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THE GREAT SWINDLE by Pierre Lemaitre

THE GREAT SWINDLE - Pierre Lemaitre THE GREAT SWINDLE

Pierre Lemaitre (www.pierrelemaitre.com)

Translated by Frank Wynne (www.terribleman.com)

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

As the Great War approaches its end, Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle decides to make one last bid for glory. Sending two scouts over the top, he shoots them in the back, and uses their deaths as the perfect excuse for one final push against the enemy. When Albert Maillard discovers what he has done, he almost dies as a result, buried alive in a shell crater. After the war, Albert and Édouard Péricourt, the man who saved him from his fate, and suffered a terrible mutilation as a result, live together in poverty, all of their money going towards the morphine that Édouard needs in order to keep functioning. Pradelle, meanwhile, is living the life of luxury, having married into the rich Péricourt family, who believe Édouard to be dead. His business – the exhumation of dead French soldiers from temporary graves and relocation to government-sanctioned war graves – is booming, but Pradelle is less interested in how the result is achieved than in the money it brings. Albert and Édouard, meanwhile, have come up with the perfect plan to make money, a scheme that will see them swindle the whole of France to fund a comfortable retirement to the colonies.

In a massive departure from the work that made his name, the Camille Verhoeven novels, Pierre Lemaitre turns his attention to France in the interwar period, beginning with the final days of the First World War in October and November 1918. It is here, in the trenches in rural France, that we meet the trio of characters whose stories The Great Swindle will tell: on the one hand, the timid Albert Maillard, a peacetime bank-teller turned soldier who has seen his share of action, having been wounded in the Somme; on the other hand is Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle, a man who “reeked of money and looked like a crook”, a man from a rich background playing at war, and hoping for glory and advancement through the ranks. The third man is Édouard Péricourt, the son of a rich Parisian, an artist and flamboyant homosexual who has been disowned by his father, and sought escape in the ranks of the French army. The fates of these three men become inextricably entangled during the taking of Hill 113, and their futures are decided when Albert quite literally stumbles upon evidence of Pradelle’s betrayal of the unit.

Of the three, Albert seems the most level-headed, despite the terrible nightmares that haunt him following his near-death experience at the bottom of a shell crater filled with mud. He has been changed by this war, a man trying to earn a living in a country where he is essentially persona non grata: those who died for their country are the heroes; those who returned are failures, men who went off to fight for their country and couldn’t even die. Albert has the additional burden of the severely disfigured Édouard, a man to whom he owes his life, and who he nurses through the pain and the subsequent, inevitable, morphine addiction. Lemaitre spends little time in Édouard’s head; it’s a dark place and, though we feel sorry for this man whose life essentially ended in those final days of the war, we can’t help but despise him for his treatment of Albert, and for the coming betrayal that seems obvious to us from early on. The final corner of this strange triangle, Pradelle is the embodiment of evil, a schemer out to make money at the expense of others and who chooses his friends based on their contacts and influence. As another character notes,

[…he [Pradelle] was a loudmouth, a chancer, a rich bastard, a cynic – a word much in vogue sprang to mind: “profiteer”.]

He is a character that it is easy to hate, and when his world starts to crumble – as his swindle is uncovered by the fascinating civil servant Joseph Merlin – it is with no small amount of glee that we stand back and watch.

The Great Swindle of the title is the plan put in place by Albert and Édouard to sell fake war memorials and abscond with the money before anyone realises what has happened. Albert is initially against the idea, while Édouard is filled with excitement and enthusiasm – at least, outwardly. Unlike Pradelle’s con, which is based on a real scandal, the war memorial swindle is the creation of Lemaitre, but it is beautifully-constructed and entirely believable, a hangover, perhaps, from the involved plotting required for the Verhoeven novels.

Lemaitre’s style is evident throughout, and The Great Swindle is an exciting mix of light-hearted caper and dark examination of a country – and a people – recovering from one of the darkest periods of human history to date. Alongside the clever money-making scheme, the author examines the psychological effects of the war on three very different individuals who came out of the war with very different experiences, and in various states of mental and physical “completeness”, for want of a better word. The story – and the post-war France – is fleshed out with a host of other characters whose interactions with the central trio drive the story to a rewarding and tear-inducing climax. Characters like Marcel Péricourt, the father of Édouard, a man who believes his son has been killed in the trenches, and who is learning how much he has lost through re-discovery of his son’s art and the few memories that he retains; Léon Jardin-Beaulieu, Pradelle’s business partner and a man whose sister and wife are both sleeping with the handsome ex-soldier; and Joseph Merlin, the dishevelled civil servant tasked with inspecting the grave sites for which Pradelle is responsible, and whose gruesome discoveries will lead to one of the biggest scandals France has ever seen. Merlin is an odious man, in every sense of the word, but he is also one of the novel’s standouts, a beacon of honesty in a world gone mad with greed.

