Thursday, September 21, 2017

*The Widow Lerouge, by Émile Gaboriau

9781515097372
CreateSpace, 2015
originally published in serial form, 1863, Le Pays
originally published in novel form, 1866 as L'Affaire Lerouge
(no translator given here)
290 pp

paperback


"...let it be a lesson for the remainder of your life... remember it is useless to try and hide the truth; it always comes to light!" 
                                                                           
This book is yet another entry in this year's reading project involving the history of crime/mystery fiction. I had thought I'd be somewhere in the 1880s by now (since this year was my reading was supposed to have taken me through to 1914) but it seems that the 1860s were a banner decade for mystery and crime writing so I'll be hovering here for a while yet. 


just a tiny bit of history before we get to the mystery:

French crime writer Émile Gaboriau should be much more well known, more widely read in the realm of crime fiction than he actually is by modern crime readers, since he was a prolific author of twelve books and a volume of short stories.    According to Professor Stephen Knight in his Towards Sherlock Holmes: A Thematic History of Crime Fiction in the 19th Century World, Gaboriau also gave readers "the first major police detective in crime fiction."  He goes on to quote Yves Oliver-Martin from his work Histoire du roman populaire en France de 1840 à 1980), who said that Gaboriau's Dectective Lecoq was, in fact,  "the prototype" (56).  While Lecoq makes only a brief, introductory appearance here in L'Affaire Lerouge, he will become involved in four more cases, and even the great Arthur Conan Doyle would bandy his name about in A Study in Scarlet, where he is referred to by Sherlock Holmes as a "miserable bungler."  While Holmes may not have thought much of Lecoq, his creator revealed that Gaboriau's "neat dovetailing of his plot" attracted him to the author, while Daniel Stashower (Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle)  notes various similarities between Holmes and Lecoq (80).   And really, it  takes no time at all once inside of The Widow Lerouge to discover Gaboriau's influence on Conan Doyle's great detective. 


frontispiece from Mémoires de Vidocq

Since coincidences abound in The Widow Lerouge, it seems appropriate here to throw in an interesting real-life coincidence before moving on to the book itself.  Going back for a moment to an earlier post, it seems that in 1862, while Paul Féval was putting together his Jean Diable,  he had taken on Gaboriau as his secretary.  Molly Carr in her book In Search of Dr. Watson notes that while Gaboriau's M. Lecoq was based on the very real Eugene François Vidocq, "a man who began as a thief and then became a high-ranking police official in Paris," a certain "villainous" Lecoq showed up as a character in  Féval's first novel of his seven-book Habits Noirs (Blackcoats) series.  Her idea is that Gaboriau may have 
"quietly appropriated the name for himself, giving it to an upholder of the law rather than to someone who was not." 
 Whether or not that's how things went down, it's still an interesting factoid.


... et maintenant, 
Original title page of L'Affaire Lerouge, from The First One Hundred Years of  Detective Fiction, 1841-1941 
As noted above, L'Affair Lerouge began as a serialization or feuilleton, in Le Pays in 1863.  (For more info on the history of the feuilleton, click here.)  It was published in novel form in 1866 by E. Dentu, and since then it has been translated into a number of languages.  The story begins when, on Shrove Tuesday, March, 1862, "five women belonging to the village of La Jonchere" turn up at the Bougival police station to report that no one had seen their neighbor, the Widow Lerouge,  for two days.  Evidently this "sudden disappearance" was not only out of the ordinary, but it was alarming, since the women were concerned that some sort of crime may have occurred.  Crime is a rarity in Bougival, but the gendarmes went to check it out along with the commissaire. They find the door to the widow's home locked and while waiting for the locksmith to get it open, a young boy hands them the key which he'd found in a ditch.  When they walk in they discover that the place is a mess with furniture that had been "knocked about," and various trunks and drawers had been forced open.  As they go deeper into the house, they discover not only that there's even more of a mess, but that the missing Widow Lerouge is dead, with her face buried in the ashes of the fireplace. Witnesses and neighbors are questioned to discover exactly who this woman was during her lifetime, and then the investigating magistrate, M. Daburon, appears on the scene, along with the chief of detective police Gevrol and his "subordinate," Lecoq. He was
"an old offender, reconciled to the law. A smart fellow in his profession, crafty as a fox, and jealous of his chief, whose abilities he held in light estimation."
It is Lecoq who asks for a certain M. Taberet (nicknamed Tirauclair), who had discovered the truth in an earlier  case for a which an innocent man was found guilty and nearly guillotined.  Taberet is an amateur sleuth, who "goes for playing the detective by way of amusement."  He is, however, widely respected by Lecoq, and so he joins the investigation. As it turns out, his involvement is a good thing, since Gevrol decides to follow one slim lead, leaving Tabaret to continue his "researches" outside of Gevrol's. As he says, "I am, I search, and I find," and it isn't very long until we get a taste of Tabaret's capabilities as an armchair sort of detective. I swear, it's like reading the part of a Holmes story where he dazzles everyone with his observations.   The case will continue until the culprit is discovered, although things change quickly throughout the story, meaning once you think you know the "who," don't be surprised that as circumstances change so will your guess.

