Wednesday, January 11, 2017

... and the first crime novel of 2017 is Death on the Cherwell, by Mavis Doriel Hay

British Library Crime Classics, 2014
originally published 1935
286 pp


This past July I read my first book by Mavis Doriel Hay, who wrote only three crime novels during her short stint as mystery writer.  I have yet to read her The Santa Klaus Murders, the last of her mystery novels, which is still sitting patiently on its shelf waiting for me to pick it up.  And while I wasn't a huge fan of her Murder Underground, I was really into Death on the Cherwell, which was not only fun, but also a story that turned out to be a good mystery with a number of red herrings and many possible suspects. I got it for Christmas this year and as it turned out, it was just the ticket for brain calming after having read more than one too-serious novel over the holidays.

 If you look at readers' thoughts on this book, more than one person has actually compared this book to a Nancy Drew story.  The truth is though that the only similarity between Death on the Cherwell and Nancy Drew is that a group of young women friends do a bit of sleuthing after a murder -- Voilà,, c'est tout. The comparison is just not right. In fact, in a very un-Nancy Drew sort of way, the book begins with four undergrad girls attending Persephone College, Oxford,  holding a secret meeting on the roof of a nearby boat house.  They've decided to form their own secret society, the Lode League,  the purpose of which is to curse the bursar, the not-much liked Miss Denning.  Just as the group rings are being passed out, along comes what looks to be an empty canoe.  The girls rush to bring it to shore and discover that the canoe is not only not empty, but that it's carrying the body of the very person they formed their League to curse.  Evidently she'd drowned, but as one of the girls, Sally, asks
"How can anyone drown in a canoe?"
Very good question, actually, and one that brings in Scotland Yard to investigate.  In the meantime, though, Miss Cordell, Principal of Persephone College, just dreads the publicity that this death is going to bring to the school -- publicity, as we're told, is her "bugbear:"
"Respectable publicity was bad enough, because newspaper reporters, however carefully instructed, were liable to to break out into some idiocy about 'undergraduettes' or 'academic caps coquettishly set on golden curls'.  But shameful publicity! A death mystery! That was terrible!"
Later, after having been initially questioned by the police, Sally realizes that "There'll be an awful tamasha about this," and decides that the girls should do all they can to "help try to clear up the mystery."  They need to discover the truth about things, "to find it out so that Persephone doesn't look silly."   That's not the only reason that the girls decide to get involved -- their fellow student Draga, a "Yugo-Slav," had already made her feelings about Miss Denning known after the bursar had, as Draga puts it, insulted her. The girls are concerned that if Draga somehow got brought into the investigation, they may have to "cover her tracks," since outsiders don't understand her Yugo-slav temperament. It's a fun little mystery story, and while my choice of suspect turned out to be the killer, it took me a while to figure it out since there are a variety of people with motives to knock off Miss Denning.

Careful readers will note a wide strand of misogyny running throughout this mystery novel.  At one point, for example, a few of the guy pals of our female amateur sleuths are talking, with the main question being that of why "most women get murdered." The answer for one of them is that "Some wretched man gets involved with too many of them and has to remove one or two." Hmmm.  Then, of course, there's one suspect whose family has a long, long history of hating women, and as just one final example (although there are many),  is that we are told in no uncertain terms that Cambridge in the 1930s has yet to offer real degrees for women students.

It's a good read, very easy to get through, and I had a much better time with this book than I did with the author's first novel.  Even though Hay reprises a couple of characters from Murder Underground, Betty (Sally's sister)  and her husband Cyril, thankfully Cyril's not the same twit here that was he was in that one.  About the only spot where this book starts to get boggy is while the Inspector takes his time to try to pinpoint alibis for all and sundry, but otherwise it flows very nicely. There are even a few comedic spots that brought out a chuckle or two, my favorite centering on the girls' secret late-night surveillance of a property belonging to one of the suspects.  But there's some serious stuff here as well, starting as the book comes down to the big reveal.  Nancy Drew it is definitely NOT and while people are certainly entitled to their opinions, well, that's a bit wide of the mark.