I was disappointed with the final book in Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy, feeling that he might have given his best for the first two books of the series. In The Great Swindle he has redeemed himself and proven that he has much more to offer. While very different from his modern day crime trilogy, this latest novel is quintessential Lemaitre: beautifully-written, carefully structured and filled with characters that we love or hate with the same intensity that we might if they were real. It’s an examination of a dark period in French history through the eyes of these people, while still allowing us to see the funny side of things. The first in a proposed 7-book series set to span the interwar period, this fun and intense read (an interesting combination that works extremely well) The Great Swindle puts Pierre Lemaitre firmly back on my must-read list. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and it’s sure to be a book we’ll be talking about for some time. Not to be missed.

GUEST POST: On Research by PHILIP KERR

philip kerr Name: Philip Kerr

Author of: FIELD GREY (2010)
                 PRAGUE FATALE (2011)
                 A MAN WITHOUT BREATH (2013)
                 PRAYER (2013)
                 RESEARCH (2014)

On the web: www.philipkerr.org

July saw the publication of Philip Kerr’s latest standalone novel, Research, a thriller that takes more than a passing poke at the British publishing industry (we’ll have a full review of the novel tomorrow). John Houston, the bestselling author at the centre of Research likes, as the title suggests, to do as much research on the subject of his latest novel as he possibly can. To celebrate the novel’s publication, I’m very pleased and excited to welcome Philip Kerr to Reader Dad to talk about the research that went into the novel’s creation.

I did a lot of research for the book as you might expect from the title. I had a very pleasant few weeks visiting Monaco and the South of France in general and driving around, much as the two characters in the book do. I also visited Switzerland. Oh, and I used to live in Putney and Cornwall as Don Irvine does in the book. So these are all places that are very familiar to me.

I have wanted to do an in statu quo novel about the book business for a while. I have been a full time writer for 25 years and felt I could comment on the publishing business in a way that was both amusing and critical. Much of what the two leading characters say in the book reflects my own opinions about the state of the novel. That was fun to do. It’s set up to be a little like Sleuth, the Anthony Shaffer play that was a great film with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. You never really know who is who or why. That seems to me to be the essence of a good mystery story.

The two characters come from the world of advertising and that is my own background. I worked in advertising for eight years, and at several large agencies including Masius, and Saatchi. I was not a diligent copywriter. I spent much of my time writing novels. Masius was very convenient for the London Library; and Saatchi was equally convenient for the British Library, which, in those days, was in the British Museum – a ten minute stroll from Charlotte Street. (I hate the new one). Both of the characters are versions of me – extreme versions of myself. I like to imagine grotesque versions of myself in certain situations. These are Jekyll and Hyde characters, of course. With the difference being that, like most people, each man is both Jekyll and Hyde, and the mystery is working out which one is the real Mr Hyde, if such a thing can be said to exist at all.

I spent most of my years as a copywriter wanting to be a novelist and trying to make it happen. A lot of copywriters had novels in their drawers, so I wasn’t unusual in that respect. I got lucky in the same way that John Houston got lucky, although with rather less success than he had. I don’t know what I would have done if Penguin hadn’t bought my first novel (which was actually the fourth one I’d written) back in 1988.

The book business has changed enormously since then. When I was first published in 1989, it was all about the writer, not the book. Publishers felt they were in it for the long term, to build an author. There’s less time for that now. It’s all about the book. Paradoxically, however, I think we’re moving to a place where the author becomes paramount again, but for all the wrong reasons. Increasingly we require authors to be celebrities; and if not celebrities, personalities who can masquerade as celebrities. It’s no longer enough to write a book, you have to be prepared to support it in person with appearances and talks and stand-up routines. I do an annual American book tour that lasts about three weeks. During that time I become a one-man show. Not every author can or wants to do that. But if you’re not prepared to do that kind of thing, the business will leave you behind.

John Houston has become a celebrity author. Which is a kind of hell, I think. When a writer becomes a famous face he loses something important which is the ability to observe, anonymously.