I will say that while The Widow Lerouge is a solid mystery story, it's a bit frustrating because there are a number of coincidences that turn things on their heads and that have a bearing on the later parts of the tale. Normally I want to scream when a writer does this, but actually, to my surprise, once I got past my own prejudices on that issue, I realized that it sort of worked here. And  then, there's the ending, which I won't divulge, but suffice it to say that I don't think it was thought out very well at all. I can't say why without spoiling the story, but the "who" started to  become very obvious and I have to find fault with the author for his methodology here. Hopefully he improves in the later books, but in this one, well, it's amateur.    Still, as in most books like this one, for me it's all about the journey, and that was truly great fun.  There's a good story underlying it all, making this book well worth reading.  Perhaps it's time to give those domestic noir novels that are hot right now in the crime world a rest and give something classic a chance instead.

***

ps/find a better version than this one -- I was appalled a) that there was no translator given and b) that there weren't even page numbers!


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

a Maigret triple play: The Carter of La Providence, The Late Monsieur Gallet, and The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, by Georges Simenon

9780141393469
Penguin, 2014
originally published as Le Charretier de la Providence, 1931
translated by David Coward
152 pp
also translated as Lock 14, Maigret Meets a Milord, The Crime at Lock 14
paperback

Sometimes when I've finished a book and have all the relevant information in my head, I can't help but to feel sorry for the villain, and that's certainly the case in this second novel in Simenon's Maigret series. This one is set along France's Canal latéral à la Marne,


from French Waterways
where two kilometers from Dizy stands Lock 14 and the nearby Café de la Marine, where "the rhythm of life ... was slow. " For a few days, life here is interrupted when something strange happens.   A body has been discovered by a carter on waking up and getting his horse ready for the day's work.  As he is moving his hand around under the straw to find his whip, next to where he'd been sleeping, he feels something "cold," and the dead woman is revealed in the light of his lantern. This discovery, we're told, is "about to bring chaos to Dizy and disrupt life on the canal."  And that it does, as Maigret takes the case, beginning with the mystery of how she got there since there was no road, and since anyone who walked there would have found him/herself knee deep in mud.  The woman's shoes are clean and there are no traces of mud on her dress; in fact she's dressed more for a night out on the town. One mystery is cleared up after yacht owner British Sir Walter Lampson identifies her as his wife, but knowing who she is doesn't answer all of Maigret's questions. It has the opposite effect, actually. 

Once again, we find ourselves steeped in atmosphere from the beginning -- rain, gloom, mud and life on the river.  Set against Lampson's yacht, the canal is filled with barges, some motorized, while some, like La Providence depend on horses and their carter to get them through.  And while Maigret follows the details of the case, it will once again be his knowledge of human nature that will solve it.  

this photo  is on the Barrow in England, but you get the idea
The Carter of La Providence is a slow burner, with a number of potential suspects and motives, but as I said, once the case was solved, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the murderer, and I think it would take someone with a heart of stone to feel otherwise.

***



9780141393377
Penguin, 2013
originally published as M. Gallet décédé, 1931
translated by Anthea Bell
155 pp
paperback

"Peace, for heaven's sake, that's what he was waiting for."

Moving on to book number three, The Late Monsieur Gallet is completely different from its two Maigret predecessors, but as in the case of The Carter of La Providence, Simenon managed once again to worm his way under my skin and right into my empathy zone. I am beginning to believe that this man must have been one of the keenest observers of human nature ever, something that becomes quite obvious here as the story unfolds, layer by layer by layer. 

