This is not a crime novel in the usual sense, more Raskolnikov meets petty-bourgeois France, therefore focussed on one character, with almost everything seen from his point of view. That Lemaitre manages to keep the plot going, the suspense high, and the reader’s views of his unfortunate protagonist somehow sympathetic, is a tour de force of what good writing can do with good plotting. Frank Wynne’s excellent translation never calls attention to itself. So tightly designed is this book that I have to stop here, because any nod or wink from me would do damage to the experience of reading this circumscribed and heart-breaking world.
Fred Vargas, The Accordionist, trans. Siân Reynolds, Harvill Secker
In the first part of her career, Fred Vargas invented two investigators, Louis Kehlweiler and the now-more-familiar Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Sans feu ni lieu (basically, ‘homeless’) was published in 1997, and seems to have been the last of the series ‘The Three Evangelists’ (though there is a graphic novel collaboration, but it remains in French). In these three books the central figure is a former detective, former member of the Ministry of the Interior, now retired, or, really, sacked for reasons unclear. He has an unusual pet, a toad, who sometimes travels with him in a pocket (this is Fred Vargas, remember, whose eccentricities are part of her DNA). Additionally, he knows another ‘retired’ cop, who shares a house with three young men in what was, in the nineties, still a rundown area near Bastille. The jobless young are Marc, the medievalist struggling to finish his thesis; Mathias, an archaeologist and pre-historian; and Lucien, a Great War historian, also struggling with his thesis (I’ll come back to him). Additionally, there’s a former hooker, Marthe, who had a role in the second book of the series, translated into English by Reynolds, as Dog will have its Day. (Oh, yes, the murderer is allowed a voice.) In addition to the trademark eccentricities, both series have jokes here and there. I’ll just mention that Vargas herself is an anthropological archaeologist who works in the CNRS (National Scientific Research Centre) and that Lucien is modelled on Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, now a renowned Great War historian who co-directs a Great War research centre. And he reappears in the bibliography of a 2016 CWA International Dagger-winning novel by Pierre Lemaitre, The Great Swindle. The missing fact in this picture is that ‘Vargas’ is a pseudonym, and Audoin-Rouzeau is her real name.
The accordionist is a new character, a sad, odd-looking man from Nevers, befriended a long time ago by Marthe, who saw that this despised simpleton was neglected by his parents and tormented at school because of his limitations. She taught him to read, to have manners, and to speak so people can understand him. He found a job as a gardener at a school, and when the school closed and all the gardeners were sacked, he learned to play the accordion, wandering from café to cafe. Now he is on the run after a series of murders and is the only suspect the police are looking at. He searches through Paris for Marthe, and, when he finds her, she calls upon Kehlweiler to help them and he hides them with the Evangelists. It is a given that he isn’t the murderer, of course, but finding who is requires a great deal of legwork, not to mention driving up and down to Burgundy. One by one the other possible suspects fall by the wayside, or appear to fall by the wayside.
On the last occasion we met the Evangelists, they were younger and more in awe of Kehlweiler. This time they take their own path when Kehlweiler dismisses Mathias’s brilliant realisation that the names of the streets where the women were murdered correspond to a poem, a poem which the killer could have read on the Metro—like ‘poems on the underground’ in London. This recognition spurs them to take their own steps. Should anyone be interested in the poetry of Gérard de Nerval, here’s a link: https://www.etudes-litteraires.com/nerval-desdichado.php. Additionally for the curious, that page is an instruction for school children doing the famous Baccalauréat. You can see why the unfortunate Clément found school terribly difficult, not to mention showing how the law of unintended consequences explains why so many children hate poetry.
Pierre Lemaitre, Three Days and a Life, tr. Frank Wynne Maclehose Press
Hard to read for a variety of reasons, Lemaitre’s tough, ironic stories require of the reader girded loins and an ability to deal with a variety of mischance, bad luck (not quite the same thing), descriptions of horrible violence, and breath-stopping twists. I started to read this a first time and had to put it down and go for a walk. You have been warned.
It is 1999, and twelve-year-old Antoine is building a tree house in deep woods, followed by Remi, an adoring six-year-old who lives quite close to him in a quiet village. The first violent act comes from Remi’s father shooting the family’s old dog to put it out of its misery (and his own). The second is an accident, the repercussions of which will shadow Antoine for years to come, spoiling his days, his ability to love, his career as a doctor, his relations with his mother, with the woman he thought would share his life, the doctor who cares for him, and a nymphomaniac who blights his present and future. Is that enough? I ask because there’s more, above all what has become of his precious watch?