|BED OF NAILS
Translated by Siân Reynolds
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
When his friend kills himself on stage in a seedy nightclub in Paris, John Nichols leaves the isolation of his camp in southern France’s Lot and heads to the country’s capital to identify the body. But something doesn’t quite feel right, and John finds himself investigating his friend’s final days in an attempt to find the truth. Inspector Richard Guérin, exiled to Suicides following a scandal two years previously, has found a thread linking together a dozen suicides over a period of two years. John’s friend may well be the latest in a long line of assisted suicides, and together these two men aim to prove it.
It doesn’t take long for the reader to realise that Bed of Nails, Antonin Varenne’s third novel, is not your average piece of crime fiction. As the novel opens, two men are dead, though neither of them seem to have been murdered. The first has stripped naked and run, smiling, along one of the busiest roads in Paris until a head-on collision with a truck ends the frolic and the man’s life. The second, an American fakir, has bled to death on stage after suspending himself from a pair of hooks through his chest. There is nothing to suggest these deaths are suspicious, except in the minds of the story’s two protagonists.
The characters are the key to this story, and Varenne has injected each with enough life to leave the reader wanting more from them long beyond the end of their participation in this odd little tale. Caricatures and stereotypes abound, but the characters – and the story, for that matter – never seem stale. Guérin is the inward-looking obsessive policeman, his yellow mac as much a symbol of who he is as the badge he carries. His assistant, Lambert, is the stereotypical French policeman of a hundred films – tracksuits and indolence. The American, John Nichols, is an over-exaggerated Davy Crockett, while even the old men that patrol the streets of the village where he lives might have been plucked from a Stella Artois advertisement. Throw in a beautiful German artist who strips naked, covers herself in paint and throws herself at canvasses, and an old ex-convict who bears a striking resemblance to the late Edward Bunker, and you begin to get some sense of just what to expect.
This is part gritty police procedural, part tragicomic examination of modern life and the inventive ways – and associated motives – in which some people leave it behind. In Guérin, Varenne gives us the shell of a once-great man. A scandal two years earlier – the details of which we don’t learn until later in the book, in a revelation as grotesquely funny as it is shocking – has led to his removal to the wilds of Suicides. But his mind – the mind of one of the force’s greatest detectives – continues to work, and he quickly becomes obsessed with these suicides that he believes have had some outside assistance, to the point that the obsession has an adverse affect on his emotional stability and physical wellbeing. It is his driving desire to find the truth that carries the story along, and ultimately leads him to John Nichols and the death of the fakir. Here we find a more concrete story, involving Gulf War veterans and CIA cover-ups. The fakir’s suicide provides the perfect pivot around which these two seemingly unrelated cases revolve.
Bed of Nails is a beautifully-written novel and, even in translation, Varenne’s flourishes and narrative tricks shine through. There is the hint of a hard-boiled novelist here in some of the phrasing, and the staccato dialogue. Here, too, you will find a Paris that you are unlikely to find in the tourist guides – no Eiffel Tower, no Champs Elysées; this is a Paris where tourists rarely stray. The City of Light and Love has a dark and seedy side, and it is here that we find Varenne’s assortment of freaks and misfits, and spend time in their company.
It’s an unconventional crime novel that nevertheless has the power to shock and entertain. A strong cast of characters and a dark sense of humour are the story’s strong points, and help to carry the reader through some of the more surreal aspects of the plot. Varenne has no trouble getting inside the heads of his protagonists, and has a talent for bringing his readers along for the ride. Bed of Nails is another winner from the consistently excellent MacLehose Press and, while Antonin Varenne may be something of an acquired taste, he’s definitely worth a try. If your tastes are remotely similar to mine, you’ll be counting down the months until his next novel.