Left pretty much on his own on 27 June 1930, Maigret receives a telegram informing him that a commercial traveler by the name of Émile Gallet was murdered two days earlier at the Hotel de la Loire in Sancerre. His home address was also given, and it's there that Maigret has his first exposure to the dead man in a photo. That picture, along with another photograph of the dead man's son, will come to haunt him over the course of this case, which begins with his premonition that it  "had all the hallmarks of a particularly distasteful investigation."  And as things turn out, he was right. Aside from the photos that will replay in his mind, when Gallet's widow at her home in Saint-Fargeau is told that her husband was killed in Sancerre, she produces a postcard from Rouen dated the day after Gallet was dead, proving in her mind that Maigret is wrong. Accompanying him to Sancerre, Mme. Gallet is annoyed that she's likely off on a wild-goose chase, but changes her tune when indeed it turns out to be her husband.  Then, when Maigret talks to a local inspector, he discovers that whenever the dead man stayed at the Hotel de la Loire, he'd registered as a M. Clément from Orleans.  Thus begins the strangest investigation to date in this series, which will expose much more than a murderer.  

Georges Simenon with Commissaire Marcel Guillame, his inspiration for Maigret, from France Today

When all is said and done, this book turns out to be a bit of a gut-wrenching sort of experience as Simenon basically lays bare some of the ugliness of which humans are capable;  it also, in my opinion, begins to bring out the very human (as opposed to strictly investigator) side of Maigret not yet seen in the two books prior to this one.  That trend continues to grow in the last of the books under scrutiny here, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien,


9780141393452
Penguin, 2014
originally published as Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien, 1931
translated by Linda Coverdale
138 pp


which has also been translated as The Crime of Inspector Maigret, which, incidentally, is the first chapter heading.  Following a "shabby traveller" from France to Bremen, Maigret and his quarry have arrived at the Gare de Neuschanz at the German border, along the northern edge of Holland.  There, the man sets down his cheap suitcase, leaving it alone for two minutes. During his absence, Maigret swaps it with an exact replica that he'd picked up earlier, and the two men board the train for Bremen. He tails the man as he buys two sausage rolls (small detail but it bugs Maigret throughout the story) and then makes his way into a "poorer neighborhood," where he takes a room in a "seedy-looking" hotel.  Maigret, of course, is in a connecting room, where he puts his eye to the keyhole and watches as the man opens his suitcase, realizes that the contents are missing and goes into panic mode; he also follows as the distraught man makes his way back to the station to check for his lost bag. At around midnight, the two return to the hotel where Maigret once again peers through the keyhole, only to see the poor man put a gun in his mouth and shoot himself.  As the local police arrive, Maigret informs them that it is suicide, that the man's French, and that he would like their permission to investigate privately while they do so officially.  Maigret returns to Paris, where he 
"...was not far from -- indeed quite close to -- thinking that he had just killed a man."
And to top it all off, it was
"A man he didn't know! He knew nothing about him! There was no proof whatsoever that he was wanted by the law."
This is the point where the story begins, going back first to Brussels where it all began a day earlier,  then moving ahead as Maigret tries to find out exactly why  Louis Jeunet would take his own life. His investigation takes him into the past and into a dark secret that people will kill for rather than have it come to light.

The notions of guilt and justice are writ large throughout this novel, and  I can't help but feel that Maigret's involvement -- his need to see the case through to its end -- after Jeunet's suicide is his own way of trying to assuage the guilt he feels over his role in the man's death. However, that's just one facet of the role guilt plays in this novel.  As for justice, well, that becomes obvious along the way  and once again, as in M. Gallet, Maigret's understanding of human nature and his ability to move away from the job and into his conscience serves him well here as he has to make a decision that could change a number of lives.

It would be a grave mistake to read the Maigret novels as just another set of police procedurals or to think that Simenon is the male equivalent of Agatha Christie.  No.  These books move straight to the heart of human nature, and as I said earlier, Simenon is a master of observation.  I have seventy-one novels to go and by god I'm going to read them all.




Monday, September 4, 2017

back to the present with A Nest of Vipers, by Andrea Camilleri

9780143126652
Penguin, 2017
originally written in 2013 as Un covo di vipere
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
261 pp

paperback

"... it was one thing to send the killer of a good man to jail, and it was something else entirely to put away someone who had killed a stinking scoundrel."  -- 43

Here we are at book 21 -- I don't believe that I've ever stuck with a single crime series for this long, but anyone who's even read one of my Camilleri posts knows what a fangirl I am for the escapades of Salvo Montalbano and his colleagues.  According to stopyourekillingme.com there are only three more books left to be translated/published as of 2016, and it will seriously be the end of an era for yours truly when the last one is released. As for this one, the title is beyond appropriate and although I won't say why or how, it moves into a zone of darkness in which  Camilleri found himself  lacking  "courage" enough to fully explore at one time in his writing career.  I don't mean to be intentionally cryptic, but once you read this novel, you'll understand.


