The Missing Clue - June 2016 - French Crime Fiction by Jack

France is not a country one normally associates with crime fiction, although one in every five books sold in France is a “polar” (short for roman policier). After all, its leading author of polars is really a Belgian, and only a handful of French writers in the genre have received much exposure in English. But many experts expect the French to succeed the Scandinavians as the import flavour of the month. There are certainly many good things to be savoured. One is the Belgian author, a real-life character of excesses. Georges Simenon is well-known for his prodigious literary output – probably near a thousand novels, and countless short stories – and for his ferocious sexual appetite; he himself boasted of more than ten thousand sexual encounters. Simenon apparently kept a wife and two mistresses busy, as well as a string of casual relationships. In the 1930s his entire entourage toured North America, spending some time in Quebec.

Simenon wrote three kinds of books: his serious fiction, chiefly psychological studies; his literary thrillers; and his approximately 75 Inspector Maigret books, written over a period of more than 40 years. The Maigret books were frequently made into television series or movies. They were the very antithesis of formula crime books, the anti-formula being Maigret shambling around inside a situation and eventually coming up with the solution. Madam Maigret was a frequent part of the sniffing. One of the characteristics of the Maigret books was their brevity – usually less than 150 pages. His technique in all his writing was the same. He would lock himself away and emerge ten days later with a completed manuscript. Revision was minimal, and he gave little attention to the work once completed.

Simenon had little life outside writing, sex and good living (impressive houses, many automobiles.) He spent the war years living in seclusion trapped in Vichy France, and he ended the war under a cloud of suspicion as a Nazi collaborator, a taint that still follows him. He whined a good deal about not being taken seriously enough as an author, but couldn’t bring himself to write the sort of books that would win literary prizes such as the Nobel Prize. He just wasn’t happy enough with all those books and all those sexual encounters. (Penguin Random House have in the last year begun to issue new translations of the Maigret novels in paperback. We do have some of these titles in both new and used in stock as well as some used Maigret in French.)

Next to Simenon, the French crime writer probably best known to the English-speaking audience is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, better-known as Fred Vargas, a historian and archaeologist who burst onto the scene in 1996 with The Three Evangelists, a concoction which won several prizes and has been enduringly popular. I am quite fond of this book, fond enough to recognize its many weaknesses. In the first place, its basic premise is a fraud. Empty four-story ramshackle mansions simply do not exist anymore, even on the back streets of Paris, much less are such edifices available as cheap rentals by impecunious students. Moreover, such students would not have the money to put the mansion back into operation in time to be ready to participate in the plot of this book. Finally, of course, such impecunious students would not have the money to pursue the plot with such vigour; whenever money is required (for taxis, for train journeys), it is found. The story proper begins when the opera singer who lives in the expensive mansion next door to the tear-down discovers a new tree in her back garden, and cannot figure out what is doing on, but is menaced by it. She is soon murdered, and the plot thickens – and thickens, and thickens, until it ends up to a final resolution some two hundred pages later. By this time the reader is quite giddy from the series of revelations that take place so quickly that there is no time to assess their credibility. Along the way, we are introduced to a much more attractive and inexpensive Paris than the one I remember, as well as a number of loveable character; there are also some nasty villains. By the way, despite the blurbs on the internet, this book is not part of a series. When it is done it is done. Vargas does have an ongoing series, featuring Commissaire Adamsberg. It follows its own rules, occasionally drifting into paranormal fantasy, and has been very popular.

The European publishing sensation of 1997 was Brigitte Aubert’s Death in the Woods, a conceptual tour de force. Its narrator is a blind and mute paraplegic who is afforded information about a killer, if she can only communicate her knowledge to someone in authority before she is herself killed. Reviewers found the narrator sympathetic and full of good humour.

Another interesting French author is Jean François Parot. He has written an extensive collection of historical thrillers that follow the career of one Nicholas la Floch from 1761 towards the Revolution. La Floch is the illegitimate son of a highly-placed French nobleman, and so he is able to hang around the fringes of the French court, solving crimes in high places as he goes. Parot is a historian of considerable skill, and so along the way we are introduced to the mores of the French court, as well as other incidentals, such as French cuisine of the 18th century (aristocratic stuff, of course; the French peasants consumed a much less interesting diet barely fit for pigs). Unlike those involved, who ate, drank, and screwed to excess as if there were no tomorrow, we know how badly it all ends – and how suddenly.