IRÈNE by Pierre Lemaitre

IRENE - Pierre Lemaitre IRÈNE

Pierre Lemaitre (www.pierrelemaitre.com)

Translated by Frank Wynne (www.terribleman.com)

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£16.99

Released: 13th March 2014

Commandant Camille Verhœven’s team are called to the scene of a grisly murder in a well-appointed apartment set in the middle of a largely deserted industrial estate. Two women have, quite literally, been torn apart and the only clue is the fake fingerprint left deliberately at the scene. This single clue links this case with an earlier case, and soon afterwards a third. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason for these murders, until Verhœven discovers that one of the murders bears a striking resemblance to the murder scene described in James Ellroy’s classic novel, The Black Dahlia. From there, it’s a matter of identifying the other books to which he is paying grisly homage in an attempt to understand what the killer is trying to do so they can have some chance of stopping him.

Pierre Lemaitre burst onto the scene in the English-speaking parts of the world in a big way last year with his novel, Alex. I’m one of the few people who missed the earlier novel, but the publication of Irène makes me glad that I did, since this, originally published in French as Travail soigné (Careful Work, if Google translate is to be believed), is the first of the Camille Verhœven novels, and I can only assume that the consequences of this first novel spill over into the second, meaning that people who have already read Alex may already have some inkling of what to expect. I could, of course, be very wrong; I’ll be reading Alex very soon to find out for myself.

From the beginning, Irène is a straightforward police procedural. For fans of the genre, it gives a slightly fresh perspective given the differences between the UK/US judicial systems and that of France (which bears some resemblance to that of Sweden, for fans of Scandi-crime). We meet the team as they begin the investigation into the first brutal pair of murders. Verhœven is an unconventional man, a man who barely reaches four foot eleven inches, but who commands the respect of the men under his command and, quite quickly, most people who come under his scrutiny. He is happily married, and his wife is expecting a child, and this adds a human touch to the plodding detective that we see in the workplace, and introduces a familiar thread that will ring true for many fathers and expectant fathers: the thought that we’re spending too much time in work, and not enough time with our family, missing vital moments that we will never be able to regain.

In some ways Irène is a love letter to the crime fiction genre, and Lemaitre takes the somewhat unexpected approach of making his killer, who recreates crime scenes from fiction, use scenes from some of the best known novels in the genre: the aforementioned The Black Dahlia, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (which will be recognisable to anyone who has read that novel as soon as they find themselves in the crime scene), William McIlvaney’s Laidlaw and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s first Martin Beck novel, Roseanna. These scenes in some ways act as Easter eggs for people who have already read these novels, and gives us food for thought as we try to outthink the killer, or reach a conclusion before Verhœven and his team does. As you might expect from the list of inspirations, Irène is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.

From the first page, there is an impending sense of doom which may not have existed in the novel’s original form. Despite that, Lemaitre still manages to take all of the reader’s expectations and grind them into dust in a single masterful stroke. Turning the conventional crime novel on its head, the author pulls the rug from under our feet and leaves us uncertain not only whom to trust, but whether anything we’ve read has actually happened or, crucially, whether any of it actually matters. Which is about all I can say without introducing spoilers. Suffice it to say that, bad as that statement sounds, it’s a moment of sheer genius that will leave the reader, jaw slack in admiration, realising that as well as penning a love letter to the genre, Lemaitre has set out to prove that he can go one better than anything that has gone before, and succeeds with verve.

The dynamics of the police team,the individual personalities that make it up, are what drive this story forward. Camille Verhœven himself is a protagonist that will stick with the reader and make us want to read the other books in the series (can MacLehose Press have them translated quickly enough to keep us satisfied?). This is a novel where very little actually happens – the murders have already been committed and, with the exception of two of them, we don’t even get to visit the crime scenes. It’s the very definition of a police procedural, a very cerebral mystery rather than one with lots of action. There are parallels with the television show Whitechapel, which has a similar atmosphere about it, not to mention a very similar setting (large room, plenty of desks and whiteboards  and whatnot).

While Alex received critical acclaim on its release last year, Irène, Pierre Lemaitre’s first novel, will be the book that people will remember in years to come. Intelligent and engrossing, it’s a worthwhile read primarily for that sense of amazement that will have you flicking back through pages looking for the mirrors or trapdoors, but also because of the mystery itself. A crime novel for genre fans penned by a man who is obviously a fan himself, Irène is beautifully translated by the always-reliable Frank Wynne and stunningly presented in the usual high-standard MacLehose package. If you were one of the people who enjoyed Alex, you’re going to love Irène, despite what you think you already know. If you’re lucky enough to still be a Lemaitre virgin, do yourself a favour and read a book that is sure to be high on many peoples’ (my own included) "best of the year" lists come December.

