Novel of the week
Jean-Christophe Grange, translated by Ian Monk Harvill Press, 334pp, £15.99
This French thriller crosses the Channel with high expectations. It has sold 200,000 copies in France, is being made into a film and its plot about a series of gruesome murders in the Alps has inspired comparisons with Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs.
The details are chilling. A mutilated, naked corpse is found in the mountains with its eyes gouged out. A second body is discovered nearby without any hands. Superintendent Pierre Niemans is sent from Paris to "decipher the infernal logic behind the mutilations". Meanwhile Karim Abdouf, an Arab inspector, is investigating a desecrated tomb. The two stories run in tandem until both men stumble on a connection. That is the plot in a nutshell, and it would be unfair to divulge much more. The narrative takes place over a 24-hour period and is a gripping read with some splendid set pieces. The author dispenses with the good cop/bad cop routine and goes the whole hog. Both are ultra-bad cops.
The story kicks off with a graphic account of a football riot by Arsenal fans in Paris. We meet Niemans giving chase to an English hooligan and thrashing him within an inch of his life: "His bones were sticking up through shreds of his skin. An eyeball dangled down on a mess of fibres." The violence may not be to everyone's taste, but there was nothing this reader couldn't stomach. Later in the book Karim gets his revenge on a gang of skinheads by glueing their hands to the floor and making them do press-ups.
The author is good on atmosphere and the arresting metaphor. Football rioters writhe around on the ground "like half-crushed slugs". Grange's style is clear and for the most part uncluttered, but sometimes he seems in too much of a hurry. We get an information overload each time we are introduced to a new character. Hence the university vice-chancellor is "a man with wiry hair, a flat nose and skin the colour of talc". Physical traits, like proverbial buses, tend to come in threes. Niemans is "tall, with a crew cut and iron-rimmed spectacles".
Ian Monk has translated well, but there are odd stage directions in the middle of dialogue. It's as if the author (or translator) can't make up his mind whether he's writing a film script or a novel. "Every weekend I go down the rapids (she pointed at her upturned craft) on one of those things."
In the end, the comparisons with Thomas Harris don't really stand up. Niemans, who is invariably described as a "warrior" or "supercop", rarely rises above the level of a comic-strip hero. There is no Hannibal Lecter lurking in the shadows. Instead we have a disturbing Gallic conceit that lurks at the heart of the novel.
Far more unpalatable than the violence is the author's xenophobic baloney. Perfidious Albion and America are portrayed in the book as the homes of, respectively, mindless football hooligans and motiveless mass murderers. In France, the author appears to be saying, murder is less barbaric and always has a reason. As Niemans remarks, serial killing "is not a French speciality". Even the so-called serial murders in this story turn out to be part of a conventional revenge tragedy.
This thesis is utter tosh, though. Arguably the most infamous serial killer in history was the 15th-century French nobleman Gilles De Rais, who was said to have murdered 800 children. But you begin to see why the book did so well in France. It alternately horrifies and flatters its audience.
In the end the author is hoist with his own petard. For all the talk of unmasking the face of evil and demons in the early part of the novel, the denouement turns out to be disappointingly banal, if not a little far-fetched, and it is possible to make an early guess at the culprit.
Since the author has made it clear that the crime must have a rationale, the story is robbed of mystery. However, it is still an enthralling read along the way.