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Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black

July 21, 2014 4 comments

Murder in Pigalle

Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black (Soho Press, 2014) is the fourteenth book to feature Aimée Leduc as our private detective who specialises in corporate security and computer investigations, finds herself pregnant at the most inconvenient time — taxes are due, people who owe the agency money are slow to pay, and the daughter of one of her friends decides to go missing. We’re steadily moving through history and have now arrived in June 1998 with the world (and France) caught up in the excitement of the World Cup. In one sense, this is the perfect moment to commit crimes because the attention of the majority is caught up in the “excitement” of hosting the competition. Yes France won the right to host for the second time and was all out to put on a good show both on and off the field (for those of you who don’t follow the game, France beat Brazil in the July final). As an aside, the baby’s father is Mélac, a police officer who’s at the bedside of his critically injured daughter in Brittany. Aimée hasn’t yet told him of his impending fatherhood which should tell you something of the nature of their relationship.

 

So there have been three rapes on young girls in and around Pigalle but, at the start of this book, the police have not connected the dots. Unfortunately, Zazie a thirteen-year-old girl who hero-worships Aimée has been inspired to investigate. One of her friends has already been raped and together, they have put together an identikit picture of the man. Zazie has also been talking to an old lady who was in the Resistance during the war, so she’s picked up quite a lot of the lore of secret message drops, surveillance, and so on. She’s even been into Pigalle at night and has photographs which, she thinks, show the man responsible. Sadly, Aimée is distracted when this subject is broached and does not listen with all her attention. So when Zazie fails to come home that evening, she’s caught by guilt and sets off to find her young protégée. That same night, Sylvaine Olivet, another of Zazie’s friends in found dead. It looks as though the rapist has turned into a murderer. It’s possible Zazie was a witness but the Brigade des Minuers is not interested in making Zazie’s disappearance a high priority.

Cara Black

Cara Black

 

As is therefore required in books like this, she and René Friant, her business partner, are pitched into a race against time to find the missing girl. The problem for Aimée is to reach the point where she might look beyond the serial rapist to what else might be going on in Paris (other than the football, of course). It’s easy for the readers because Cara Black sends quite an early signal the answer is going to require some lateral thinking. Nevertheless, Aimée bulls ahead and, as if to prove she’s on the right track, someone takes a shot at her, killing the woman she’s with. Yet, as all seasoned readers know, nothing is ever as straightforward as it first appears.

 

Putting all this together, we have an interesting serial rape case to work through. It’s actually based on a real-world crime and therefore has a certain plausibility about it. The setting in Paris is done well. That said, it’s always difficult to know where to draw the line on how much of the French language to include for local colour. Strictly speaking, all dialogue should be in English. Translating all but everyday words like “bonjour” is slightly insulting. This does have characters breaking out into phrases every now and then which is, I suppose, not unacceptable. Setting this in 1998 was an interesting choice, not only because of the football, but also because Pigalle was beginning a gentrification from a more seamy, sex-oriented area to a more respectable middle class area. So both Aimée and the location are in transition. The discussion of the pregnancy and how she will adapt her lifestyle to incorporate a baby are done well (we even have her absent mother helping from hiding and an interesting comment on the circumstances of her father’s death). The thriller elements also work well and put both mother and baby at risk (which is how it should be if the author is aiming for some degree of realism). This leaves Murder in Pigalle as one of the better books set in France with a good puzzle for our hero to resolve and a not unsympathetic view of the French law enforcement agencies and the complex way in which they are required to work.

 

For a review of another book by Cara Black, see Murder at the Lanterne Rouge.

 

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

 

Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates

October 16, 2013 2 comments

Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates

Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates (Soho Press, 2013) is the third novel featuring Sergeant Gunnhildur Gisladottir (plus the e-book Winterlude which bridges between Cold Comfort and this book). For some time, there’s been growing interest in what, for want of anything better to label it, the reading public calls Scandinavian crime. Of course, from the time of the Vikings onwards, Scandinavians have been into the commission of a range of crimes and have celebrated their successes in sagas and crime novels — some of which have proved very popular. It’s therefore something of a coals-to-Newcastle irony to find a British author turning his hand to a police procedural series set in Iceland. He’s jumping on the bandwagon while it’s travelling past him at a fair speed. Not that I blame him. If an author sees a market niche ripe for exploitation, why not aim for it? Anyway, we’re into Iceland which has not received much attention from the fictioneers since Beowulf put it on the map. Of late, it’s proved to be an exciting place to be what with cod wars and the more recent piratical, i.e. Norse, behaviour of its banking system. Now recovering from the financial crisis following the banking collapse in 2008, it remains politically stable but, as this novel demonstrates, it continues to be secretive at the higher levels of society.