The Dream, by Henri Rousseau, from MOMA

Those dream sequences that have been used by Camilleri to open these books for the last several years are not just throwaways -- they will, in time, come back around to have something to do with the actual plot. That is very much the case here as Montalbano becomes involved in the case of the murdered Cosimo Barletta, a wealthy widower who was found dead in his seaside home.  With very little to go on except for some strands of hair, the police start looking into Barletta's background and discover that he had not only, as the cover blurb notes, "a history full of greed and corruption" including loan sharking, but also a rather sadistic hobby involving a number of young women, any of whom may have had a motive to kill him.  That's about all I give away about plot and even that can be found from the cover description, but the story, as I said, reveals a darker side that just might start twisting your guts as it starts winding down to a solution.

Normally I would have nothing but praise for one of Camilleri's novels, but this time around I think that Camilleri didn't go his normal distance.  To be sure, the things I enjoy about this series are still here -- the camaraderie between Salvo and his colleagues, the jokes built around the prosecutor and the doctor, the lovely feel of this little slice of Sicily and Salvo himself -- but despite the somewhat horrific story which unfolds, this is definitely not up there with the author's best books in the series. First of all, I cottoned on to what was going on long before Salvo figured it out which is never good; second, there's the introduction of a somewhat enigmatic character whose purpose isn't quite clear until the end, where he provides a sort of verbal  deus ex machina (that I won't discuss) that gives Salvo a bit of  a nudge in the right direction.  Considering that Camilleri had actually written (but not published) this novel in 2008 after writing The Potter's Field (2007) which later won him the International Dagger Award,  well, it could have been a much stronger book than it actually turned out to be. 

Still, as I said, once I became aware of where this story was headed, my stomach was churning, so it did provoke a strong reaction; I was also quite impressed by one of the main themes in this book in which Montalbano spends time pondering,  as the back-cover blurb and  the quotation with which I opened this post reveals,  "where justice lies," and in this case, readers are left with an outright serious conundrum. And now that I'm actually thinking about it, the way in which Camilleri sets up the question within the titular "nest of vipers" is very nicely done. It's too bad I can't explain this thought in more detail  but careful readers will understand.  

 I am pretty much unyielding (okay, downright persnickety)  about reading books in series order, so my advice is to not let A Nest of Vipers become your starting point in this series -- each book builds on the previous so you'll miss way too much if you don't read them in order.  And while it may not be Camilleri's  best, this book is still well worth reading, especially for die-hard fans of the series among whom I count myself. 


crime fiction from Italy


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

*the first modern detective novel? John Devil, by Paul Féval

1932983155
Black Coat Press, 2004
translated by Brian Stableford
originally serialized 1862
originally published in 1863 as Jean Diable
645 pp

paperback



Just recently I finished Charles Warren Adams'  The Notting-Hill Mystery which a number of very smart people have claimed as the first detective novel.   However, there's another contender, and that's this book, Jean Diable, translated into English as John Devil.  If you read this interview with Professor Paul Collins at NPR, he states very clearly that The Notting-Hill Mystery was first published in book form in 1865 (although serialized from 1862-1863),  and yet, Jean Diable came into book form in 1863 after being serialized in 1862.  So technically, if one counts the serialization, it could be a toss up between the two of these books as to which one actually wins the title.  However, I think that looking at it from translator Brian Stableford's point of view (with which I happen to agree), he says that
"most remarkable thing about Jean Diable is that, although it includes and makes much of the character of the detective, it is not a 'detective story' at all, in the sense to which we have become accustomed." (7)
He's absolutely right here -- in this book, the focus is much more on the criminal genius who is John Devil rather than on the detective who spends his career trying to bring him to justice.  Truth be told, it doesn't really matter to me in the long run whether or not this might be the first detective novel,  but I couldn't pass up this book as part of this year's ongoing look at the history of crime fiction/mystery.