Not all French crime fiction takes place among the upper or middle classes; the French have a notorious criminal underground, and a large proportion of the “polars” sold in cheap editions that tap into this netherworld. Perhaps the most notorious author in this sub-sub genre was Frédéric Dard, who wrote Industriously 175 books under the pseudonym “San-Antonio.” He picked the name by randomly scanning a map of the United States; the dash between the two words was his own contribution. Dard’s world was so unfamiliar to the bulk of his audience that at one point, Dard’s publisher included a glossary of the argot the author was employing. Probing the same world, although in fewer numbers, were the writings of Jean-Claude Izzo, who made a name a few years ago with a trilogy of novels set among the Marseilles criminal element. Both Izzo and Dard dealt with “white” criminals. I suspect there is a literature for the black African population which makes up an increasing proportion of the French underground, but I am unable to access it; probably the best way to approach this world is through daily television coverage, since the black underground is, among other things, the home of the terrorists in both Paris and Belgium.

Finally, some French stuff in English, by Peter May. His publishers have left the origins of the “Enzo” books deliberately murky, but when Peter May visited us in 2014, he told us that no British publisher was initially interested in the series. They were initially published in French in France, and appeared in English only after they became runaway French bestsellers. This story confirms Jack’s view that publishers are not very smart, but never mind. The story also explains why the series is only now appearing in North America years after it was originally written, although it has been available in the UK since 2006. The facts are that May is a great writer, and with “Enzo” he has created a great series. The premise is a bit complex to explain. Enzo MacLeod, a Scottish forensic psychologist with an Italian Catholic mother and a Scottish Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian father, meets his true love at a professional convention. He flees his wife and child to live in France with the other woman, who dies in childbirth, leaving him to raise their daughter, Sophie. He finds a job teaching at a French university, and twenty years after his impulsive act he makes a bet with a French journalist friend who has written a best-selling book describing seven notorious unsolved crimes. Enzo impulsively bets with his friend that, using his forensic skills, he can solve these cases. Extraordinary People records Enzo’s first attempt at winning the bet. The case he chooses to begin with involves the mysterious disappearance of a brilliant French academic, who teaches the nation’s smartest students – the “extraordinary people of the title -- at an elite institution preparing the students for careers as high-powered civil servants. And away we go, following Enzo on his quest! Enzo is very attractive to women, and very attracted to them, so a lot of romanticizing and drinking accompanies the action. This first book is puzzle one, in which the solution of one clue leads to another. Deconstructing each clue reveals another dismembered piece of the professor’s anatomy. It is clear that the clues have been deliberately produced and intended to be solved. An engrossing story, this is the first of six, which will be released over the next while.

(Extraordinary People is in stock at $17.99, the second book in the series, The Critic, will be available at the end of August also at $17.99.)

The Missing Clue - April 2016 - The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott and Real Tigers by Mick Herron – reviewed by Jack

As those who know me well are aware, I am fond of well-crafted spy novels, and prefer those set in the immediately post-war Cold War period. A recent lucky dip in the pile of “arcs” (advance reader’s copies) that is constantly in our store turned up Gavin Scott’s The Age of Treachery, billed by its publisher as the first in a “brand new post-war mystery series”. The author is a Brit who has honed his skills in Hollywood writing for commercial television; this is his first novel, and I found it impossible to put down. It is a combination of mystery and spy novel, with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. The author has done his research, and I found the section set in Berlin immediately after the war easily the best part of the book. In any event, I think our customers will really enjoy this book, and will clamour for the promised sequel. (The Age of Treachery, on sale April 19th, TP $19.50)

One more spy book while we are at it. This one is Real Tigers, by Mick Herron, number three in his series set in Slough House, the dilapidated building in London where MI5 buries its screw-ups. This time one of their number is kidnapped; the kidnapper wants information as ransom. The story gets beautifully complicated. Most readers like this series a lot. (Available in hard cover $26.95, no date for paper version yet.)

