The Devil by Nadia Dalbuono
The Devil is the fifth novel in the Leone Scamarcio series and is a welcome return for one of Italy’s most distinctive and intriguing fictional detectives which is saying something given the competition. Despite a CWA Steel Dagger longlisting and critical praise the Scamarcio novels are still not making it to the big time, which is a literary injustice. Dalbuono is as good as Michael Dibdin, Madeleine Nabb or Donna Leon, maybe more niche, certainly her novels are darker, more intense and stronger on the social critique but they are easily as well written as any of the above. If like me you’re heavily into Italian crime writers the comparisons could be made with the best there too, I have no hesitation in comparing her work to de Giovanni, Carlotto, Lucarelli, and Saviano when it comes to her understanding of the dark heart of Italian society. To date this is a fine series and The Devil carries on in that vein. The opener in 2014, The Few, introduced Scamarcio, the cop with a father in the mafia trying to get out from under the cloud of suspicion that always hangs over him. Given the nature of the cases he’s had to deal with Scamarcio has been forced back on old relationships from time to time, often caught between the police and his family connections – just who the good guys are is not always clear. In the Devil he’s a much more settled character but still an outsider, still edgy, he’s about to become a father and is terrified by the prospect. Scamarcio is a lone wolf, quick to anger and not good with people. This is exemplified in The Devil in the tension between Scamarcio and Inspector General of the Vatican police, Davide Cafaro, who is insinuates himself into the murder investigation because a Cardinal is involved. Of course, Scamarcio is intent on bulldozing his way in as usual.
The priest carried out the exorcism according old book he has in his hand, nothing has changed over the last four centuries. It took the priest and five others to hold the thrashing woman down as Satan refuses to leave her be. Eventually calm is restored, although the woman has no memory of the struggle when she comes round.
Scamarcio’s mood matches that of the city, Rome is grey and wet. Becoming a father scares him, he has doubts about being ready, about Fiammetta being ready, she doesn’t want to know the sex of the child, he thinks it would help them plan if they did, things are a little tense. He’s still smoking and he promised to quit. When his mobile rings he jumps to it to the amusement of his boss, Garramone, he has something to take Scamarcio’s mind of his personal worries, a murder. One that requires delicate handling, which begs the question why Scamarcio is a good choice, because he won’t stop. Cardinal Piero Amato, the Vatican’s chief exorcist performed the exorcism rites on eighteen year old Andrea Borghese only an hour before he was discovered dead, strangled. Amato was the last person to see the boy alive. The Cardinal had the boy in his pastoral care for some time, he carried out weekly exorcisms, this time with three other priests. All of whom believed, as the family did, that the devil possessed the boy which accounted for his behaviour. The crime scene looked peaceful to Scamarcio, undisturbed except for the boy’s body, his father had found him lying there. Scamarcio is deeply sceptical of exorcism and possession but the boy though usually mild mannered turned violent and had fits that could not be explained. Neither doctors, neurologists, not psychologists or psychiatrists could fathom the change in the boy. The parents appear to implicitly trust the Cardinal. Scamarcio doesn’t, he wants to interview him, the Vatican police chief, Cafaro, is less than cooperative. When Scamarcio returns to the Vatican to interview one of the priests who was at the exorcism, father Meinero, he can’t be found. As things hot up a complex web of dark deeds and secrets emerge. Initially there appears to be little to go on, Scamarcio gets into a scrape with the press, but then he make connection between the boy and some very powerful people, Cafaro is forced to admit that Meinero might be involved with a small group of priests involved in nefarious activities and the killing is not over yet…
The Devil is a dark slow burn murder mystery with a satisfying denouement. The novel is rich in setting; Rome, it’s politics, religion, power and corruption. The story is populated with interesting characters but none more so than Scamarcio, a detective who can carry a story. This is an intelligent grounded thriller, the latest in one of the best police procedural series currently being written. If crime writing this good to being overlooked it is criminal.

SCRIBE UK paperback, ISBN 9781911617945, March, £8.99


Your Friendly Neighbourhood Death Peddler by Jimmy Sangster.
“…referred to as the battle of Santhoma Sea. Others who knew just that something had happened, but who weren’t aware of all the facts, called it either the South Sea Bubble or That Monumental Cock Up Down There.”