Anyone wanting to know more about Paul Féval will find bio and other information here, in an article by Robin Walz in Journal of The Western Society for French History.  Something important to consider is that  Féval's  Habits Noirs (Black Coats) series, as Walz notes,
"had a profound influence upon the subsequent development of the French roman policier"; 
and Féval also made a huge impression on Emile Gaboriau, whose L'Affaire Lerouge would be published in 1866.  Look for that book to make its way onto these pages here very shortly.  Stableford has also included quite a lengthy section about the author, as well as comments about some of his other books, which thankfully are coming back into print thanks to Mr. Stableford and Black Coat Press.

Okay, so now to the book, about which I'm not going to say much, because a) reading it is an experience in itself and b) it's so convoluted at times with backstories, deceptions, a villainous plot bordering on "techno-thriller" and most definitely conspiracy fiction, and a rather huge cast of characters that I couldn't really explain it anyway.  Basically, it's like this:  John Devil is truly one of the most evil crime geniuses ever to grace the pages of fiction, and no matter what he does or what he's responsible for throughout this story, he remains virtually untouchable.  He is the nemesis of Chief Superintendent of Scotland Yard Gregory Temple, who has spent his entire career trying to bring him down  to absolutely no avail, and whose single-minded quest pushes him past the brink of madness.

This isn't a casual mystery/crime novel in any sense of the word -- it can become so  complicated in fact, that by the end of the novel I was beyond grateful to Stableford for the afterword that not only explains things, but puts it all in perspective as well.  However, once I got a feel for how this book works, I had to finish it come hell or high water, and at times I didn't know whether to loathe this master of crime or to cheer him on for being so deliciously diabolic.  In the end though, I felt so badly for Temple that I ended up siding with him against his monstrous foe.  It's such a gripping story that it will lock onto your brain not too far in, and you'll be amazed at just how much capacity one man can have for sheer evil and even more, how he manages to draw others into a web of complicity.

Again, this is probably a niche read that will appeal mainly to old-pulp fiction readers, as well as those who may be interested in the history of crime fiction or in French crime fiction of yesteryear.  For me, it's a win, although I will say it took me a while to feel completely immersed in the story. Once I was there, though, there was no getting out until it was all over and I could stop holding my breath.

I loved this book, and more of Féval's work is on its way to my house where it will be given a place of honor on my home library shelves.








Sunday, August 20, 2017

Penance, by Kanae Minato: definitely not for the faint hearted

9780376349154
Mullholland, 2017
originally published 2012 as Shokuzai (贖罪)
translated by Philip Gabriel
227 pp

paperback


"Otherwise, you'd get revenge."
                                     -- 157

One day five little girls who formed a circle of friends went out to play, but only four returned home.  According to the back-cover blurb, Emily ends up dead at the hands of an unknown assailant after the other girls are "tricked" into leaving her alone with him. Emily's case would go unsolved over the next fifteen years, which, coincidentally, as we learn from the translator's note at the beginning of the book, was the amount of time (before 2010)  allotted for the statute of limitations in the case of murder.  

One might guess from what I've just written that the focus of this book would be on finding the murderer and solving the old case before the fifteen years are up, but that's not quite how this story works.  Three years after Emily was killed, her mother invites the other four girls  -- Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuka (all now thirteen) to her home for cake, but it isn't a social occasion: she lets them know unequivocally that it is their fault her daughter is dead, that they are "all murderers," and gives them an ultimatum:

"I will never forgive you, unless you find the murderer before the statute of limitations is up. If you can't do that, then atone for what you've done, in a way I'll accept.  If you don't do either one, I'm telling you here and now -- I will have revenge on each and every one of you. I have far more money and power than your parents, and I'll make you suffer far worse than Emily ever did. I'm her parent, and I'm the only one who has that right." (71)

 Sheesh - it's a terrible enough burden to lay on four young girls, and it's one which has stayed with each of them for fifteen years, affecting each one differently as they grew into women.   The novel is composed of five first-person  accounts from all of the main characters, and examines how the murder and then the "curse" (so-called by the back-cover blurb) put on them by Emily's mother has followed them over the years.   All I will say so as not to ruin the story that unfolds here is that what emerges from each narrative is dark moving to darker as the author delves deep into each person's troubled psyche.

The question to keep in mind (in my opinion) while reading is not exactly one of whodunit, but more to the point, it becomes a matter of who is actually responsible for Emily's death.   In that sense there is a sort of tragic irony underpinning the novel which brings it back full circle to where it begins. I'll let others discover how this is so, but in the meantime, Penance is deeply disturbing on many, many levels so reader beware.