The Missing Clue - April 2016 - Some Thoughts on Pastiche by Jack

When I was a boy, one of my mother’s favourite bromides was: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” a phrase that has stuck with me over the years. Literary imitation is usually called “pastiche,” and for better or worse, I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about and playing with the concept, especially since we decided to do a series of Book Club evenings featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson pastiches. When I actually focused on the technique, I was more than a bit surprised to realize how limited it was in practice. In the first place, one can really only imitate an author who is super well-known. Who beyond Sherlock? The first author I thought of was Agatha Christie. Partly because of the second consideration: the need to find sufficiently well-known literary characteristics to imitate. When I considered this factor, it suddenly became clear to me why Holmes was such a popular target for pastiche and why relatively few others could qualify. Hercule Poirot could certainly be imitated, because of his appearance and because of his distinctive phrases, such as “the little grey cells.” But who else? Miss Marple? Probably. Father Brown? The Saint? Perry Mason? James Bond? Nero Wolfe? Peter Wimsey? Make your own list. It will not be very long, and would probably not include many recent authors. At this point I suddenly began to appreciate durable popularity. The pioneers of crime fiction who have survived the years are mainly those who created larger-than-life characters. Such creations are no longer fashionable. Lisbeth Salander is one of the few contemporaries who comes immediately to mind. Who else? One wonders. A point worth emphasizing is that literary pastiche is not confined to books; film and television rely heavily on literature for their material, and are currently the sources of some of the best pastiche – Holmes has two television series currently going, neither one of which started in print. Both series move Holmes into the 21st century. Recent films have reversed the Holmes/Watson relationship and looked into the early life of Holmes.

What exactly is literary pastiche? Simply put, it is imitation. In practice, however, imitation covers a multitude of sins and a variety of strategies not all of which involve a straight line between original and copy. Why do authors write pastiche? The most obvious answer is lack of originality, although I suspect that this answer explains very few of what is produced. More important is commercial viability. Pastiche enables an author to tie his or her work to a known product with a known record in the bookshops. In a few cases, the success of the imitation generates its own popularity. This was clearly the case with the Mary Russell series. Some authors are attracted by the challenge of successful imitation.

Curiously enough, the easiest strategy of pastiche to adopt is also the hardest to bring off well. It involves an authentic replication of the original style and of the author. If Conan Doyle is the target, this usually means writing in the voice of Dr. Watson, harder to do well than you might think – just try it! Many of those who go this route actually create a complex story about a lost manuscript recently unearthed, and they set their work within the timeframe and space (London) of Holmes’s glory years. The problem is that there are only so many plots, and Conan Doyle has already cherry picked most of the best ones. The result is a product which often seems stale, at least to the reader of the Doyle originals. But we must always remember that not every consumer of pastiche is necessarily familiar with the original.

As my comments about film suggest, there are many ways of doing pastiche, some sticking closer to the original than others. One popular strategy is to hijack one of the Holmes characters and turn him/her/them into the major protagonist(s). As I have noted elsewhere in this newsletter, every continuing character in the Conan Doyle canon – even the urchins of the Baker Street Irregulars now has his or her or their own series. Indeed, one of the most appealing recent series takes nothing from the Holmes canon but the address – 221B Baker Street – at which Holmes and Watson are supposed to have resided. Two attorney brothers rent the premises in modern times; their lease includes a stipulation that they answer any mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes. Since any such mail is bound to involve some kind of crime puzzle, the author has a wonderful lead-in into a fresh story. (Author of this series is Michael Robertson; we have most of the titles in stock)

Complicating the whole business of pastiche is the recent emergence of authorized pastiche, as literary estates seek to squeeze the last bit of revenue out of their literary property. The heirs of Steig Larsson—his family, not the common law companion, who according to Swedish law had no rights of inheritance – authorized a Salander sequel, which appeared in 2015. Fortunately, the new author, David Lagercrantz, had the good sense to do the new volume as a pastiche, essentially filling in details in the original three books. It got reasonably good reviews.  (The Girl in the Spider’s Web will be available in tradepaper at the end of April, ($22)) The Christie estate authorized a fairly well-known crime fiction novelist, Sophie Hannah, to continue the adventures of Hercule Poirot. Hannah took a different approach than Lagercrantz, essentially dumping the Belgian detective, full formed, into the middle of one of her own stories. (The Monogram Murders, in stock (tp$18.99. The result little resembled Agatha Christie, and the critics were not at all impressed. Hannah’s effort may not have been sufficiently pastiche-like. In fairness, it is hard to know how to write another author’s sequel. 

It seems unlikely to me that much more can be done with Sherlockian pastiche, but then, you never can tell.