The title gives it away, this is an irreverent black comedy thriller, a damn good one. The novel catches the zeitgeist and has a healthy scepticism about the way the world works. Money talks and who you know really can get you that leg up in life, even if that elevation drops you into ethical sewer. There’s enough meat on the thriller element to make this an intriguing read and the characters have depth but overall it’s the riotous farce that will crack your funny bone.
Context: Your Friendly Neighbourhood Death Peddler was originally published in 1971, a decade after Catch-22 and a couple of years after Monty Python hit the TV and The Italian Job hit cinemas. The spoof wasn’t ubiquitous but it was carving a niche for itself across the decade; Deighton’s The Billion Dollar Brain, Martin Waddell’s Otley, and Albert Finney’s Gumshoe were all released around the same time. Sangster’s novel about an innocent stepping into arms dealing fits right into that niche. It’s also a fore-runner of Brian Freemantle’s Charlie Muffin series and a distant antecedent of Mick Herron’s Slough House crew. You want more context? This is Kafka meets Billy Liar.
What’s it all about? Anthony takes 15 minutes to fill in the questionnaire, it’s not complicated, it’s just more difficult when you’re making it up as you go along, (an MA from Leeds rather than a BA), a sabbatical rather than unemployment. In the end he’s happy with it, as long as they don’t find out he was fired from his last job all’s well. He’s a shoe in anyway, the job is a quid pro quo. A few weeks ago Anthony started seeing this girl, Lillian – Roedean, Swiss finishing, sex maniac, daddy’s money. This was fortunate as he had no money and nowhere to live until they shacked up. For weeks they hardly left the flat, then she starts introducing him to her friends and eventually mummy and daddy. Off to the country, Anthony puts his best speaking voice on and preps a speech on the tragic loss of empire. The Elizabethan, Georgian Victorian house;
“…the single most hideous edifice he has ever clapped eyes on, not excluding the Albert Memorial.”
Mummy is charming, daddy “buys and sells” things. On their first encounter Anthony sees daddy getting a blow job from his sexatary. Daddy isn’t too keen about Anthony getting too attached to his daughter. They strike a trade, he gives Anthony his independence back – a job, money, his own place, just go see Walpole at the London office. So Anthony dumps Lilian. The enigmatic Walpole has no intention of spelling out what the job entails but he’s delighted with Anthony questionnaire responses, specially three years in the army. £5,000 a year plus commission, Anthony is minted! He just needs his passport, first job – collect signor Carlos Ramirez from the airport. Thus Anthony steps into the world of arms trading and gun running, prostitutes, African affairs, embassies and corrupt officials, boat trips, spies, and you get the picture. . .
Sangster has a keen eye for telling detail and storytelling delivered with style; taut, lean prose, snappy dialogue, and a subtle use of setting bolsters the mood. It’s all devilishly wicked, loaded with irony and satirical bite, a cynical view of a jaundiced world. All his novel are tongue in cheek but this one is right out there.

I’ve reviewed a handful of Jimmy Sangster novels recently, all available on NB magazine, including a previously unpublished California PI novel, Fireball. Brash Books and publisher Lee Goldberg have done a new generation of readers a real service by republishing these British crime classics.
About Sangster: He is better remembered as a screen writer and director. He was there for the early days of Hammer House of Horror directing films including Lust for a Vampire with Barbara Jefford and Ralph Bates and writing the screenplay for Curse of Frankenstein with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (1957). His screenplay credits include versions of his own novels Spy Killer and Foreign Exchange (1969/70), Wonder Woman, Cannon, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and B.J. and the Bear. That list is not exhaustive. Sangster was born in Kinmel in Denbighshire, North Wales. At sixteen he began working as a clapper board boy and after military service joined Exclusive Studios in 1949 which later became Hammer Horror. Over the years Sangster worked with Bette Davis, George Peppard, Raymond Burr, Dean Jagger, Keith Michell, Sheila Hancock, Barbara Stanwick and a who’s who of British cinema.

Brash Books


Bloody London written and illustrated by David Fathers
You have to feel for any author with a book due out during the Covid-19 crisis but it seems extra hard on David Fathers as this is a walking book. All I’d say about that is the walks will be there when this is over and the book is very readable, even in the abstract.
