Philippe Grimbert ‘A Secret’


–Only child, I’d had a brother for a long time. They had to take me at my word when I told this tale to my relations on holiday, to my passing friends.IMG_1136 I had a brother. More handsome, stronger. An older brother, glorious, invisible.***


Fifteen years after his parents suicide, Philippe Grimbert brings us this story of his and his families life told mostly by his young self from the fifties. This family drama was turned into a successful film in France and the book translated into many languages.
Philippe tells us how he grew up in the Paris area with his mother and father, he had health problems and was a weak child so he invented an older brother to give himself courage. His parents were both good looking and athletic and Philippe liked to imagine their youth and how they met.
Philippe, however, was brought up in a family with a secret of which only he was unaware:


–My friend opened one by one new chapters, the events for which I had learnt the details in my history books, the occupation, Vichy, the fate of the Jews, the demarcation line were no longer reduced to bold titles in a school manual, they were suddenly alive, black and white photos that had found their colour. My parents had been through it and were much more marked by this than I had believed. Anna appeared out of the night, Maxime’s first wife.***



The story concerns two major events that in Philippe families case overlapped and interfered. Firstly Philippe’s father Maxime fell passionately in love with his own sister in law Tania, a family drama waiting to burst to the surface and secondly Philippes family was Jewish and Maxime had decided to lead them cross the demarcation line in small groups to flee from their fate and whilst Maxime and Tania arriving separately had reached safety, Anna disillusioned is captured with Simon, Maxime and Anna’s child:


–Try to imagine the feelings of my mother in the light of the news. The enemy from from which she had fled had become an ally brushing aside the only obstacle that stood between her and my father, if Anna and Simon didn’t make it, everything would be possible.***


Could anyone live with the weight of having survived in these circumstances?

First Published in French as “Un Secret” in 2004 by Grasset et Fasquelle
Translated into English by Polly McLean and published by Portobello Books in 2007
*** My Translation

Simonetta Greggio ‘Black Messiah’

 –You’re hilarious you are. You’ll make me laugh to death. You watch too much television, but Italy isn’t the USA: IMG_1120we’re at the back of the class, last in the kingdom of heaven. No DNA database here!***

Simonetta Greggio Italian, writing in French takes us to Tuscany –This kind of thing doesn’t happen, not in Tuscany, on the gentle hills where happy breakfast commercials are shot.*** In this her first crime novel, a number of murders resembling those of thirty years earlier, a true story concerning the monster of Florence, a serial killer who killed seven young couples in their cars whilst they were making love and who was never captured:

–In their torch beams, dozens of insects undulated like the northern lights. The clearing  pulsated with fireflies, but the carabiniers made no move to brush them aside. They stood there still, astounded….The young girl seemed to watch them with her staring eyes. Naked, crucified on a cross in the form of an X,  upright in the middle of the gap, her tortured face looked down on them, arms and legs stretched apart.***

As the book advances and once again young people and couples are targeted, young girls as always are particularly vulnerable. We follow two main characters, Miles, American whose Italian wife died in mysterious circumstances and who has moved to his wife’s country with his daughter Indiana for a new start and Jacopo, an Italian brigadier who was already in the police and on the unresolved case of the monster thirty years earlier, who too has lost his wife and has daughters the age of the victims.

These two characters are on a slow collision course up to the final confrontations in the story. And yes, as the opening quote from the killer leads us to understand, Italy approved its first DNA database in 2016, after the events in this story.

First Published in French as “Black Messie” in 2016 by Stock
*** My Translation

Hannelore Cayre ‘La Daronne’

—I was paid in cash by my employer, The Home Office, who therefore declared no taxes…..its pretty scarey when you think of it, the translators on whom National security depends, IMG_1114the very same that translate the plots hatched by islamists in their cellars and garages, should be clandestine workers with no social security and no pension. Quite frankly there are better ways to ensure incorruptibility.***

Lets get the translation in first, ‘La Daronne’ is French slang for mother, my best equivalent would be the cockney rhyming wersion ‘The finger and thumb’.

Hannelore Cayre who’s First book ‘Commis d’office‘ meaning ‘Duty Counsel’ in English was released as a film in 2009, serves us this time an excellent piece of French Noir centering around Patience Portefeux, a hard working ageing police translator/interpreter with an uncertain future ahead of her, as the initial quote tells us these translators really were paid cash in hand, and how she becomes ‘La Daronne’.

—It was the end of July, the sun was burning up the sky; The Parisians were all heading for the beaches, and I was beginning my new career, Philippe my fiancé and copwas just taking up his new position as head of the drug squad of the 2nd unit of the DPJ…
I was really happy for him, but back then I was still just a simple police Translator/Interpreter and hadn’t yet got one point two tons of hash in my cellar.***

Cayre’s inside knowledge of the judicial process in France gives us little details such as prisoners speaking with the outside world using Playstations to avoid being listened in on, or the description of the dealers with two phones, the bizzness and the halal to avoid being eavesdropped on but being unable to keep their calls segregated and being blown within hours.

