We leave this weekend. Here’s a pictorial goodbye to Ferney, Voltaire and a few of my favourite local places. I will now be offline for several weeks.
Thank you, France, Rhone-Alpes and Lake Geneva!
You know how quickly I devour crime fiction and that my preference is for the subversive, disturbing and relentlessly noir. However, quite a few my recent reads have been of a gentler persuasion, almost an old-fashioned feel. In descending order of ‘gentility’, may I introduce you to…
Margot is such a supportive, knowledgeable member of the crime-writing and reading community, plus I have a soft spot for novels with an academic setting, so I’d been planning to get this one for ages. Not easy to order outside the US, but I eventually got my paws on it (and am now waiting to meet Margot in person, so she can sign it for me).
Serena Brinkman is a talented violinist at Tilton University, a small but prestigious college on the East Coast. She truly seems to be the golden girl who has it all – but then death strikes on the night of a major music competition. A former detective, now professor of criminal justice at Tilton University, is asked to investigate the apparently accidental death a little further. We are firmly in Golden Age detective era type of fiction here, although there are all the modern accoutrements of student life nowadays (including PDAs and online gambling). What struck me was how very polite and nice all the characters seem – genteel, in other words (although, obviously, they can’t all be, since one of them at least is a murderer). Even the flawed ones, even when misunderstandings occur. It’s a book for readers who like a puzzle and a minimum of gore.
Dard was one of the most prolific crime writers in France (and that’s saying something, given that Simenon was also writing there). Best-known for his nearly 180 San-Antonio novels (think a more satirical and realistic Bond), he has also written over 100 standalone novels and shorter series, many of them under various pseudonyms (clearly, the publishers couldn’t keep up with him!).
This is a bittersweet novel with a perfect 1950s setting, which reminded me a little of Pascal Garnier. Albert returns to his old neighbourhood in Paris after his mother’s death (having spent several years in prison) and is captivated by a beautiful woman and her young child, whom he sees eating alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. He becomes involved in a very complicated and dubious story with the woman, her husband and the Midnight Mass for Christmas. A clever puzzle and a rather quiet, gentle man who is clearly being manipulated, although we are not quite sure how.
I was struck at once by how similar this novel is to Bird in a Cage in terms of premise and feel (rather than style or plot). A professional fixer (with some moral scruples) is asked to ‘fix’ the wife of his boss, but starts to feel sorry for her. Falls a little in love. This is a much more brutal story, far less ambiguous than Dard, and Olav is not as genteel or well-spoken as Albert, but it is a quieter book, with an old-fashioned atmosphere which we’ve not hitherto experienced with Nesbø. Bet you weren’t expecting him to come smack-bang in the middle of this post!
Another Pushkin Vertigo release, I had high hopes for this one, set in a boarding-house in Milan in 1919, written in the 1930s and filled to the brim with unreliable characters with a dodgy past. However, I found there were just too many characters, all lying with no compunction and very little concern about plausibility. There were just too many things happening, insufficient clarity and psychological motivation. This was gentility of the cold-nosed, snobbish variety, not even a smidgen of warmth or attempt to make me care about any of the characters. And, as for those creepy china dolls…!
This is not the Botswana of endless cups of Redbush tea and astute yet gentle musings of Alexander McCall Smith. But it remains, nevertheless, a polite, traditional society with respect for rank and the elderly, even though we are dealing with some pretty horrible realities. Under the ‘quaint’ umbrella of traditional African medicine, muti, we find a profoundly disturbing superstition and increasing use of human body parts. As young girls go missing and the communities are too scared to talk, our beloved rotund Detective Kubu supports his feisty new recruit, Samantha Khama, who wants to find out just what is going on. Politics, traditions, family ties, AIDS victims and reactions to HIV-infected children, plus strong characterisation all form a delightful and far more believable alternative narrative of modern Africa. The authors scratch beneath the surface of the beauty, charm and nostalgia that the British Empire still has for Africa, yet carefully avoid making the country or its people the villain of the piece. One of my favourite series set in Africa.