Bloody London is a lightly told potted history of the dark side of 2000 years of London life, it is immensely enjoyable and informative. As a guide the walk is the focus so each entry is brief, there’s no nuance to the stories which is fair enough. If your curiosity is aroused by something in particular you can always look it up. The walks are well thought out, well plotted, obstacles like steps are highlighted as are nearby transport links, and there are alternative routes offering different bloody discoveries for each location.
Sadly, now isn’t the time to test the walks unless they happen to be on your local exercise route, which is frustrating. Reading Bloody London will make you want to see the locations associated with crimes and events you may be familiar with but haven’t connected to a specific place. There are also plenty of entries that will be new to readers, some will surprise and one or two will shock.
This pocket guide is handy enough to take out and about. Even in London with its myriad attractions you can get blasé about getting from A to B not taking in the sights. Bloody London is an aid to curing that complacency. In all Bloody London has twenty walks. The first area covered is Holloway and Islington and the first walk takes in these people and places: Frederick Seddon, poisoner, Ronald Marwood, cop killer, Joe Meek, record producer – Telstar by The Tornadoes – and killer of his landlady before committing suicide, Holloway prison, Dr. Crippen, the scene of the last duel, Frederick Bucknell, jilted lover/killer, Pentonville prison, and the MDC not guilty affair. The alternative walk features Joe Orton’s house, (murdered playwright). Other areas include Fitzrovia and Soho, Kensington and Notting Hill, but some walks are themed; The Great Plague 1665, The Great Fire 1666, Jack the Ripper, Tyburn, and the Thames. The lengths of walks vary, from less than a kilometre to ten kilometres. They are for the curious, the history buff wanting to connect paper knowledge to location, and for Ben Aaronovitch, the crime writer who introduces this guide, a source of material. Maps are clear and the illustrations by the writer/artist add to the flavour.
This is a book I intend to make use of as soon as social isolation allows. If exploring London is your thing this is for you.
Published by Conway, 2nd April, Paperback, 9781844865505


Europa 28 edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave.
Writing by Women on the Future of Europe.
Laura Bates in her introduction tells us that this collection is all about ‘seeing other people’s way of seeing things’: she tells us, “Women see things differently”. These alternative opinions are the perspectives of a number of eminent women from across Europe, reflecting their experience and their perception in stories and essays; they are scientists, writers, and entrepreneurs and yet their voices have seldom been heard until now. Europa 28 aims:
“To see a Europe so far removed from the over simplistic, binary, staid portrayal of recent times. To come to it afresh in all its fractured, fragile, compromised, contoured parts. To recognise its flaws and its richness, it’s gifts and its costs, it’s challenges and it’s beauty…”
There’s plenty to engage with in this sharp collection of ways of seeing modern Europe, it’s historical context, what it means to be European, the nature of the European Union and the future of the continent. For good reason everyone’s gaze has turned away from Brexit at the moment, however, as it is yet unresolved at some point it will have to be returned to. Surely this current crisis points up one of the reasons coming together, cross border co-operation, has such value, if anything needs a coordinated response it’s a pandemic.
Putting the current crisis to one side for the European debate. In the whole of the three years we’ve just experienced in Britain there was never a real exchange of opinions in an open spirit. There is no real vision for the future beyond the bald decision to leave. Bates points out the debate was largely between white, well off, Christian men entrenched in their views. Europa 28 simply seeks to address the lack of diversity in the debate, widening it’s parameters, to hear the voices of those not usually represented.
I found this collection both hopeful and incisive, women do think about things differently. The women here see the human problems and the need for holistic humanitarian solutions. These writers see the refugee crisis as a human problem in its own right rather than an issue that impinges on Europe, suggesting we take responsibility first, not examine consequences first. The crisis won’t evaporate, deal with it properly or experience the misery and uncertainly we currently face indefinitely. Countries, governments, see the issue within the context of their own problems, so it related to overcrowding, social care, financial burden, chopping it up into pieces that never address the fundamental human tragedy. Tackle the tragedy is a point that comes out of several of these essays, a view rarely heard above the din, the xenophobia, the financial fears. Another point that is made concerns the alarming rising significance of neo-fascist views, fear and prejudice that we see across the continent.
