Bitter Lemon Press, 2004
originally published as Le Chant du Bouc, 2000
translated by Ian Monk
One of the reasons I love Bitter Lemon Press is that this group of publishers focuses on international works from authors I might not otherwise have heard of, and they generally turn out to be among my favorite books in the crime fiction world. One of these authors is Chantal Pelletier, whose Inspector Maurice Laice features in three novels (I believe), only one of which has been translated into English. Pity, because he's such a complex character -- a really sad Joe kind of loner whose work is pretty much all he has in his life. I found myself immediately drawn to this guy because of his sadness.
The last time anyone saw Elsa Suppini alive she had just entered Montmartre's legendary landmark, The Moulin Rouge, where she wasted no time in grabbing a job as dresser to the two lead dancers after the current dresser announced that she was leaving. Not only is the job a step up for Elsa, who works in the sewing room, but she fantasizes about dressing and seducing Manfred Godalier, the lead male dancer. The next time someone sees her, she's definitely with Manfred, but in what could have a been a "still life" called "Storm of Blood in a Bijou Residence." At least, that's what Inspector Maurice Laice (known as Momo to his friends, and More-is-less to his boss) thinks, as he begins his investigation into their murders. It's a very bad day for Maurice -- he's just returned from his father's funeral, where his dad's passing has made him feel like his own death is just around the corner, that he "was now to be the head of the queue at the door separating him from the next world." But this was definitely not the case with young Elsa and Manfred -- someone had deliberately gone out of his or her way to savagely slaughter the two to the point that their bodies were "glued together with coagulated blood." But which of the two was the intended victim? Or were they both targets? This is just the first step in Maurice's arduous journey toward solving this horrific crime; the next begins with the death of a crack smoker in a building where the neighbors are used to hearing screams and watching people shoot up in the stairwell on a regular basis.
Maurice's melancholy certainly doesn't help him, and neither does his boss, Aline Lefevre, who seems to delight in tormenting him by constantly keeping him apprised of her sex life. He's also very depressed about being in his 40s with no wife or mistress, an "old goat whose violent stench no longer got the nannies going." He did have a fiancée once, who died in a freak accident when an old water heater malfunctioned and she was asphyxiated; he was in the shower with her at the time and still hasn't gotten over his survival. Then there's his home -- Montmartre, which is slowly but steadily being transformed into what Maurice sees as a shopping mall:
"Nowadays, the Butte Montmartre was being picked over by a load of culture vultures. Indian dance and modern plays sold better than pig's trotters or snouts in vinaigrette," ... Momo wondered how far the transformation of his neighborhood would go. If it got any more "in," it would implode. Everyone round there was now in the media, was an architect or hack, one of those fucking awful trades that feed off looks like others feed off steak and chips. The cheese shops, tripe shops and butchers were all closing down, to be replaced by ranks of rag shops and hair dressers."As the investigation proceeds, Maurice moves from Montmartre to Corsica and even into the world of his boss's old obsessions. But when all is revealed, this veteran, well-seasoned cop will come to realize that there are some things for which he can never be prepared.
The centerpiece of this novel is tragedy itself -- in Greek, "trag-oedia," which also translates to "goat song." This theme carries throughout the novel in terms of the crimes, but also in other ways, including the new face of beautiful and historic Montmartre, those left behind in the wake of deaths, and in the lives of some of Pelletier's other characters as well. Even super-confident Aline, with her brash off-color jokes and her teasing of Maurice, has experienced tragedy in her life, providing powerful motivation behind her work as a cop.
The conclusion of this novel is simply haunting; getting there is sometimes a tough journey as you are constantly faced with the "tragicomedy of existence" that runs throughout the novel. It is not a novel for people whose thing is crime light, nor is it a book for readers who cringe at sex or sexual references. To her credit, Pelletier does not throw in random, meaningless or gratuitous sex -- what there is is totally appropriate in terms of the characters' lives. I'm not so bothered by sex in novels -- what I hate is when it's obviously there to titillate and conceal the lack of an author's narrative skills. That's not the case here. Goat Song is a very good read, a study of not only a city that's moving in a downward spiral but its reflection in the lives of the people who live there and love it. I liked it, but then again, I'm drawn toward edgy, dark and tragic, all of which totally fit as a description of this novel.