Serial killers of some description or another appeared in each of these three books – a trope which I have slowly grown weary of, but it was handled intelligently in each of the novels below and brought something fresh to the subgenre. However, what I found far more interesting were the obvious differences in approach to investigating a crime, reporting on it and even finding a resolution in the three countries and societies described here. [My own translations unless otherwise marked.]
The serial killers here are in power. Berlin after Hitler’s rise to power, during a murky period of German history, when the SS and the SA (both Nazi supporters) are fighting for power between themselves, and the police is losing authority daily and its right pursue criminals according to legislation. During the construction of a tunnel for the S-Bahn in Berlin, an explosion kills several of the construction workers. A ‘non-aryan’ carpenter Leiblein is accused of provoking the explosion and is arrested. Hermann Kappe is a Kommissar with a lot of heart and ethical principles, and he soon realises that Leiblein is being made a scapegoat for a matter which the various political factions would like to see buried. As the lines between right and wrong, truth and cover-up, become increasingly blurred, it becomes clear that the power of the fist (or weapons) triumph over the power of law. In fact, law itself is being subverted by a new political regime keen to rid itself of any opposition. Kappe has many moments when he fears for himself and his family. He learns to compromise, to find small loopholes in a society which is becoming ever more frightening and inhuman. No happy outcome is possible, only temporary relief and terrifying uncertainty.
Without looking at them, [Kappe’s boss] told them: ‘According to a report from the Reich’s Ministry of Transport, Director Dr. Erich Klausener shot himself in his office earlier today. There is no police confirmation of this. The news came to us via the security services… It’s hard for me to believe them. Gentlemen, it’s clear to me that there is an entirely different tune being played here. The Führer is clearing out anyone who stands in his way: Klausener, von Schlicher and his wife, … and many more. I don’t know what to do anymore.
They waited for him to say something more. But he didn’t. Then he told them: ‘You can go now.’
In Japan, the police seems to be as much of an administrative morass as the great corporates. Officers are rotated between departments every few years, and Superintendent Yoshinobu Mikami finds himself moved from Criminal Investigations (specifically: murder) to Press Director in the Administrative Affairs department. Even worse, when he tries to create a more collaborative relationship with journalists, his efforts are thwarted by his superiors and decisions about what to reveal and what to hide are made above his head for reasons which are not even explained to him. The amount of political manoeuvring and the social nuances which need to be taken into account make the Japanese police force seem labyrinthine in comparison to its Western counterparts. Everything seems to be about preserving the reputation of the police and getting promoted.
Captain Tsujiuchi is on his ‘tour of duty’ from Tokyo in the prefectural HQ where Mikami works, but he has no real power. He isolates himself in his office and is kept far from any real problems by Mikami’s fellow officers.
The Prefecture D Police had been diligent in their cultivation of the man’s near-divine status. They reported favourable information and insulated him from everything that wasn’t good news. They devoted themselves to ensuring that his time in the Prefectural HQ was spent in comfort. He was kept free from germs, sheltered from the troubles and worries of the local police, treated instead like a guest at a spa, and when he returned to Tokyo it would be with pockets full of expensive gifts from local companies. I enjoyed my time here, surrounded by the warmth of the local community and the officers serving it. They would feel relief as he recited the formulaic words during his departing speech, then, hardly leaving time for them to gather breath, they would begin to gather information on the personality and interests of the incoming captain.
And then we come to France, itself no stranger to the stranglehold of bureaucracy. However, as in all countries with a Latin influence, rules are made to be broken or reinterpreted, and Comissaire Adamsberg pushes the boundaries of what is permissible more than most. At a certain point, he is in a rush to get to a certain place in the countryside and is pulled over by the traffic police. He tries to explain that it’s an emergency, but the two gendarmes (a different branch of the police than the detectives, and suffering a bit of a chip on their shoulder from being regarded as inferior) seem to take great pleasure in throwing the rule book at him:
‘I forgot to put my beacon on. I’ll come tomorrow and we’ll sort all that out…’
‘Ah, no, not tomorrow. First of all, because it’s Sunday, and secondly, because it will be too late.’
‘Too late for what?’
‘For testing your alcohol levels…’
‘I repeat: it was an emergency.’
‘Sorry, sir, your trajectory was a bit uncertain in the curves.’