Do not miss Stephen Booth's excellent introduction (but do save it for last)  which puts a nice perspective on Hay's work and that of Dorothy Sayer, whose Gaudy Night was also placed in an academic setting.  While Hay's book isn't quite up to the Gaudy Night level of excellence (my personal favorite of Sayers' Lord Peter books), it's still quite fun and a great way to pass a quiet day. People into vintage crime, those who are following the British Library Crime Classics series, or those who are exploring the work of interwar women mystery writers will definitely find a good book here; it may also work well for cozy readers.  Plus, I love the cover art -- just love it!!

crime fiction from the UK

.... but first, the last book from 2016: The Bone Readers, by Jacob Ross

Peepal Tree Press
270 pp


(read in December)

"My gift was reading bones." 

The Bone Readers is,  according to the back cover, the first book  in Ross' 4-book series the Camaho Quartet, so named for the small Caribbean island where this story takes place.   That's a good thing, and I'll be following this series as it's published.  The Bone Readers isn't your average crime novel, nor is the main character your average policeman, both of which are definite plusses in my book.

The star of this show is Michael Digson, aka "Digger," who, as the story opens, finds himself witness to a crime on the streets of San Andrews on the island of Camaho (think Grenada),  a situation that ultimately (and somewhat reluctantly) lands him a job in the small police department.  The biggest incentive he has for joining is that he would have access to information about his mother, who was killed in 1999.   She was a "servant girl" in the home of Digger's father the Police Commissioner, who got her pregnant; leaving Digger to grow up as his "outside" child. DS Chilman,  who'd "recruited" him hopes to put together a younger team, meant to be part of a "separate office from San Andrews Police Central, with its own staff and resources," a
"squad of men who could navigate the forests and valleys of Camaho blindfolded, with guns at their disposal."
As Chilman says, it is "Because is not nice what I see coming in a coupla years time."

Digger is sent to the UK for training in forensics, and on his return he dives right into several cases. Chilman retires, but before doing so, tasks Digger to look into a cold case involving the disappearance of a young man named Nathan, "the ghost that DS Chilman was chasing," who seems to have simply vanished. While Digger's adjusting to his police-department colleagues, Chilman sends in a woman to help him with the case. Enter Miss K. Stanislaus, a rather unorthodox choice since she's not really a police person, but she knows the people and the island inside out.  The novel follows Digger at first on a few official cases, but the story really focuses on Digger's work on the two cases, that of his mother's death and Nathan's disappearance. But there are forces on the island who don't want the truth revealed, and trying to solve these mysteries will not be easy, especially since a) secrets and lies abound and b) what may seem apparent from the outside of things doesn't always reflect the reality of things.

We love the Caribbean islands, and reading this book took me back there for a while.  For example, the description of the little rumshops (sort of ramshackle bars) there was one in particular
"a one-room shed with a single fly-spotted bulb dangling from the centre of the ceiling. The three wooden benches against the wall looked as if they were built by drunks. The wall itself served as a back rest,"
that brought me back to the many "rumshops" we visited on each island -- they are really as he describes them and I could just taste the Puncheon rum we drank in one or two of them  in Port of Spain, Trinidad.  At the same time,  it's not just the physical setting that is impressively and realistically  evoked here -- Ross also takes us behind the scenes, if you will,  to look at how things work politically, socially, and even at the family level on this island, and does so in a way that blends in nicely with Digger's investigations.  One more thing: that the two cold cases are the biggest draw for Digger is interesting, since it allows the author to hone in on a close-up look at victimization, loss, and grief, all of which permeate this story.  Keep your eyes on the women here -- they are the strongest characters in the entire novel.  Major applause.