Several essays echo the thought that ‘you never know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it’. The lack of respect shown to membership of the European Union. While a member Britain chose to opt in and out as it was fit, the rest of the Union let Britain get away with that, treading lightly. So when it came down to it nobody, not even the most ardent Europhiles in government bothered to speak up for the virtues of the Union. It was allowed to slip away without a proper fight. No one is suggesting blanket approval of all things European Union but throwing the baby out with the bathwater was surely a stupid option. The writers here lean towards cooperation, we keep coming back to the simple point that if we listen to other opinions, engaged in debate rather than entrench or hide away we might learn something.
The first stimulating contribution in this book is Cracks in the Ice by Austrian contributor Julya Rabinowich, Austria, (Katy Derbyshire trans.). A potted history reminds us of how we got here, how much we take that for granted and how negligent we are of hard won freedoms. Rabinowich compares the barbed wire of the East-West divide, the iron curtain, with the concept of a common Europe and its ideology. Further comparing that to the current refugee tragedy on the borders. Just how do democracies explain the camps? ‘The ice is cracking beneath our feet’.
Europe Must Be for the 99 Per Cent by Apolena Rychlíková, Czech Republic, (Julia Sherwood trans.):
“What Europeans society so desperately needs nowadays,” writes Apolena Rychlíková, ‘is a chance to take a deep breath and start thinking beyond the present day, a chance to see itself in a different way, in a different constellation and social order.’
Staging Europe by Annelies Beck, Belgium, discusses the Brussels bubble and comes from a cab ride with Umberto Eco:
‘It is not enough for Brussels, or any city, to have a brilliant artist design a wonderful monument, compose a piece of music or sculpt a statue, for people to relate to it as the capital of the EU.’
Eco: ‘In thirty years, Europe will be a colourful continent, not only in terms of skin but in terms of ideas. It will be a continent we’re all kind of religions will have to live together. To learn to appreciate each other’s culinary traditions in a fundamental way to learn about one another’s mentality.’ (2001)
Europe Day or Bloody Thursday by Maarja Kangro, (Estonia), is a story about the Brown Years, far-right movements, populism, and the age of the inexpert opinion, Brexit, ignorance, intolerance, exclusion, nationalism, and ‘mental immobility’:
“The Brits even had a minister who said the people of Britain had enough of experts.”
All of One Mind by Lisa Dean, Ireland, is an exposition on old and new terrorism and Samuel Beckett:
“We need to see that we are much greater and richer than our paltry ideas of identity can stretch to, that we are as Beckett says, ‘Of one mind, all of one mind… deep down we’re fond of one another.’”
Everything I have, I’ve been Given by Karolina Ramqvist, Sweden, (trans. Saskia Vogel). Explores history and feminism and failings in understanding how we got here.
This is a book of different opinions, but it is positive and upbeat about the future if we care to take up the challenge of making this continent a better, safer, more decent place to live. I can’t speak for everyone but this common humanity makes sense to me. COVID-19 struck, it has forced a certain unity of purpose, encouraged a level of cooperation we’ve not seen since in decades. If we can temporarily solve homelessness, why not permanently, it only takes the will. If that can be done why not look to the refugee crisis. Isolation should make us appreciate how interconnected we all are.
Comma Press, March, ISBN 9781910477793, £12.99


The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
A beautiful, beguiling mix of fantasy and allegory, myth woven into life, which says something of the our humanity, the darkness and the light. A simple tale elegantly told that enfolds the reader into its sense of wonder and mystery. Life’s cruelty is on display but this is a love story, (maybe even two love stories); redolent with loss and longing and the desire to escape. To escape not just the bonds that restrict us but the relationships and attachments we form willingly when overwhelmed by an urge to be free, to be who we are. A tale of worlds colliding and stars aligning.
If you see David Baptiste now, wizened features and grey dreadlocks you might but struggle to imagine the young man who found the mermaid in 1976, most of the locals in St. Constance have long forgotten the affair:
‘…when those white men from Florida came to fish for marlin and instead pulled a mermaid out of the sea. It happened in April, after the leatherbacks had started to migrate.’