I read this book in two sittings, and thoughroughly enjoyed if from start to end, I firmly recommend this book if your French is up to it, if not watch out for or plebiscite a translation.

First Published in French as “La Daronne” in 2017 by Métailié
*** My translation

Karine Tuil ‘L’insouciance’

—She still thinks that I was the one that caused us to split up when we were at Princeton, when it was in fact she that left me! IMG_1106She left me because she preferred to form a couple with a black, a man with a brilliant future ahead of him, a Harvard degree – and black like herself!***

In Karine Tuil’s latest book, ‘Frivolity’***, The question of identity is the very lynchpin of existence, from the very first quote proposed by Tuil:

—Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Freedom, equality, brotherhood), promote all of these values, but sooner or later, the problem of identity appears.
—Aimé CÉSAIRE, Negro I am, Negro I will remain. Interviews with Françoise Vergès***

The question of identity is the underlying link as we follow this intricately interlocking story between the different protagonists:
—Osman Diboula, a black social worker who had become a political adviser to the president following his role in intervening for the families of two adolescents during and after the riots following their accidental  electrocution whilst hiding from the police.
—Romain Roller a career soldier, who had known Osman when he was a troubled adolescent and with his help had been saved by the army and is now coming back from Afghanistan after a traumatic tour of duty.
—Marion Decker, a journalist from a poor background and the second wife of the richissime François Vely.
—François Vely, a rich business man whose Father, Paul Levy, after fighting in the resistance and being deported changed his name from Levy to Vely:

—At the end of the war,Paul Levy had changed the order of the letters in his name and removed his biblical Christian name in order to improve his integration into French society, his assimilation, to reinvent himself maybe, so what? My identity is purely political, Levy/Vely liked to repeat. Paul Vely the great conscience of the left, the committed intellectual, that was important, that defined him far more than the identity that had been pressed on him, like a mask whose contact he had never accepted.***

Through events of considerable violence each of these characters has his identity questioned and we are shown the difficulty and pain involved in changing one’s identity.

—Vely, who due to his wealth finds himself out of touch with his own image and the effects of negative publicity on his life. He then discovers that he cannot escape his Judaity.
—Roller who through the post traumatic stress after his return from Afghanistan is unable to go on mission and loses his identity as a soldier.
—Decker, who has left the poverty of her adolescence and is married to Vely,  is torn by a relationship with Roller which would lead her back to a life closer to the insecurity of her youth.
—Diboula who falls out of favour with the President and discovers the drug of politics, its mechanisms and also that with social mobility there is no going back:

—Don’t believe that loyalty is the rule in politics. It’s the exception. The rule is betrayal…all the art of politics was to create power relationships to protect you from betrayal.***

The book takes all of these questions and bringing these characters all together shakes out four solutions: the end of frivolity.

First Published in French as “L’insouciance” in 2016 by Gallimard
*** My translation

Olivier Norek ‘Code 93’

—Four endless grey lanes piercing like a lance through to the heart of the suburb. Gradually the houses becoming flats, the flats becoming tower blocks. Look the other way at the gypsy camps. Caravans as far as the eye can see, one up against another along the RER lines.IMG_1105 Washing left to dry on the railings surrounding this section of the population we can neither like nor hate. Close the window as you pass the waste disposal site and its smells, only a short distance from the housing. This is how the ’93’ and its citizens are treated, going as far as to pile mountains of bins next to their homes. Just an idea, maybe we should propose to do this to the capital city, the other side of the périphérique, just to see how the Parisiens react. Unless of course the poor and the immigrants have a less developed sense of smell.***

Olivier Norek, an ex-police detective takes us here on a trip to surroundings he knows well, the 93 pronounced ‘nine- three’ the poorest of the départements immediately surrounding the city of Paris described with a few strokes of the brush in my opening quote.

The story is an inventive and largely believable story of solidarity in a police team amidst political and police corruption and feelings of entitlement. Crime statistics are being ‘massaged’ by making murder cases of marginal victims disappear. This  practice is forced to the light of day by a sadistic murderer who sets his sights on just such victims but ensures by his staging of the corpses that the cases cannot be hidden.

Why would anyone want to massage the crime figures in a notoriously dangerous département? Who could actually do this and how? What could be the killers motives and how does he choose his victims? Norek provides viable and intriguing answers to all of these questions.

A well written, lively police mystery, the main character, Coste, feels real, well worth a translation and, I believe, a filmed version!

First Published in French as “Code 93” in 2013 by Michel Lafon
*** My translation

Tanguy Viel ‘Article 353 of the code of criminal procedures’

—Article 353 of the code of criminal procedure: the law does not hold magistrates accountable for the means by which they come to a conclusion, nor does it describe the rules on which the full satisfaction of proof should depend;IMG_1076 the law requires them to question themselves in quiet withdrawal and to search their consciences sincerely for influence the evidence brought forward against the accused and the means of the defence has had on them. The law asks of them but one question, which encompasses the full weight of their responsibility: Do you have a firm belief?***

Tanguy Viel tells us here a universal story of gullibility where a crooked property developer, Antoine Lazenec appears in the working class far western French port of Brest. Here in an essentially poorer city in France, the lack of loose money has not prepared them for Lazenec. The events are preceded by the naval arsenal, the city’s largest employer, closing down and the employees getting lumped sum severance payments, loose cash in an otherwise frugal community.

