swept up into a mystery style investigation built around the unfolding catastrophe. The action moves through the death of a key executives of one of the companies exploring for natural resources on the icepack, to excitement in France, on to a ship that barely survived the tsunami, and back on to the ice as lakes start to form and methane bubbles up to the surface. Tension builds as life and death struggles occur and the identity of those behind the looming conspiracy is slowly revealed.

The Greenland Breach is a novel of considerable flair and panache which starts with a major environmental event and then skillfully switches focus to the ravages of human greed as plots are laid and manipulations executed (in every sense of the word). With this combination of flavours, the novel hits the sweet spot of enjoyment.

The Greenland Breach was published in paperback on April 30, 2014.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Treachery in Bordeaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

treachery-in-bordeaux_cover_f_600x860_0

Treachery in Bordeaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen (translated by Anne Trager) (Le French Book, 2012) The Winemaker Detective Series (titled Mission à Haut-Brion in the series rather more provocatively titled Le sang de la vigne or The Blood of the Vine, in France). There are twenty-one books in the series which are “detective” novels, each one focusing on a crime in a different leading French vineyard and its appellation d’origine contrôlée. Under the same title, Le sang de la vigne, the books have also been a successful series on French television, so far running eight ninety-minute episodes. So here we go with the first run out in English for Benjamin Cooker, his wife Elisabeth, and Bacchus, their Irish setter. He’s the ultimate wine guru and winemaker who bottles from his own Bordeaux estate in Grangebelle on the banks of the Gironde, and writes the definitive guide to what’s drinkable in the wine world. Whether it’s a grand cru estate or a new blender, everyone waits in trepidation to see what his judgment of their latest efforts will be. His new assistant is Virgile Lanssien from Bergerac who, on his first day, goes with Benjamin to the Chateau Les Moniales Haut-Brion where an outbreak of Brettanomyces is suspected: a yeast that can change the taste and bouquet of a serious wine for the worst.

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

For a leading wine, this is a catastrophe unless the infection is nipped in the proverbial bud. Fortunately Cooker acts as a consultant and can call on top-class chemists and other experts, all of whom act with absolute discretion. It would be immensely damaging to the reputation of any major label if even a hint of scandal should emerge. The question, once the initial diagnosis is confirmed, is how the barrels should have become infected. It most commonly occurs in cellars which fail to observe even the most basic of hygiene standards. This cellar is run to the highest standards of care. It’s inconceivable that this could be accidental. The question, therefore, is who would have a motive to contaminate such high-profile wine and how was it done. For obvious reasons, the cellar has a good security system and only two individuals have keys and the access code.

Running in parallel is the provenance of an overmantle, a painting most often hung over a fireplace. To his surprise, Cooker discovers that there’s another very similar painting. When he investigates, he finds both paintings were almost certainly by the same artist and might have been a pair. In turn this leads to an ageing, alcoholic historian who rambles drunkenly through much of the history of the area and, in the final moments before falling into unconsciousness, volunteers the information that the two paintings were part of a triptych. From this brief introduction you will notice the welcome omission. This is a mystery without a murder! Too often writers of mysteries think they must kill off several people in order to entertain their readers.

This is a novella length but manages to cram in a mass of fascinating detail about winemaking and the history of the Bordeaux region where we discover much intrigue and skullduggery of different degrees of viciousness. It seems little has changed over the centuries. Treachery in Bordeaux should be of interest to anyone who enjoys a good mystery, and has an interest in wine and its place in French culture.

For reviews of other books in this series, see:
Deadly Tasting
Grand Cru Heist
Nightmare in Burgundy.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The 7th Woman by Frédérique Molay

April 12, 2013 1 comment

The 7th Woman

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.

Frédérique Molay

Frédérique Molay

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.

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