We tiptoe into action as one of the exclusive hotels in Reykjavík, where discretion is a byword, quietly calls in the police to report the death of an elderly shipowner. He expired while tied to a bed — such are the risks when older men with weak hearts submit to discipline. At first sight, there doesn’t seem to be anything terribly suspicious about the death, ignoring the local vice laws, of course. But, as is always the case when starting off on a police procedural, there’s more to discover. The narrative depends on multiple points of view, the most important of which are: the good Sergeant who leads the investigation, Hekla, the less-than-honest dominatrix, Joel Ingi Bragason, the civil servant who has an urgent need to find a missing laptop, and Baddo the (involuntarily) returning criminal. Although by some people’s moral standards, the inclusion of an S&M theme may be less than acceptable, we’re soon into the safer waters of murders. Better still, instead of the more usual deadpan melancholy which the Scandinavian writers bring to their own books, this actually has a faint sense of humour — not in the laugh-out-loud sense, you understand — but enough to raise the occasional smile. If it was accurately translated into the various Scandinavian languages, they would probably consider the book an outrageous comedy, but we southerners, being of a more dour nature, can accept an appropriate remark or wry observation without losing perspective on the more serious implications of a murder or two, and S&M shenanagins.

Quentin Bates

Quentin Bates

Adding to the excitement, Gunna’s son, Gisli, has managed to fertilise two young women. At this point, with neither woman aware of the other, he leaves on his trawler, tasking his mother to consider how best to resolve this socially awkward situation. Prospective grandmothers have a tough life in the far North. Apart from this dual pregnancy, the good sergeant’s family life is reassuringly normal. Indeed, one of the reasons why the case takes slightly longer to resolve is because the police officers mostly go home at the end of their shifts. Although there’s some money made available later in the investigation to pay overtime, the police are not completely obsessed — no Wallanders here. In establishing priorities, some aspects of the work can always wait until the next day. In part, this reflects a society which is relatively low crime. This does not deny the sergeant has a reasonably long to-do list. But, in her defence, the failure of those in positions of power to pass over a full brief relegates their work down the list. Until the significance of the missing laptop becomes apparent, that is. Then everyone in the game gets to reassess where they stand and what needs to be done.

Chilled to the Bone is an excellent novel. The elements of the crimes in motion are nicely laid out through the different points of view. The dominatrix proves to be sympathetic albeit of a very practical turn of mind. Even Baddo, the appropriately named villain of the piece, is given a completely fair run. He may be murderously efficient, but we can all understand his approach to life. The man emerging with the least sympathy is the civil servant who allowed the laptop to be exposed to the risk of loss. The outcome for him is all too credible. This leaves me impressed. The book flirts with Scandinavian darkness, something that’s built into the psyche of books like this, if only because of the enduring cold during winter, but manages to emerge on a steady and fairly positive note (the British influence showing through).

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

The Fire Dance by Helene Tursten

October 14, 2013 Leave a comment

The Fire Dance by Helene Tursten

The Fire Dance by Helene Tursten (Soho Press, 2014) translated by Laura A Wideburg, was first published in 2005 as Eldsdansen. It’s the seventh in the series featuring Detective Inspector Irene Huss. She’s a forty-something wife and mother who just happens to be a judo expert — a skill that comes into play with surprising regularity during the series albeit less directly in this novel. She’s what we might term an Everywoman. Although she has fighting skills, they don’t depend on physical strength. She doesn’t do the job as a detective because she’s tough, sees the job as glamourous, enjoys the power the job gives her over others, or feels she has something to prove as a woman in a man’s world. She’s a mom who’s saving Sweden when she can fit it in round her schedule. Fortunately her husband, an excellent chef, has done a deal with a restaurant that usually allows him to work part-time. This gives him the chance to do the bulk of the work offering support for their two daughters when it’s asked for. Her boss is Superintendent Sven Andersson, a man who loves opera, strong beer and schnapps, and struggles with the tensions between the male and female staff, and the local politics of nationality. Keeping us up to date with the story in visual terms, Yellow Bird has produced six Irene Huss films.