She would never have been caught if David and her hadn’t flirted the way they did by the jagged rocks of the Black Conch waters, a mile or so from Murder Bay. David was happy with his ganja, his guitar and his fishing, red snapper and king fish. Then he spotted her while he was singing and playing, her seaweed and barnacle matted hair, his heart thumped, he was trembling:
“Holy Mother of Holy God on earth.”
When he saw her she dove under the waves and no amount of entreaties would bring her back that day, for sure she was a mermaid. Then he returned the next day and so did the mermaid, and everyday there after, it was a secret innocent tryst that went on over the seasons, she loved his guitar, he didn’t tell his family, or his friends:
“Whenever I see the first leatherbacks arrive, I always feel happy, I know she, my mermaid, will soon appear, happy too, to greet me.’
Then in 1976 two white men arrive for the fishing, Thomas Clayson and his son. The mermaid mistook their engine for David’s boat and followed them, when they spied her they can only think about the money they could get from the Smithsonian for this find. They catch her after a prolonged brutal hunt, she fights for her life:
“I swam away, then dive deep
my terror was ENORMOUS
I swam but I still ketch
I want to go down to die’
The men leave her hanging on the dock like a slaughtered shark by her tail. David rescues her, revives her, she begins to change into human form, the white men hunt the mermaid and the thief. Aycayia is caught between two worlds, her growing love for David, her human desires and the call of the sea. Meanwhile hurricane Rosamund is brewing.
David’s journal looking back, rich local Trinidadian dialect:
‘I am an ol’ man now, and sick sick so I cyan move much, sick so I cyan work, go out to sea, and so I go write my story.’
narrating as it happens, told at the time the mermaids in verse:
‘long long ago so long I don’t know the time
only that they call that the huracan
to take me far away
seal up my like my legs inside a tail’
A powerful emotionally involving tale Loaded with bitter sweet, melancholy, that will transport readers to another place for a time.
If you like this novel I had previously enjoyed Roffey’s The Tryst (Dodo Ink Press, 2017), the tale of an erotic ménage a trois. She is a Trinidadian born British novelist and is a lecturer in creative writing.
Published by PEEPLE TREE PRESS, April, ISBN 9781845234577


Face of My Assassin by Jan Huckins & Carolyn Weston.
At sixty-one years distance it’s hard not to read this novel for the remarkable social document it is, for what it says about segregation in the 1950s. The issues Face of My Assassin raises are sometimes brutal and obvious but there’s a lot of subtly here too. As integration is coming to the fore this novel explores prejudice in all its forms; institutional, paternalistic, unconscious, also the possibility of change and the way people see their own racism. Segregation isn’t the only focus of the novel, Face of My Assassin says much about the mores of society, the post WWII world, the gulf in attitudes between the North and the South, the city and the backwater. It’s about the tensions between black and white populations and the way people live, rich and poor, privilege and disenfranchisement. The stark divide between those seen as poor white ‘trash’ and the general black population, still worse off, yet these people have more in common than they know if only they realise that. Monagee City seethes with white corruption and self interest, the abuse of power from the court room to the cops. There’s a pyramid of power and influence that the black population don’t even register on.
Face of My Assassin is a melodrama, an epic tale of murder, rape, betrayal, loss, brutality, hypocrisy, fraud, sexism, and court room drama but also family, love, the human spirit – hope and justice. The story is seen from multiple perspectives, black and white characters, it’s nuanced and insightful. It’s tempting to think of some of the characters as clichéd, tropes, honestly, I think that’s familiarity rather than cheap writing, the sheriff is a lazy, racist cop with a self belief that belies his talents. The ‘big daddy’ character is like Endicott in The Heat of the Night but surely that is the way it was? I might be tempted to think this was just easy characterisation if it weren’t for the many subtleties. No one has a damascene conversion but some racists come to see certain things aren’t right. White liberals are faced with their own prejudices and internal struggles, unconscious bias. If Face of My Assassin has one fault, it’s overlong but nonetheless it’s a powerful piece of writing. It’s hard to imagine this novel didn’t land like a grenade when it was originally published by Random House in the US in 1959. That’s a year before To Kill a Mockingbird came out, it may not have had the impact but it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, no one who reads this novel will ever do that.