THE STRING DIARIES by Stephen Lloyd Jones

THE STRING DIARIES - Stephen Lloyd Jones THE STRING DIARIES

Stephen Lloyd Jones (www.stephenlloydjones.com)

Headline (www.headline.co.uk)

£14.99

In 1979 Charles Meredith meets Nicole Dubois, a Frenchwoman on the run from what he at first takes to be a fantasy: a man over 100 years old that Nicole claims has been hunting her family for most of the past century, a man with the uncanny ability to take on the form and mannerisms of anyone, thus insinuating himself into the lives of those he hunts. As Charles reads the evidence – a stack of old notebooks bound together with string that form the diaries of Nicole’s ancestors – he becomes less convinced that this is fantasy. Almost thirty-five years later, Hannah Wilde, Charles and Nicole’s only daughter, arrives at a remote house in the wilds of Snowdonia with her seriously injured husband and her own nine-year-old daughter. The hunter has found them, and Hannah no longer knows who she can trust. With the words of the string diaries her only guidance, Hannah sets out to save her family and hopefully destroy the monster that is chasing them in the process.

When Stephen Lloyd Jones’ debut novel opens, we find ourselves thrown immediately into the middle of the action. Hannah Wilde in on the run, her husband badly injured and bleeding to death on the seat next to her, and her young daughter asleep in the back of the car. At this point, we know nothing about what is going on, or why Hannah is fleeing for her life. As the novel progresses, and we learn of the history of Hannah’s family – Charles Meredith and Nicole Dubois most recently, and the generations whose histories are recorded in the string-bound diaries – we discover that what is chasing Hannah and her family is something very sinister indeed.

It is early in the novel when we realise that this is not your average “thriller”, but something of a more supernatural bent. The main protagonist, Balázs Lukács, is hosszú életek, a member of an ancient race of shapeshifters who have lived peacefully alongside humanity – and with the blessing of the kings and leaders of Europe – for many years. Lukács is different, deformed in a way only recognisable by other members of his race; he is shunned during the courtship rituals, and sets out on his own, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Stripped of his name and status, he is now known only as Jakab, and so begins his obsession with the women who have come before Hannah Wilde.

The story is an intriguing one, made more so by the characters that inhabit it, and the mythology that surrounds it. Jumping between different time periods – from present day, to the late ‘70s and early 80s, to Hungary at the tail end of the nineteenth century – Jones’ narrative structure is designed to only give us the information we need when it becomes important to the story. In this way, he keeps us turning pages, always eager to find out what is happening with each of the various plots’ central characters. The idea of the diaries themselves is inspired – a written history of the persecution of generations of a single family by a man who is clearly mad – and the author uses them to examine how history affects the lives of those forced to relive it. Perhaps the story’s biggest hook is the concept of validation. The fact that Jakab can take any form he wishes, down to the person’s voice and mannerisms, means that the only way these characters have of knowing to whom they’re speaking is through the process of validation: asking personal questions to which Jakab is unlikely to know the answer. It adds an extra dimension of uncertainty, leaving the reader unsure of who to trust, instilling a sense of frustration when characters forget to follow the rules, keeping the reader in the dark as much as possible.

The central plot leads, ultimately, to the inevitable showdown, but Jones manages to keep a few surprises up his sleeve. The final twist may be a twist too far for this reader; surprising though it is, it seems like a much too easy way to wrap up such a complex storyline. But it doesn’t detract from everything that goes before, which is a solidly-plotted tale in the vein of Tim Lebbon or Simon Clark.

Short on outright scares, The String Diaries fits neatly into the supernatural thriller genre, where the emphasis is on thriller, and the supernatural elements are designed more to drive the story than frighten the reader. Fast-paced and gripping, the biggest selling point of Stephen Lloyd Jones’ first novel is its original concept. Couple that with engaging characters, a well-founded history and a trip around Europe like you’ve never seen before, and you’re onto a winning formula. Thankfully, despite the vibe that the cover might give off, there is nothing special about the diaries of the title: they don’t hold the secret to life eternal, or the identity of the thirteenth Apostle. They’re not, in short, the goal of some mythical quest. They’re a set of old notebooks held together with a piece of string. The story they contain, much like the story Jones presents here, is pure gold.