Penance is neither for faint-hearted readers, nor is it a novel for those who prefer happy endings.  It goes well beyond a standard crime novel, moving swiftly into psychological territory, where some readers may not wish to find themselves.   Trust me on that one.


crime fiction from Japan


Saturday, August 19, 2017

diabolical craziness: *The Notting Hill Mystery, by Charles Warren Adams

9781464204807
Poisoned Pen Press, in association with the British Library, 2015
originally serialized 1862-1863; originally published 1865
176 pp

paperback

Good grief -- this book might possibly win the award for most convoluted murder mystery I've ever read, but it's definitely fun.

The Notting Hill Mystery was first serialized in 1862 in the magazine Once A Week, with authorship attributed to a Charles Felix.  In the introduction to this edition from Poisoned Pen Press, Mike Ashley reveals that while Charles Felix had written an earlier novel in 1864, it wasn't until 2011 that his true identity was revealed.  As "bibliophile" Paul Collins notes in a New York Times Sunday Book Review article from January 7, 2011, it wasn't an easy job:
"After months of investigating with the dogged tenacity of Ralph Henderson pursuing Baron R**, I was no closer than Symons in discovering the solution. Even an 1868 “Handbook of Fictitious Names” didn’t help: Felix is listed, but next to his pseudonym is nothing but a mockingly empty pair of brackets. More mysteriously, correspondence with the man is entirely missing from the archive of Saunders, Otley & Company, his book publisher."
Collins stuck with his quest and eventually his dogged determination was rewarded when just at the point of giving up, he "...stumbled upon a Literary Gossip column in The Manchester Times for May 14, 1864," where "the sole identification of Charles Felix had lain there for 146 years, hidden" in one sentence:
"It is understood that 'Velvet Lawn,' by Charles Felix, the new novel announced by Messrs. Saunders, Otley & Co., is by Mr. Charles Warren Adams, now the sole representative of that firm."
 The entire story appeared over eight installments into 1863, and was quite popular with readers.  According to Julian Symons in his Bloody Murder, the book was very likely an attempt to "repeat the success of The Woman in White," complete with its own Count Fosco-like villain, but was in "several ways an original work." (51) It is reputedly the first modern English detective novel, and Adams gave it a number of new, innovative twists and ingredients that set it apart from other books featuring detectives that were quite popular at the time.  For one thing, the detective here, Ralph Henderson, has nothing at all to do with the police; instead he is an agent collecting evidence for an insurance company.   For another, the book is filled with elements such as a cryptic fragment of a letter in French, a marriage certificate, statements and depositions from several witnesses, and even a floor plan of a victim's home.  Old hat you may say -- we've certainly seen the likes of those sorts of things in tons of books we've read, but while we take them for granted,  back then these were all new additions to the standard detective stories of the time. There are overlapping layers of narrative that bring with them not only new levels of mystery, but which bring the reader ever closer to the truth of what has actually happened.

The Notting Hill Mystery presents, as I said, a most convoluted murder mystery.  Ralph Henderson is trying to determine the truth behind the death of a woman after her husband had taken out several policies on her life totaling 25,000 pounds.  The novel is his report to the Secretary of the ____ Life Assurance Association, and he lays out two "alternatives" which "present themselves" after careful consideration of the evidence.  He himself, as he says, is unable to decide between the two, so offers his facts "in the form in which they would be laid before counsel."

The murderer's identity here is pretty obvious, as is the method of the main murder  (there are more than one at play here) but that's only a small part of the story given everything else that's going on here.  Mesmerism is a huge element of this story, about which Roger Luckhurst at The British Library website says
"In the 1830s and 1840s, for instance, there was a craze for Mesmerism, in which miraculous medical cures could be affected by manipulating the invisible flows of 'animal magnetism' that passed through and between bodies. The Mesmerist would throw his subject into a trance, allowing the passage of energy into the weaker body of his patient, as if literally recharging their battery."
 But wait, there's more.  This twisted knot of a novel also includes twin sisters who have an abnormal "sympathy" -- an ability to psychically feel the other's pain -- who are separated as small children when one is stolen by Gypsies.  Then there's the Baron R**, the authority on Mesmerism who just happens to be on hand to take care of the remaining and now-married sister in her adult life, as she is rather sickly.  There's also the Baron's wife, a medium who has wide feet from her career as a tightrope walker, and really, so much more is going on here that all contributes to the "convoluted" story that takes place in this short but fun novel.