This novel starts off at the Gothenburg Book Fair in 2004 in which a particularly striking young woman walks into the Park Aveny Hotel Bar. An extended flashback then takes us to 1989/90 and, once we’ve absorbed the necessary information, we return to current time. The hook for the plot is Sophie Malmborg, a young girl who, fifteen years ago, may have been involved in a series of three fires which might have been arson. The third fire occurs at the house she and her immediate family occupied. Unfortunately, when it’s extinguished, the body of her stepfather is discovered. He had an alcohol problem and so could easily have started the fire himself. It should have been easy to clarify the sequence of events but Sophie, already prone to avoiding conversation, becomes effectively mute. Selective mutism in this situation seems to be a choice on her part. None of the police, including the then inexperienced Huss, can elicit any word or gesture from her as answers to their questions. As the years passed, the girl continued to surround herself in silence. This led to a diagnosis of schizoid personality disorder. Now she’s dead. She disappeared from the hotel, was not seen for three weeks and then her dead body was found in a burned shed on an industrial estate. Because it could be directly relevant to the motive for her death, the police force needs to establish exactly what she refused to discuss back in 1989.

Helene Tursten

Helene Tursten

This is not a simple police procedural in which a dedicated officer leads a team of investigators to a triumphant arrest at the end. Rather it’s a story about two families which briefly interact in a moment of crisis. On one side of the legal fence, we’re invited to observe the events in the Huss household. With two daughter both old enough to want their independence but lacking experience in the hardships of life, Irene struggles with the need to give them space. Even though they are probably both entering into unsuitable relationships, they will never learn unless they make mistakes and still have nonjudgmental parents to fall back on. What makes this more difficult than usual is that one of the relationships is with a person on the periphery of the Malmborg case. Indeed, Irene finds that daughter at a party in what may have been the house used to hold Sophie prisoner during the missing three weeks. As her workload increases with gangs in a turf war, Irene is under increasing pressure to solve the Malmborg case. Only then can she hope to find a better balance between work and home, something that’s necessary to reduce the stress levels on all concerned.

On the other side of the fence stand the complicated relationships in the Malmborg case. To understand how and why Sophie died, Irene has to piece together the history of the family. Her attempts to understand the dynamics of the case were frustrated fifteen years earlier. Looking back, she can see many ways in which she failed to ask the right questions of those involved. This time, the solution cannot lie in any words spoken by the key witness. Sophie is no longer available to ask. It must be excavated from Irene’s memory, and from inferences in all she sees and hears as the current investigation progresses. As the pages turn, the picture of Sophie grows ever more tragic. When her father died, she inherited his house, a cottage and a substantial sum of money. Her life has always been about the power of dance to express emotion. She’s become a choreographer, opening “her” house to a Brazilian dancer called Marcelo Alves, and her younger brother who also dances and studies photography. The house itself has changed very little since her father’s death. He was also reclusive. As a composer of national importance, his piano and suite of rooms remain as a kind of shrine. The current state of the house is a little like Miss Havisham’s approach to household management. Wealth and material possessions meant little to Sophie.

The answers in the deaths of Sophie Malmborg and her stepfather revolve around guilt and pain buried in the past. I did not use the word “tragedy” lightly. Helene Tursten shows us what terrible damage we can do to ourselves and to each other once the fuse is lit and the flame travels towards the accelerants. Only if the family is strong can people pull through such threats with minimal damage. Even though The Fire Dance may not be the most original plot, the way it’s written produces a remarkably powerful story. You should read it!