Moving on to what many readers have had to say about this book, it seems that more than a few had issues with the accents of the characters.  It does take a little time to get into the rhythm of the language Ross uses here, but it soon gets to the point where it just starts being natural. What this novel has that a lot of books coming off the bigger presses at the moment do not is depth, a keen understanding of behavior and human nature, and frankly, an original story/plot that will hold a reader's attention right up until the very end. Then again, I've come to expect very good things from Peepal Tree Press, which specializes in Caribbean fiction as well as "Black British fiction," as noted on the back cover.  There is no question -- I'll be adding each book in this series to my library as it's published.  Definitely a book I can recommend, especially for people looking for something completely different.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

2017 book-reading happiness, at least for me: traveling back through time once again

from The Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington

2017 is going to be a fun year for me, at least in terms of reading crime fiction.  In and around current crime novels, and books that have been sitting on my shelves for ages, the big focus this year is on crime fiction/mysteries written up to the beginning of World War I. I'll be including a few crime-fiction precursors here and there, for example, gothic novels, sensation novels, penny dreadfuls, and then move on to full-blown mystery and detective fiction.  I've been scouring all kinds of resources to come up with a list of titles that, in addition to the majority of novels that have been written by male authors, includes early women writers, translated early crime novels, African-American writers, and other diverse authors who contributed to the genre up to the onset of  World War I. There's absolutely no way I can hit every single book, but I'm very happy with my choices so far.

Sit back, relax, and feel free to suggest titles.  And if anyone's tbr pile happens to increase from my reading choices this year, well, then, I'm delighted.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson

"All I can do is wait until I split. Right down the middle."
                                                                --- 119

The Killer Inside Me is one of those novels that needs no introduction at all -- it is and will always be a classic of American noir fiction, it's been made into two movies (1976 and 2010), and chances are that if you haven't read the novel you've at least seen the film. Or, if you're really fainthearted, you've experienced neither, since both book and movie are dark, disturbing, and well past the point of unsettling. It's also one of those books that has been studied left and right, inside and out, and has even been the subject of a number of dissertations.  So the question remains what is left to the bring to the table about this book.  The answer - not much.

Lou Ford, of course, is a psychopath -- and as in many existentialist crime novels the reader finds him/herself seeing things from inside the mind of a sadistic and brutal killer. He, like Nick Corey, his counterpart in Thompson's Pop. 1280, hides behind a badge to do his dirty work, has nothing but contempt for the locals, and manipulates things so that outwardly, no one would believe he'd be capable of  violence or any sort of abnormality.  His deceased dad knew what sort of person Lou really was, but to the the rest of the town, he's perfectly normal.  Ford knows he's not normal and doesn't mind sharing his insanity with the rest of us  -- for one thing, he's got his own psychopathology figured out through his reading of medical and psychological texts-- and he also realizes that his habit of barraging people with clichés until they squirm, that the zippy little phrases he throws out are his substitute for the violence associated with his "sickness" that he says he's been able to keep buried.  We follow him down a trail of manipulation, violence, and revenge  as he begins to unravel -- slowly at first, then in a very big way, starting with the day his boss tells him that he needs to go out to pay an official call on local prostitute Joyce Lakeland, which, he tells us, is the catalyst for the return of his "sickness."

While this book is extremely difficult to read because of the sadistic, misogynistic violence (yes, I know ... a thing I generally try to avoid but I had to read this book -- it's a classic); it's trying to untangle what's in Ford's mind that is really the draw for me.  He may be one of the most unreliable narrators ever -- if you read carefully, there is a lot here that simply doesn't gel, and the way that Thompson has set up this book,  you have to take into account that Lou knows he has an audience in us, the readers.  Think about this too: this novel is Lou's confession, if you will, his way of trying to make us understand the logic behind his actions, laying out his plans ahead of time for our perusal, and revealing just how he is able to fool people so easily -- until he can't any more. So the question is this: is he really a victim of his "sickness," or does he just plain enjoy killing in the most brutal, sadistic ways possible?   He is, in cliché speak, the ultimate wolf in sheep's clothing.