4pm at the Cotton Queen Hotel and it’s 104° in Matthew ‘Matt’ Scott’s room. The heat, like everything else in Monagee City, population 3,400, is oppressive, the rain won’t come for months. Since he got here no one wants to talk about segregation, especially not to a journalist from Now magazine, out of New York. Matt looks out the window at the war memorial – Civil War not WWII. White folks say ‘no one wants integration’, they feel free to offer the same opinion for the black population; ‘[they]…know when they’re well off’. Black people are nervous of been seen with the journalist, those who offer an opinion just say, ‘it’s the way it is’. Nobody appears to care about the Supreme Court, this is the deep South, they have their own ways. Scott is thinking of packing it in, this is a hopeless assignment. Then he gets a call, don’t say anything, the switchboard will be listening, I’m an old friend, I’ll call round about five.
A few days earlier: Howard Patterson says this is Matt’s third and final chance, never mind his wife died and that he’s a recovering ‘lush’. Patterson praises his Africa stuff, the Mau Mau rebellion, of course, it was spiked but it was insightful. That’s what this story needs; heart, a sense of justice, ask the people of the South about integration, get both community attitudes. So Matt is here, talking to the porter at Monagee City train station:
‘I was bawn heah, gonna die heah, likin doan have nothin to do with it.’
At the hotel he makes a friend of the bellboy, Bones, calls him by his give name, Tom Winters. Tom has a sister, Ellie, she’s a teacher, she might be willing to talk. About 5.30 Ellie waltzes into Matt’s room, best not to knock, not to draw attention. Ellie is not what he’s expecting, she’s light skinned, spent three years at Columbia, passed as white in New York, but lived the whole time in fear. The novel is already beginning to challenge Matt’s perceptions of race. Ellie is angry, tired, frightened, bitter, she’s risking her life being here and she won’t trust another do goer lightly.
Hours later Tom let’s his sister out the back of the hotel, he’s suspicious of the time she spent with the white guy, even though he likes him, Ellie soothes him. In the lane outside Ellie runs into Sheriff Landreau, when he realises who she is, a ‘good girl’, he offers/insists on walking her home. Landreau is predatory, paternalistic, superior. Ellie doesn’t want to trapped the way Ludie was, abused by big daddy Ballou before being given to the sheriff. This time she manages to slip away unharmed.
Matt doesn’t want to take sides, a journalist should be impartial, he visits Ellie’s school, a shack with no facilities, no books, let alone running track, swimming pool like the white schools. She’s angry he doesn’t seem shocked, outraged. Ellie begins to tell Matt what life is like for the black population, protest against being kept off the electoral role would bring reprisals; castration, rape, foreclosure. Slowly a bond is forming.
Kit Ballou is young and spoiled, the daughter of the richest man in town. Big daddy Ballou won’t see the journalist, a Yankee trouble maker, but Kit questions her father’s paternalism, maybe it is time for a change. Like the sheriff’s this is a dysfunctional family. Kit and Matt also form a bond.
Resentment in the town builds and the atmosphere of the novel darkens, rape and murder, arson and a cruel mockery of the law ensue.
‘“But in ain’t right,” Allie went on recklessly, “stickin a murder rap on a man cause he don’t talk like you or think like you or he’s got a funny name—” like Chadash or Horowitz or Blumberg.’
The inequality in the treatment of a black man or a white man show up even when a man is being framed for murder. The slow pace of life, the local dialect and Southern style are all well observed. This novel is loaded with injustice, passion, and pathos. Given that we still have major problems with racism and division in society this novel is as timely as ever.
‘About the authors’ tells us that: “The collaborators met by chance at the beach, and the next week found themselves at work on Face of My Assassin.” Serendipity in all its glory. Jan Huckins wrote this novel and a couple of PI stories, as well as radio plays and journalism. Carolyn Weston wrote five other novels, including three police procedurals which became The Streets of San Francisco.
Cutting Edge Books, ISBN 9781734429510, published 25/3.


Summer of Reckoning by Marion Brunet
This clever psychological crime thriller has a depth you might expect of a much larger literary novel. Of course, the French have never been snobbish about the crime versus contemporary literature divide and aren’t afraid of exploring complex themes in this genre, even so this is an exceptional read. An utterly gripping story of small town mores and the dark side of human nature. The Summer of Reckoning is elegantly written and beautifully structured, every sentence is relevant, each passage is heavy with meaning. The constant comparison and contrast between now and the past, between generations is sharply observed and very striking.