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

Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis (Soho Press, 2013) (translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard) is the third novel featuring Nina Borg. It begins with a tantalising prologue in which a son is collecting oral history from his Ukrainian mother. The old woman tells a “fairy story” about life under Stalin. It seems there were two sisters. Both could sing like nightingales but, as is the way when tales are being told in a fairy-story style, their jealousy had an unfortunate outcome. Obviously, it can’t be a real part of this family’s history. Ah, there’s that contentious word. History is one of these slippery concepts which implies more than it’s capable of delivering. Those who promote a study of the past imply they are dealing in facts, that there’s always a “truth” about what actually happened “back then”. This claim to credibility is essential if they are to secure a steady income for their study. Except, of course, truth has always been a relative phenomenon. Indeed, the idea we can excavate enough evidence to say with certainty how or why something happened is absurd.

The best the archaeologists of the past can achieve is a number of “facts”, e.g. there were caves or buildings occupied by humans, they erected henges out of stone or built bridges some of which persist today. But the detail of who lived in these habitations, or was involved in funding the building work or managed the construction itself will often remain speculative. It’s all a game of probabilities to narrow down the speculations to more manageable levels that we can understand. In more modern times, truth in some parts of the world is certified. For example, if a vehicle carries a signed statement that a dedicated team has just washed the vehicle, it must be true even though the vehicle obviously hasn’t been touched by water since the last time it rained. Truth can be very mutable depending on who writes the certificates.

Lene Kaaberbol

Lene Kaaberbol

After her last exploits, Nina is doing her best to rebuild. She still has health problems because of her exposure to radiation and is now divorced. Magnus is the new man in her life, also divorced. They both work at the Red Cross Centre Furescø, known in the area as Coal-House Camp, a home for immigrants who are formally going through the system for acceptance in Denmark. The story is made up of three interwoven threads. The first revolves around Nina and her attempts to befriend and help Rina, a girl from the Ukraine. Natasha, her mother, is in serious trouble, accused of murder. This has produced an acute anxiety state in the girl who’s struggling with asthma.

The second thread follows Søren Kirkegard, a member of the Danish Security and Intelligence Service who, because he met Nina in the last book, gets sucked into the investigation. It more formally becomes a part of his jurisdiction when he teams up with Symon Babko, a Ukrainian police officer who’s been abandoned by Colonel Savchuk, his senior officer in Denmark. The idea a foreign intelligence officer is conducting an unauthorised investigation on Danish soil is political dynamite. The question for Søren is what features of the current case justify such an obvious breach of protocol. The third narrative strand is based in 1934/5 and deals with the family relationships in a small township in the Ukraine. It’s supposed to be a part of the agricultural revolution that will return Russian food production to sustainable levels. Unfortunately that’s not working out too well.

Agnete Friis

Agnete Friis

As the story unwinds, we’re invited to play the game of mapping past identities on to current people. The reason I can call it a game is the grandmother’s oral history in which she chose to dress up the “facts” as a fairy story. We have to distinguish the “facts” from the fantasy, and understand how the past is influencing current events. Just what happened back in 1934/5 that might justify the sequence of deaths we’re seeing today? The answer is one of these long-running tragedies that people today prefer to remain buried in the past. Should anyone begin digging skeletons out of cupboards, questions must be asked, action must be taken. Identity and reputation are indispensable property. They confer status and repel accountability. They must be protected.

This is far better than Invisible Murder, the last book. Indeed, I think it in a different league. Whereas I was ambivalent about the extent of the morality on display and thought the threat confronted was somewhat overblown, this is a more seriously realistic study of character. By the end of this book, even Nina sees the downside of rushing into burning buildings to rescue people. Perhaps more importantly, she’s also taking some action to control her OCD. Whether either attempt to limit or control her behaviour will be successful remains uncertain. But she’s prepared to consider the emotions that have produced this heightened sense of duty to her fellow human beings. She’s even humble enough to reach out to those she’s hurt in the past. In this respect, the book is a great success. There’s a strong sense of credibility in the characterisation. The immediate story is also all too believable. I’m therefore concluding Death of a Nightingale is something of a triumph. The only feature preventing me from giving this the accolade of a complete triumph is a preference the “detectives” solve all aspects of the case. Here a considerable amount of authorial omniscience is required to tie up all the loose ends. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But I think it better when the endurance of the heroes is rewarded by them ending up in possession of all the relevant facts.

For a review of another book by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, see Invisible Murder.

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

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