There's much, much  more in this novel of course, but going through everything I discovered in this book would take forever.  As I said earlier, this novel has been scrutinized, studied, written about academically and otherwise, so there are a number of places to dig out more about it.  It's up there among books that made me want to take a shower after reading it, but it's so damn good I just couldn't stop.  And that sort of scares me, actually.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Strangers in the House, by Georges Simenon

NYRB Classics, 2006
originally published 1940 as Les inconnus dans la maison
translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury
194 pp


I'm somewhat reluctant to post about The Strangers in the House as a crime novel per se, because really, the crime that occurs and its aftermath is actually sort of the catalyst that sparks a man into action here.  It is another of Simenon's romans durs, and if anyone wants to know where the departure point between his commercial novels (think Maigret) and his "hard novels" lies, we can turn to Simenon himself for the answer. In 2012, Open Letters Monthly ran an article noting that
"the difference between the two ... was 'Exactly the same difference that exists between the painting of a painter and the sketch he will make for his pleasure or for his friends to study something.' " 
He  romans durs, he says, he didn't see as "commercial in nature," and he "felt no need to make concessions to morality or popular taste."  When he was writing one of his "commercial" novels, as he told the Paris Review in 1955, he "didn't think about that novel except in the hours of writing it," whereas with the romans durs, as he said,
"I don't see anybody, I don't speak to anybody, I don't take a phone call -- I just live like a monk. All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels."
Most crime readers are very much into plot but in these novels, it's more the psychological/existentialist  aspects of the characters that takes center stage, and unless I'm at a point where I need fluff,  that, of course, is the draw for me as a reader no matter which genre I read.  The Strangers in the House highlights this distinction -- the story opens with a crime, there is an arrest, a trial and an aftermath, but it centers on lawyer Hector Loursat, 48, who for about 18 years after his wife had left him, has been living as a rather lethargic recluse in a small French town with his daughter Nicole, now 20.  And while a number of his acquaintances had over the years  invited him out for dinner or bridge, he remained alone, preferring his own company. His cousin told him that he couldn't possibly spend the rest of his life as a "hermit," but Loursat disagrees, and from then on
"He proceeded to prove that he could, and he had kept it up for eighteen years, eighteen years during which he had needed neither a wife, nor a mistress, nor a friend."
He and his daughter have been virtual strangers her entire life, with Nicole's upbringing having been put into the hands of one of the "domestics."  Lousart has during this time followed a regular routine -- several bottles of burgundy, followed by time spent reading in his study or his bedroom, and quiet dinners with his daughter where neither made any attempt at conversation.

Things begin to change one cold winter night when a sound like the crack of a whip wakes him up.  It seems to have come  from one of the rooms in his own home, and curious, he decides to have a look around. He runs into his daughter and tells her that there must be a burglar in the house, and notices that there's a light on somewhere on the third floor.  She tells him it must be the maid, but he doesn't think so -- and continuing upstairs, he realizes that this was
 "the first time in years he had departed from his own narrow and strictly prescribed orbit."
Further investigation yields the discovery of a man on a bed who's been shot and then dies "at the exact moment" Loursat walks in. He phones the prosecutor, telling him that the situation is "really tiresome," wanting him to come over and sort things out. He has no idea "who it is or how he got here," but he soon comes to realize that in this big rambling house, Nicole has been leading her own life, having her friends over for parties and dancing in the attic, and he never had a clue at any time that any of this was going on. It dawns on him that one of these people must have been the murderer, a fact that fascinates him, but he's more amazed by the fact that there's a world he's known nothing about going on under the roof of his own home and more importantly, right under his very nose. This is the earlier-mentioned catalyst that makes him aware that "he'd never tried to live -- not in the ordinary sense of the word," but more importantly, the fact that these people have actually been "living" makes him aware  that he hasn't been.

