Dominique Manotti, Racket (Equinox, Les Arenes) In French, the title is in English, meaning ‘a criminal racket’ as slang common to, for example, schools where older pupils dominate and bully younger ones, stealing their lunch, or their books, but more commonly their money; the customs of playgrounds are regularly broken, as indeed they are in the business world. Like Fred Vargas, Dominique Manotti uses an androgynous pseudonym for her excoriating examinations of French corruption throughout public services, including the police and numerous regulators: for pocket money read ‘millions’, for appetite read ‘extravagance’, but, above all, read sex and cocaine. Manotti has had excellent translators, (Roz Schwartz and Amanda Hopkins) so there’s no problem about dealing with slang, street speech, or the vulgarity of corrupt Mandarins. She has also written a small number of short stories which lean more to the amusing than to the serious (Maxim Jakubowski included one of them in his Paris Noir). Racket, like her Lorraine Connection, creates a world in which there are many kinds of vulnerability, and the suited vulnerable are subject to manipulation and dismissal. They have no value. They are not all that different from the factory workers in Lorraine Connection, who have no recourse when their subsidised factory, currently run by Koreans, is to be shut down, and no protection from contract killers if there’s a reason to silence the labour unions. She is of the hard-boiled left political persuasion, and very good at what she does.
Manotti has always been a militant, and she uses top scandals in her books, including Lorraine Connection (my own favourite) and Racket, where targets include short selling and insider trading in Europe and in the U.S., as if Guardian investigative journalists had found a long series of mother lodes. Some of her earlier books remain untranslated. Racket has missing bodies, deadly female assassins, broken laws, and more than a little offshore money-laundering. There’s everything you’d want, perhaps, in this kind of thriller. In this one, the important central cop is a beure, Noria Ghozali, (North African descent, first or second generation born in France) who has appeared in several earlier novels. At this point she has hit the glass ceiling which pervades public service, but she has a mentor who encourages and protects, Daquin, who helped her from the start. (I should say here that I thought I remembered that she killed him off, but who am I to worry about fiction?) Unlike much French crime fiction, she writes women well.
Now, the big question. Given how quickly good crime fiction appears in French, why are Manotti’s books translated so slowly into English? She’s a stylish writer, after all. It’s true that in the coming generation there are now female cops at the centre, as with Olivier Truc’s impressive Forty Days without Shadow (the French original was Le Dernier Lapon–so ‘the last Lap’ didn’t work so well). Manotti’s women are not all victims, not like some of Pierre Lemaitre’s palette of characters.
The novel thus becomes a study of mixed-religion marriage and its echoing reverberations, but it is more than that: Dhand is using crime fiction to do what it does so well: give a picture of a place and its residents, now. Harry has to go to his older brother for help, of a kind he really doesn’t want to do, which puts him deeply in his brother’s dept. So the book finishes with deaths here and cliff-hangers there, which I am not going to reveal. Readers won’t need a glossary, and they will learn about the complex cultures of Britain’s biggest city of immigrants and how change can come. Unfortunately, we don’t get the tea recipe that Harry’s mother teaches her daughter-in-law to prepare. The women are moving faster than their men.
Abir Mukherjee, Smoke and Ashes, Harvill/Secker, Vintage Abir Mukherjee’s first novel, A Rising Man, was both a police procedural and a historical novel, part of a recent trend in finding in both the Great War and post-war decades places an author can find a home. Because he was interested in that period, when Calcutta was more or less the capital of India and its related areas (Nepal, supplier of Gurkhas), he found himself deep in colonial history, including the Imperial Police. His main character, Capt. Sam Wyndham, is assisted (or, indeed, led by) his native sergeant, Surendranath Banerjee (Surrender-not to his colleagues). Wyndham, badly wounded in the trenches, has been deployed to India by his chief from the War, Lord Taggart. Nobody knows that in the course of his hospitalisation he became addicted to opium. There isn’t a huge distance between James McClure’s multi-lingual, highly educated, Bantu Sergeant Zondi and his own superior officer, Lieutenant Tromp Kramer. Abir Mukherjee’s highly educated Surrender-not (Harrow and Cambridge) has his own problems, but in this third novel, those problems turn out to be solutions.
It is 1921, and Gandhi’s non-violent movement is well under way. Surendrath (Suren to his family and friends) finds himself between a rock and a hard place as he tries to negotiate between the devotion of Gandhi’s followers of burning cloth and going to gaol. Is he Indian, Bengali, Brahmin, or just one more public school boy? A jolt to both Sam and Surendranath shocks them both: could Englishmen really experiment on young soldiers of the crown with chemical weapons? Faced with a terrible deadline, the two men do what they can to protect the more-or-less hopeless Prince of Wales, Edward VIII, putting the non-violent crowd at risk. And Sam finally faces up to the necessity to put himself in a clinic where he can fight his addiction.