Were My Expectations Too High?

There are some books that come highly recommended, are reasonably well-written, have an intriguing premise, are enjoyable to read… and yet they still fail to quite live up to my expectations. This could be because my expectations for them are simply unrealistic. Or it could be that dreaded statement (which annoys all authors) ‘it’s not quite how I would have written the story’. Anyway, here are some recent reads that were slightly off-the-mark for me, but which others may find much more to their taste.

lecercleBernard Minier: The Circle (Le Cercle)

I loved the claustrophobic wintry atmosphere of Minier’s first novel The Frozen Dead, although the serial killer locked in an asylum trope did seem a little unoriginal. So I was looking forward to this second novel – perhaps too much so. With a sinking heart, I discovered this book started with a prologue about a woman imprisoned in a cell and abused by her captor and was even more dismayed to discover that the spectre of the serial killer from book 1 (the sinister and far-too-clever Julian Hirtmann) makes a reappearance. It just stretched my suspension of disbelief a little bit too far, and there were many moments (such as the holiday of gendarme Irene in Santorini) that seemed to be mere filling, serving no purpose whatsoever. I suppose it was done to give more depth to the characters, but it just added bulk to the book. The characters of the investigators, I felt, were already fairly well-defined and rounded. Some of the secondary characters, however, were mere archetypes and there were simply too many investigations going on simultaneously.

To be fair, there were many things I did enjoy about the book. The season is early summer and it’s thunderstorms rather than avalanches which threaten the closed-in valleys of the Pyrenees. The setting is a quiet university town called Marsac, the so-called Cambridge of the south-west of France (there is a real Marsac not far from there, but this one appears to be imaginary). The character of the main investigator, Martin Servaz, and his relationship with his teenage daughter Margot; the no-nonsense Chinese-Franco-Moroccan sidekick Samira Cheung; the crime scene with the dolls floating face-up in the swimming pool; the brooding forest on the outskirts of town; the backdrop of the 2010 Football World Cup and France’s dismal performance in it… all of these were vividly described and memorable.

I read this in French, but Minotaur Books has the translation coming out on 27th of October, but I have been unable to find out the name of the translator. Maybe Alison Anderson, who also translated the first in the series.

AssassinsRichard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

Try transposing Jesus’s death and the ulterior fate of his disciples into the present-day. Arm your protagonists with mobile phones, GPS tracking, airplanes and weapons, yet describe a world of gladiators, Roman Empire bureaucracy, simple folk clad in traditional garb. Give it a sceptical but increasingly confused ‘detective’ in the shape of Gallio to track down the remaining disciples and disprove the rumours about Christ’s resurrection. And there you have it: a strange mash-up of ideas and time periods, which raises interesting questions about how to contain a new religion or ideology, predestination and interpretation of events or people’s words.

I really liked the concept and the first half or so of the book felt fresh, different and very funny (whilst also being sad at the same time). However, I felt the ‘joke’ dragged on after a while. I did like the ending, but there was a bit of a sag in the middle, although the ambiguous character of Paul (whom I’ve never felt much traction with) somewhat redeemed matters.

For a more enthusiastic review of this book (which has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction), see here and here. As for me, when it comes to a book blending religion, history and political satire, I prefer The Master and Margarita.