‘I was just driving fast, that’s all. Emergency, how many more times do I need to say it?’
‘Blow here, Commissaire.’
In this book, Adamsberg relies so much on his legendary intuition and continues to pursue a line of enquiry regarded as tenuous by Danglard and some others in his team, that he is almost faced with a mutiny. When he insists on going to Iceland to pursue some leads, his team is divided between those sceptical but loyal to their boss, and those who openly disagree with him. Yet Adamsberg does not pull rank on them and punish the disbelievers: his is a democratic approach, even when he is at the receiving end of distrust. He can even forgive serious mistakes, as one team member discloses rather more than they should have to a suspect. But he does make sure that they realise their mistake and never repeat them.
I have to remind you all that no private information about any of our team members should be given out to a stranger. Not even if he has gone for a piss or to feed the cat. Not even if the stranger is sympathetic, cooperative or frightened.
So there we have it: three very different approaches to policing, one of them is set in a historical context, three insights into different cultures. The world of Scandinavian, British and American policing, which we are all so familiar with, suddenly seems very much easier, doesn’t it?
In other words, still more inspirational houses that once belonged to writers and artists in France. Most of them have been turned into museums, although the last one has had an interesting fate.
Just in case you are thinking that these are all too good to be true (certainly without a talented gardener or two), below is a sad story of aspirations and loss.
The Manoir du Breuil near Calvados in Normandy belonged to Lucien Guitry, actor and father of the slightly more famous Sascha Guitry. Whenever Françoise Sagan spent the summer at Deauville in Normandy, she would look covetously at this house perched on a hill and occasionally be able to rent it for a few weeks. Then, one night in August 1958, she won a huge sum at roulette and the very next day she purchased this property.
Unfortunately, there was no happy ending. The house required major renovation works, particularly after it was damaged by fire, but Sagan was a compulsive gambler, buyer of fancy sports cars, drinker and drug addict, so there was never enough money left over. A huge backdated tax bill was the final nail in the coffin. She was forced to sell the house, although the generous friend who bought it allowed her to continue living in part of it until her death. The house has now been completely remodelled by the current owner, the CEO of Eurotunnel.
Seems like I can never get enough of houses in France, especially those which belong to writers and artists. I’m ranking them in order of luxury. Some of them appear to have come from moneyed backgrounds, others seem to have made a fortune from their work… or perhaps houses were much cheaper back then. Here’s to hoping!
It’s been roughly a century since the French riviera and countryside were discovered by foreign writers. Here are a few of their villas and chateaux for your envious gazes…
After his separation from Angelica Bell, Bunny Garnett (former lover of Angelica’s father Duncan Grant) spent the rest of his days at this chateau in the south-west of France.
Vanessa and her family spent every summer in Cassis in the south of France. Virginia Woolf also visited them there.
Somerset Maugham lived in this spectacular villa near Cap Ferrat for over thirty years, until his death in 1965. It was remodelled and renovated for him by American architect Barry Dierks. Everyone who was anyone visited Maugham here: writers such as T.S. Eliot, Noel Coward, Ian Fleming but also political figures, including Winston Churchill. It is now a boutique hotel.
The villa where F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly wrote ‘The Great Gatsby’ was up for sale in 2012. Although the Fitzgeralds moved in and out of several villas on the Mediterranean, the “price upon request” (read: an arm, a leg, and your first born) property in Cap d’Antibes boasts those delightful unnecessaries found in 19th-century homes: staff accommodations, pool terraces, a sauna, portholes, and “immaculate” gardens.
Above, the kind of hotel Rosemary might have stopped at on the French Riviera in the first part of Tender Is the Night.
And finally, this little treasure below. I could not establish any literary connections for it, but it’s in Provence near Avignon, it looks fabulous and it’s available for rent. When I have my next $9000 or so to
throw away spend, I will stay a night or two there, invite all of you writer friends over and then it will have us as its literary connection!
Barn conversions are very popular not just in France, but all over the world. Here are some examples:
I can’t help hearing my grandmother’s voice, clucking somewhere above my shoulder: ‘Tsk, tsk, why would people want to live with cows and pigs?’