The story is told by Kermeur, in an almost monologue to the magistrate, and who after being layed off by the Arsenal, was the gatekeeper of the “Chateau”, a beautiful municipally owned property on a cliff top overlooking the bay and at the same time the property that was to be developed by Lazenec and leads to the final act of the magistrate questioning the events in the light of Artticle 353 of the code of criminal procedure shown in the opening quote.

The story opens with Kermeur in a small boat, a Merry Fisher, the very type of boat Kermeur had dreamed of bying for himself, well off of the coast, throwing Lazenec overboard to certain death and calmly sailing back to port. Kermeur later describes to the magistrate the effrontery  of Lazenec:

—From here I’d say it alost looks like a real chateau. Yes, that’s right, he replied. It’s almost a shame to demolish it. Demolish? I said. And whilst I was still taking in his answer, at that same time he had begun to walk back towards the quays , whilst I was trying to tell him that I hadn’t understood that from the model, it had seemed to me quite the opposite, the chateau…Yes, but what can you do, he said, the project is evolving, and you’ll see, Kermeur, it’ll look a lot better like that.***

Lazenec is a type of character that since the banking crisis of 2007-2008, we have become accustomed to. Lazenec has no shame, not only does he never begin the actual building work but he continues as time goes on to sign up more people from the peninsula as investors, I mean he must be for real? As the swindle becomes too obvious to ignore, the town mayor, Le Goff, realising he has severely indebted the commun in the investments is the first to act:

—I think you could still here it the following friday, the bullet, under the black umbrellas surrounding the grave, ricocheting off of the walls of the bell tower for at least three days bouncing off of the swing of the death knell before now whistling down the alleys of the cemetery***

The judge asks Kermeur why he and the other people who were cheated didn’t group together to take him to court, but of course nobody wanted to admit that they had been so easily cheated. The strength of Viel’s writing is to describe the events surrounding the disintegration of the lives touched by Lazenec leading to the question asked of Kermeur by his son:

Do you intend winding up like Le Goff?

And of course the magistrate’s final reflection in the light of the article from the code of criminal procedure.

First Published in French as “Article 353 du code Pénal” in 2016 by Les Editions de Minuit.
*** My translation

Jean-Christophe Duchon-Doris ‘L’embouchure du Mississipy’

—Most high, most powerful, most invincible and victorious prince Louis the Great, by the grace of God, king of France and of Navarre, img_1070fourteenth of this name, take possession of this country of Louisiana, seas harbours, ports, bays, adjacent straights and all of the nations, peoples, provinces, city’s towns, villages, mines, minerals, fish, streams, rivers, within the length and breadth of the aforementioned Louisiana***

As I was on a trip to New Orleans, I thought I would pick up a French historical novel about the City and thus came across this ‘Mouth of the Mississipy’ by Duchon-Doris in my local lending library. The story is set in the first years of the eighteenth century as the d’Iberville brothers from New France have been sent to form a settlement by King Louis XIV, the vast region of Louisiana having been claimed for king Louis in an earlier expedition by Cavelier de La Salle in the 1680s whose speech at the moment of claiming it is given in the opening quote.

The expeditions take place during a time of religious rivalry between the Roman church and the Reformed church and rivalry within the camps between the Jésuites, who by the purists are accused of making concessions with the faith in order to get if adopted in far flung lands, and one of these purist groups, the “Missions étrangères” backed by Madame de Maintenon.

In this story, Guillaume de Lauteret expecting to become the Paris prosecutor finds his fiancée’s mother arrested under order of the king but with no explanation.  In trying to discover the truth they learn that the father of  Delphine, his fiancée, had been involved in an expedition to Louisiana where he had until recently be supposed dead, as they then learn:

—Listen to me, he said. I’ll be quick. There are always two versions to a story. In the first, your father is dead. He killed by Mr. Cavelier de La Salle in 1687 after an ugly quarrel. He was tried and executed immediately afterwards by the survivors of the expedition. In this version, your mother is imprisoned.
—In the second version, seventeen years later, when the Sire d’Iberville is leading a new expedition to the mouth of the Mississippi , in the name of the king, the settlers are attacked by a man who kills five of them and is recognised by M de La Salle’s old aumônier as your father.***

img_1069
Map showing the expeditions to Louisiana

So begins the story that will lead them on an adventurous expedition to Louisiana with the d’Ibervilles looking to discover the truth about Delphine’s family. A pleasant story mostly read in the plane.

First Published in French as “L’embouchure du Mississipy” in 2004 by Julliard
*** My translation