There's much, much more, of course, but I'll leave it all for anyone who may be interested in reading this novel.  While The Strangers in the House has a few minor flaws plotwise,  they're pretty irrelevant  -- this book is very much character driven and doesn't really revolve so much on plot details.  Simenon has again given us a book that oozes atmosphere, setting and above all, a look at what PD James in her intro (which I strongly advise avoiding until the end) calls "the secret underground of the human heart," and Simenon's understanding of  (as James also observes)
 "the salient facts which bring alive a character or a place, inducing the reader to contribute his own imagination to that of the writer so that more is conveyed than is written." 
While I enjoyed his The Engagement much more, I can most certainly recommend The Strangers in the House to people who, like me, are much more into a book to discover what he/she can about human nature.  This one definitely speaks volumes.

ps - there is also a film (1967) made from this book with James Mason, but I'm so pressed for time right now that it will have to wait (if I can even find it!).

Monday, December 12, 2016

an indie double feature: Cotton, and Courting Death, by Paul J. Heald

In my house, the appreciation of the legal thriller (for that matter, any thriller) falls squarely in the wheelhouse of my husband Larry, who loves this stuff. So when I was contacted by the author of these two books I wasn't sure, but I had to admit that at the time the premise of both novels sounded pretty good and if I didn't like them, well, I knew Larry would.  And despite the fact that I prefer crime fiction from the past,  from time to time, I like to check in on what's new in the modern world of small-press crime, so I said yes to the author's request for reading his books.   What surprised me the most is that these books turned out not to be legal thrillers per se, but more like mysteries involving people in the legal profession.  So maybe "legal thriller" isn't the best moniker to apply to these books after all.

Yucca Publishing/Skyhorse Publishing, 2016
356 pp
paperback, sent by the author (thanks!)

The author of both of these novels is a law professor and travels around the world giving lectures, so if anyone's qualified to write books with the legal profession as a backdrop, it's definitely him.  I accidentally read the two novels out of order so let me set the record straight here.  The correct order, chronologically, is Courting Death, followed by Cotton.  Both are set in the small town of Clarkeston, GA, and both share a main character, Melanie Wilkerson, who in the first book is a judge's law clerk and in the second a US attorney in Atlanta.  Since I read them out of order, I'll talk about them in the same way.  Cotton begins with a big surprise for James Murphy, an investigative reporter with the Clarkeston Chronicle, who doggedly followed the case of the missing Diana Cavendish, who had disappeared without a trace some five years earlier. The story is that she was "presumably abducted by her boyfriend Jacob Granville, from a prominent local family. She left behind a "blood-spattered apartment," but no one had any clue what had happened to either of them.  With no more evidence coming in, authorities had eventually just given up on the case, although James was told that the FBI had been alerted three days after Diana's disappearance.    So imagine James' surprise when while he's surfing through a website called "," up pops a photo of the missing woman dressed in a swimsuit on the "This Week's Babes" section of the website.  The photo inspires him to go back and take a look at the case again, but he knows he's going to need help. He takes his story and the website's URL to Melanie Wilkerson, and she's just curious enough to check it out.  Turns out that not only had the FBI not been called in, but curiously, on the FBI database she discovers that next to Granville's name is a phone number, to which any and all inquiries about the case should be directed. Melanie sends James on his way, but she realizes that there is something "whiffy" about the case and launches a private investigation, beginning with an attempt to track down the owner of the website where James had just seen Diana's photo. For this she calls in Stanley Hopkins, a sociology professor and professional consultant, whose initial discoveries will take the case in a direction that no one would have ever suspected.

While Cotton has lots of standard thriller elements -- international intrigue that moves into the highest levels of politics, cover ups, etc., what I really liked about it is that it runs out to be a good mystery that takes its time getting solved.  The people who join James and Melanie in helping to solve the case are perfect as a team, and for me, that combination of mystery and main characters are what make this book a good one.  The added bonus is that neither over the top violence nor graphic, unnecessary sex scenes find their way into this story, a fact I can definitely appreciate since these days that's pretty much unheard of.  So, bottom line -- this is a book worth reading and will appeal to people who are in it for story rather than the other baggage that seems to be part and parcel of modern crime these days. Well done.

Yucca Publishing/Skyhorse Publishing, 2016
321 pp
paperback, sent by the author (thanks!)

