Is it possible? Has crime fiction finally become – dare one say it? — respectable? The recent loss to the genre of uncrowned queen PD James was a reminder that certain novelists (such as the Baroness) had brought literary values to the field, notably psychological acuity and elegant writing, but it’s a constant complaint of disgruntled crime writers that their efforts are regarded (at best) as mere entertainment, or (at worst) as cynical exercises exploiting the darkest aspects of human nature. There is, however, one strand of the criminous discipline that is granted, whether rightly or wrongly, a certain cachet: crime writing in a foreign language, translated by one of the new breed of A-list translators. Such as, for instance, the new novel by écrivain français Antonin Varenne, here the recipient of a typically incisive rendering into English by Frank Wynne, who customarily lends an aspect of his own writing personality to his subjects — something, in fact, for which they should be grateful.

Varenne’s prize-winning Bed of Nails (2012) was something unusual, a book shot through with a truly idiosyncratic vision, while also being (refreshingly, in an increasingly bloated genre) a book that was exactly as long as it needed to be. That book’s radical shaking-up of the detective story narrative resulted in something both provocative and disturbing.

The new book, Loser’s Corner, is, if anything, even more grittily impressive, with Varenne utilising the experiences of his own father in the French-Algerian war. George ‘The Wall’ Crozat is a boxer with an impressive tally of knockout wins, but he has not parlayed his success into financial security, and is scrabbling around for money. He opts for a radical career change, working as a policeman, but his real concern is an obsessive sampling of the wares of a variety of prostitutes. Then a bouncer makes him a murky offer he is unable to decline – one that will channel his former professional skills, and which will also be a way (as he sees it) of self-recompense for being ‘a punchbag to everyone in the city for the past thirty years’. But the luckless Crozat is soon knee-deep in a nasty and violent web of intrigue with tendrils that extend into France’s murky colonial past.

Like its predecessor, this is uncompromising fare reminiscent in tone of the bleak Gallic nihilism to be found in such dark television shows as Braquo. And apart from the authoritative storytelling, there is the added value of the socio-political elements woven into the narrative. And these elements are not there simply to give a specious respectability to a brutal tale — they are part of its warp and weft. This is another forceful entry from M. Varenne.

Loser’s Corner

by Antonin Varenne, translated by Frank Wynne

MacLehose Press, £18.99

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