Saturday, January 25, 2014

from France: The Dark Angel, by Dominique Sylvain

MacLehose Press, 2014
276 pp

originally published as Passage du Désir, 2004
translated by Nick Caistor


Well, here's something new and different!  There's something to be said for a crime novel where one of the lead characters is a kind of crusty, overweight middle-aged woman who smokes and wears a hideous bathrobe when she's hanging out at home.  The Dark Angel is the introduction to a series (I think/hope) featuring retired Commissaire of the Paris police department Lola Jost and her very worldly, beautiful and American masseuse crime-solving partner. Ingrid Diesel.  While the mystery is pretty good, these two characters, most especially Lola, steal the show in this book.  If for no other reason, you should read this book on the basis of Lola's character alone.  Whenever she wasn't in the picture, I was eagerly awaiting her return.

Set in Paris, two roommates come home one day to discover the third girl dead. Not only has she been murdered, but her feet have been chopped off and someone has left behind a Bratz doll, the kind with the feet that come completely off the doll's body.  Any hope of forensic evidence is gone -- the vacuum cleaner, which may have contained evidence, is soaking in the bathtub. Police soon come to suspect that Maxime, the local ladies' man and restauranteur along the Passage du Désir, may have had something to do with the young woman's murder.  Enter our dynamic duo, Lola and Ingrid, who want more than anything to keep their good friend Maxime from going to jail -- so with the help of one of Lola's favorite policemen,  they do everything they can to prove his innocence. Not such an easy task: everyone, it seems, is hiding something, so getting to the truth behind the murder will be a definite challenge.

The Dark Angel is on the lighter side of crime -- not that murder's not serious, but the novel has a very uncomplicated feel to it compared to a lot of other, more intense translated crime fiction.   There are also more than a few moments of wry humor to be encountered -- especially through the character of Lola.  She steals the show in this novel -- something in her past led her to leave the force, but she is still totally on the ball when it comes to investigating.  Her policeman friend who helps the two women in their investigation is in awe of her talents and wishes she'd never retired, because she left him with an inept bumbler as a superior.  Ingrid, while full of surprises, is less big on the page, not as well rounded as Lola with her constant flow of caustic wit; however, it is perhaps the wide range of differences that allow  them to work so well together. Considering that they probably wouldn't have met otherwise, the way they take to each other makes for fun reading.   They even view Paris quite differently from each other -- understandable since Lola is French and Ingrid is viewing the city from an entirely different set of cultural lenses -- but in the long run, it's a plus because their different visions of what the streets have to offer filter through to the reader,  making the sense of place a little more 3-D than usual.

While Lola's character is off and running, I'm sure that Ingrid's character will develop more as the series proceeds; in this installment, I think the goal was just to get the two together as a sort of ad hoc investigating team.  Otherwise, the mystery itself is okay, complete with lots of red herrings and more than enough suspects to keep the reader guessing.  There are a few social issues brought out here and there is even a brief look at the plight of  Romanian children who were put into orphanages during the reign of Nicolae Ceaușescu  -- and people who think nothing of exploiting these kids. Nothing too heavy, but this topic plays a small role in the story. 

I love the combination of the two characters and their quirks; watching these two very different women working together was just plain fun.  And while I do prefer much edgier crime fiction, sometimes it's more than enough when it's all about the characters -- and that is definitely the case here. Very much recommended; a wonderful start to what I hope will be a great series. 

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