In Courting Death, although Melanie Wilkerson makes an appearance again, the action takes place earlier than Cotton.  Here she hasn't made it to the US Attorney's office, but rather is clerking for a prominent judge in the federal courts. Melanie becomes involved in following the trail of a death that happened some five years earlier, a case that catches her attention and piques her curiosity because it happened in the same place Melanie is currently working. Around Melanie this time are fellow clerks Phil Jenkins and Arthur Hughes, who are tasked with doing research in cases of habeas corpus -- death penalty cases to be more exact. Their work involves reading cases and writing memos that "get the law right, regardless of what the substantive result is."  In fact, Courting Death, outside of the mystery that Melanie goes out of her way to look into, is a novel that makes the reader look at issues surrounding capital punishment, based on cases that come Phil and Arthur's way.  In this sense, it's less mystery than Cotton, but rather a more philosophically-based novel when it comes to the capital court cases.  But when all is said and done, it's Arthur who takes center stage here -- his growing relationship with his young landlady, his doubts about the death-penalty cases, and other events that start to take a personal toll,  and to top it all of, he has ongoing concerns about the Judge for whom he works.

Putting the two together,  I liked Cotton much better although I did appreciate the way that the author  forces the reader to examine different facets of the legalities behind capital cases in Courting Death. There's so much more involved in these cases that most people don't realize goes on behind the scenes, and this book really is an eye opener in this arena. At the same time, there's too much personal stuff going on here for my taste -- I get how it works overall in terms of Arthur's character and where it all leads, but as an example, 20 pages going through Arthur's father dying, the funeral etc., are just a bit too much.  The mystery that Melanie is involved in is intriguing, but it sort of plays second fiddle to everything going on in Arthur's life.  Unlike Cotton, this one has much more romance and personal relationships throughout the story which I'm just not into as a crime reader.  But that's a me thing not necessarily shared by other readers, and I have to say that I was caught up in thinking about the issues surrounding death-penalty cases more than anything else in this book. So this one works more for me on a philosophical level; the mystery surrounding the dead court clerk is also a good one but I wish it had been developed a bit more and that less focus had been given to Arthur here.  If he could bring back the team from Cotton and put them together in another intriguing mystery, I'd totally buy it, because in spite of the thriller elements that I normally just don't care for, there's a solid mystery at its core that I couldn't wait to get to the bottom of.

Bottom line: both novels are quite good and I'd recommend the two to crime readers, but Cotton for me definitely has a slight edge because of its casting and because of the mystery at its heart.  If the author wrote another novel would I buy it? Definitely -- and trust me, for someone who is happiest reading crime fiction from the past, that's saying a lot.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

a downright delicious double dose of Dard, from Pushkin Vertigo: Crush and Bird in a Cage

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published as Les scélérates, 1959
translated by Daniel Seton
156 pp


"I sincerely believe you have pulled off the perfect crime." --  Bird in a Cage  

The good people at Pushkin Vertigo tell me in a short section at the back of this novel that this book is one of Frédéric Dard's " 'novels of the night', -- a run of stand-alone, dark psychological thrillers written by Dard in his prime, and considered by many to be his best work."  It's good, all right, as is his Bird in a Cage, both of them read over the course of one night while I was once again wide awake.

 What I find interesting about both books is that somewhere toward the beginning of each, the main characters say or think little things that sort of grate on the mental ear, cluing me into the notion that there may just be something very off with these people who are telling us their stories. It's nothing big, there's really nothing anyone can put his or her finger on at the moment,  but that little mental niggle picked up on by my inner radar has come back to me in both books at some later point, leading to the "aha - I knew it!" moment in my head.

Let's start with Crush, which has a bizarre but good ending that in hindsight I should have seen but actually never saw coming.  The "I" here is 17 year-old Louise Lacroix, living at home in Léopoldville, in a neighborhood that's "all stunted little houses, lined up any old how on a plain surrounded by chimney stacks spewing out great clouds of smoke..."  She lives with mom and her "mum's man" Arthur (having never known her dad)  in a rented "ramshackle, barely furnished house" that hasn't seen repairs in years,  even though the "walls are crumbling like nobody's business." She's also always hated the town, because she saw it as "artificial and sad."   Louise has a job in a local factory, but we soon discover that she needs a change, starting with her route home from work each evening. 