Summer of Reckoning revolves around an apparently simple event, the unexpected pregnancy of a young girl, but Brunet manages to weave a complex and involving tale that not only encompasses the girl and her family but says something about the whole community, an exposé of the mentality of a hamlet trying to hold back the tide, as if the modern world will go away if ignored. The characters are so well drawn that the impact of the pregnancy can be witnesses through attitudes and reactions across the community and when people react it’s often with poisonous results born of their own failings and failures. Céline’s pregnancy sparks a storm but it’s clear that the family, the hamlet already had many problems. The tension is palpable; jealousy, anger, anxiety, thwarted dreams, envy, spite, machismo, racism, brutality – a cornucopia of raw feelings all building towards a tragic event.
A little hamlet in the Lauberon, it’s summer, the sun is shining, the funfair is in town, a family sets out to enjoy the evening, the tourists and the locals are mingling in the streets, the bars are full, there’s music and noise everywhere. This happiness is momentary, or maybe just a facade, the joy of the holiday season is about to come crashing down, the escape is brief.
Later that night we see events through the eyes of the younger sister Johanna. The moment her father, a violent alcoholic, an ox of a man full of anger, can no longer contain his rage. Manuel slaps sixteen year old sister Céline so hard that she falls to the kitchen floor dazed and breathless. Despite Manuel’s fury Céline is defiant, she won’t tell her parents the name of the father. Jo is frozen, her mother murmurs ‘stop it’ but it’s unclear who she aiming this at. Father continues to harangue Céline, eventually her mother says:
“The bitch isn’t going to tell us anything.”
Just a short while ago the family had gone to the funfair, joining the ‘contagious ecstasy’. Céline with her ‘indecent beauty’ and revealing clothes, ‘… a birdbrain with the bearing of a queen.’ no one cares what Jo is wearing:
‘“Better keep an eye on your eldest,” Patrick’s wife said with a grimace suggesting envy.’
The first poison, it won’t be the last. Céline teases the boys as they vie for her attention, jostle to sit next to her on the rides. Dated music plays, a tune from 1996, the fair returns every year with the same music as if frozen in time, as if the past is revisiting the village. It’s not a coincidence that this music comes from a generation ago, the time when the girls parents were dating, the story begins to draw parallels, is this generation to be punished for the thwarted dreams and mistakes of the past? Do the parents try to rewrite their own lives in their children’s future or crush it? The girls head to the Tarantula, the machine plunges and Céline faints, only Johanna seems to notice. When the ride end they gather round the girl, the adults run over, once again Patrick’s wife weighs in asking if Céline is pregnant.
Céline is pregnant, she calls on her neighbour Kadija, Saïd mother, for comfort. Céline assures her it’s not her son Saïd’s, Kadija is relieved, she wants a good girl for her boy. It’s a small rift, a change but nothing like at home. Her father is drinking with Patrick in the kitchen when Céline returns, she says she’s been to see Saïd. Patrick is quick to say you can’t trust Arabs. Her father should know better, but he’s tired and drunk and angry:
‘The poison acts, reaching deep into his brain. It’s soils everything and everybody, sticky like the giant Paulownia leaves… He longs to fight – constantly and with everybody.’
Jo and Céline also fight, like all sisters, normal life seems to return but underneath the poison continues to work. All the while the name of the father f Céline’s baby remains a secret. Jo, the intelligent, conflicted sister, wonders if Céline knows who the father is. I think readers will grasp the father’s identity but that doesn’t affect the drama, the shock at the turn of events as tragedy looms.
This portrait of a family and the hamlet is heavy with an atmosphere of poverty, of failing spirit and outdated attitudes and with the mental torpor and dissatisfaction of unfulfilled lives. It’s a touching portrait of two very different teenager girls and their poor start in life but both have spirit. Is Jo’s escape to a job in temporary? Is there hope here?
A powerful novel that crackles with a malignant energy. It’s easy to see why this brilliant novel was the winner of the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, 2018. This is a wonderful translation by Katherine Gregor.
Bitter Lemon Press, March, ISBN 9781912242269.

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