WHERE I LEFT MY SOUL by Jérôme Ferrari

Where_I_Left_Soul WHERE I LEFT MY SOUL

Jérôme Ferrari

Translated by Geoffrey Strachan

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£12

Released: 10th October 2012

I am always slightly surprised when I come across a book that deals with a period of history of which I have been woefully ignorant. Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul, the French author’s first novel translated into English, presents just such a period, dealing with the decades following the end of the Second World War during which the French Empire appears to have completely collapsed, leaving an entire generation of young men feeling used and betrayed by their government.

One such man, André Degorce, stands at the centre of this short, bleak novel. Having joined the French Resistance at the age of 19, halfway through 1944, he finds himself captured by the Germans. In May 1945, he leaves the camp at Buchenwald weighing five and a half stone. Almost exactly nine years later, he leaves a re-education camp in Vietnam, having been captured by the Viet Minh. Now, 1957, Capitaine Degorce is at war again, this time in the Northern African climes of Algeria, and this time the shoe is on the other foot.

Degorce, now a torturer, has been tasked with capturing Tahar, one of the commanders of the National Liberation Army. Lieutenant Horace Andreani, a man with whom he was captured in Vietnam, has joined him once again in Algeria, seemingly enjoying his new role much more than the Capitaine. When Tahar is captured, Degorce senses a kinship and during the short period when Tahar is his prisoner, the Algerian also becomes a confessor. When Tahar is transferred to Andreani’s care, Degorce is lost, unable to comprehend what he has become.

The bulk of the story takes place over the course of three days at the end of March 1957. These third-person narratives from the point of view of Degorce are interspersed with a first-person rant in the voice of a much older Lieutenant Andreani, a stream of bile and invective aimed at Degorce, a man once respected, even loved, now reviled and considered a traitor. What slowly unfolds as the story progresses, are the portraits of two men broken in very different ways by the same circumstances. On the one hand, Degorce, a man filled with remorse, increasingly questioning the tactics he uses on a daily basis, unable to comprehend why he is slowly becoming the same as his captors in Buchenwald and Vietnam; on the other, Andreani, a man willing to do anything in the name of his country, remorseless and happy, the perfect tool.

Ferrari states in his preface, that it’s not about the war, nor the politics:

“…it was not French wounds, nor even history, that interested me; I was only interested in the trajectory these officers followed, as a paradigm of the way in which man, as he plunges into his own inner darkness, loses his soul.”

In this, at least, he succeeds. We meet André Degorce as his world is about to collapse around him. Through a series of flashbacks we discover how he has arrived at this point, and can infer certain things about the choices he has made. The capture of Tahar, and the similarities Degorce sees between himself and his captive, serve to push him over the edge, and we witness a man whose world is falling apart around him: his remote and crumbling relationship with his family, who have no idea to what lengths he has gone in the service of his country; and his position within the army, a job that suddenly seems irrelevant to him, his unquestioning loyalty now at an end, a source of embarrassment and shame.

“He was no longer even trying to shake off the grip of humiliation. He was simply waiting for the whole charade to be at an end. It occurred to him that Jeanne-Marie would see his picture in the papers next morning and would in all probability be proud of him. If she were to learn one day what he was really doing here she would be unable either to believe it or to understand it. And she would be right: in spite of all the logic in the world, it was at bottom impossible to understand and it was better for his wife to remain in permanent ignorance.”

In parallel with this, we also witness the descent of Horace Andreani into the same pit. It is a descent on a much different trajectory, taking over forty years to complete, and it is driven by the Lieutenant’s hatred of his one-time Capitaine.

The narrative is at times dense and slow-moving, particularly in the Andreani sections, where sentences span half a page, and paragraph breaks are few and far between. Despite the daunting appearance, Andreani’s voice is engaging enough, and what he has to say interesting enough, to allow the reader to make short work of these sections. The Degorce sections are more conventional, and give us a more detailed look at the soldiers’ time in Algeria, and the work they do: torture both physical and psychological in the name of dismantling a terrorist network that existed long before such a thing was considered the norm. Ferrari’s writing is beautiful, his compact novel giving us at once a shapshot of a specific time and location, but also a timeless scenario that could well be playing out in a handful of countries right now. The war, the politics, as was Ferrari’s intention, are secondary to the main story: a look at two men’s descent into hell, and the broken husks that remain.

Where I Left My Soul is a short, powerful tale that presents a look at the human soul in all its darkness. Behind that beautiful Monica Reyes cover is an equally beautiful tale that shows Jérôme Ferrari’s understanding of the dark side of humanity. It’s a quick read, but one that will remain with the reader for a long time afterwards, a consequence of strong characters and engaging storyline. In a year already bursting with wonderful reads, Where I Left My Soul still manages to stand out.

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