I could go on but the fun is in uncovering the diabolical craziness at work here. As Symons says, the methodology underlying the murder may seem "preposterous to us," but it "seemed much less ridiculous to the Victorians," a hugely important point to consider while reading this novel.  I actually chuckled a number of  times while reading this book, but at the same time, I was completely engrossed and couldn't wait to see Henderson's conclusions at the end.  It's that kind of book, really -- as silly as it may seem, I just couldn't help myself turning pages while wondering if the murderer would actually be caught and if so, if he could even be prosecuted.

It's also an important milestone in the history of detection novels, written well before Sherlock first made an appearance in print. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the history of crime writing/crime fiction, and also to anyone who loves discovering something quite off the beaten path.  Even though it might make you groan inwardly here and there or do the inner eyeroll at places, I just loved it.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Pietr the Latvian, by Georges Simenon -- the very first Maigret novel and it's a good one.

9780141392738
Penguin Classics, 2013
first published in serial as Pietr-le-Letton, 1930
translated by David Bellos
162 pp

paperback

"Inside every wrong-doer and crook there lives a human being."

Due to the nature of his job, my husband travels a lot, and that's the time I watch foreign television.  Normally at my house TV comes on about 7:30 pm and goes off about 10:30, but when the spouse is away, viewing time has been known to start much earlier and sometimes last until the sun comes up the next day.  Over the last few weeks of his intermittently being gone, I've slowly been watching the French-language production of Maigret on MHz, starring Bruno Cremer in the title role; on  arriving at season two, I decided that I really need to read these books.

I'm no stranger to Simenon's work, but the Maigret books have just been sitting here gathering dust for eons. Most of them are the old Penguin versions from way back when, but I'm slowly replacing those with the Penguin Classics editions for my home library.  


Bruno Cremer, who in my opinion is Maigret


Pietr the Latvian is the first of several (and I do mean several) books in this series, written over forty-plus years of Simenon's life.  As the novel opens, the Detective Chief Inspector has learned that an internationally-known, "Extremely clever and dangerous" criminal known as Pietr the Latvian is on his way to Paris on board the Étoile du Nord.  At the station as the passengers begin to depart, Maigret lies eyes on his quarry, whose physical traits he's memorized carefully.  At that moment, there's a flurry of excitement, and it turns out that there's been a body found  in Carriage 5 of the train. To Maigret's surprise, the body turns out to be that of  the man Maigret's been waiting for -- none other than Pietr the Latvian.  Or is it?   This is where the case begins, one that will become even more enigmatic before it is solved.

It's here that we begin to understand Maigret and his methods.  He is relentless to a fault as he dogs his quarry through the streets of Paris in the pouring rain, and he employs all the current tools of the profession.  But there's more to police methodology at play here -- Maigret also uses his head.  He's developed what he calls his "theory of the crack in the wall:"
"Inside every wrong-doer and crook there lives a human being. In addition, of course, there is an opponent in a game, and it's the player that the police are inclined to see. As a rule, that's what they go after." 
But Maigret has learned to bide his time, because
"...what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent."
In this case, that patience and particular ability will serve him well, but along the way to that "instant" he will undergo a lot of inner turmoil as things get to the point where it becomes, as Maigret says, "between them and me."

While being an armchair detective is fun here because of the puzzler Simenon gives us, more importantly my attention was drawn to the final chapters where all is unraveled.  Even then, it's not so much the solution -- instead I noticed that what comes out of these last few pages is the very stuff of his excellent romans durs, in which, as John Banville noted in the New York Review of Books in 2015:
"... a man who has spent his life in servitude to family, work, society, suddenly lays down his burden -- 'Lord, how tired he was now!' -- and determines to live for the moment, and for himself, in full acceptance of the existential peril his decision will expose him to."
What that "existential peril" is in this book I won't say.  However, while many readers may see Pietr the Latvian, or for that matter any of the Maigret mysteries as yet just another police procedural, it goes well beyond that into examining just what it is underneath someone's exterior self that leads him or her to do what they do. In short -- I get the feeling that as I travel through the Maigret mysteries, I'll find myself in the mind of a policeman  who genuinely understands human nature, and that's a place I want to be.

Once again, anyone considering reading this book should be aware of the times in which this book was written because there is some definite racial/ethnic stereotyping being done here, but I can definitely recommend the novel to crime readers of all sorts.



crime fiction from Belgium