Changing her way home takes her through the center of town, where "you can feel the money round there," where she discovered the home of the Roolands, a couple known locally as "the Yanks"  existing "on a sort of desert island all its own... where the natives seemed to live bloody well..."  Returning home late one evening, she gets into it with Arthur, and runs to the Roolands' where she offers her services as a maid. Eventually Jess and Thelma agree and Louise convinces them that it would be better if she lived in.  While Thelma drinks away her day while listening to music, Jess works at NATO, and soon enough Louise is happy in her new situation.  One incident drives her home, but the American couple provides enough financial incentive to Louise's mother to bring Louise back. It isn't long though until tragedy strikes, and suddenly we're left wondering exactly what the truth is behind the events that follow.  Dard does such a good job here that as I said, I should have seen what was coming and absolutely did not.  Once I'd finished, though, I was in awe of just how well the author had set things up, and I didn't mind at all that I'd been so cleverly manipulated. Au contraire - I actually appreciated it.

Moving onto the next book, Bird in a Cage, another of Dard's romans nuits, I was a bit worried at first that I was reading something along the lines of Cornell Woolrich's Phantom Lady, because in many ways Bird in a Cage begins with just that sort of feel.  As things turned out though, I was entirely wrong.  

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published as Le Monte-Charge, 1961
translated by David Bellos
123 pp

It's Christmas Eve, and Albert has come back home to Paris and to his mother's apartment after being away for six years. Mom has died, and he has returned to an empty, but still unchanged place.  After laying back in his old bed for a while, thinking he'd give anything to see his mom "just for a second, standing behind the door," and to hear her asking him if he was awake, his sorrow takes over and he needs to get out.  Off into the night, into his old quartier he wanders, after having stopped in a shop to buy a Christmas decoration, a "silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust" with a blue and yellow velvet bird inside on a perch. Next stop is Chiclet's, a "big restaurant" where as a child he'd stop and look through its windows "at the opulent part of humanity holding court inside."

 It's there that he runs into a woman who reminds him of a woman from his past named Anna, but this woman has a small child with her, and Albert suddenly feels the tragedy of the "shared loneliness" of the two.  After a short stint at a movie theater, Albert walks the woman (still nameless at this point) home; she invites him up for a drink and some impulse drives him to hang the birdcage on the woman's Christmas tree.  The little girl is put to bed, after which the woman reveals that she would really like to go out for a while, and they talk about her marriage which is extremely unhappy.  Returning her to her home, Albert realizes that they're not alone -- there's now a coat hanging on a hook that belongs to the woman's husband, who is lying on the sofa dead as a doornail. Albert quickly tries to remove traces of himself from the apartment, cleaning up fingerprints, etc., but when he goes to get the birdcage, he discovers that it is no longer hanging on the tree.  It's at this juncture where the story really takes off, as Albert is forced to make a confession to this woman, who promptly throws him out after telling him she'd get in touch with the police about her husband's death.   But he just can't leave, so he waits, hiding outside and watching as things get weirder and weirder before he steps in once more and gets the surprise of his life. 

When I finished this novel, to say I was blown away is to very much understate how I felt about it.  Frankly, I thought it was just genius. I think my insomnia may have been caused by a) first the tension that kept ratcheting up throughout the story and b) just laying there thinking about the book and  about just how cleverly Dard  put things together here. It's like I was expecting one thing and then out of nowhere, it became an entirely different ball game altogether, where everything changed completely.   

Passing on this book because it was written in 1961 would be a shame -- it's absolutely perfect for vintage crime readers, for readers who enjoy French crime, and for readers who are looking for something different in their crime fiction. My advice is to run, do not walk,  and pick up a copy ASAP. This one I just loved.  Absolutely.