Wednesday, November 7, 2012


You may recall that I rather raved about the first J. Robert Janes novel that I read, Mayhem, featuring an unlikely pair of detectives from the Sûreté, Jean-Louis St-Cyr, and the Gestapo, Herman Kohler, set in Occupied France.  I love the conceit of crime carrying on during the occupation, the developing relationships and respect between St-Cyr and Kohler as they find common ground against their enemies (sometimes from within their own systems), the damp and dank and depressingly realistic images of the City of Light in Nazi darkness. 

Nevertheless, about, oh, I don't know, maybe 20 pages into the sequel, Carousel (1993, SohoCrime edition 1999), I found myself thinking, yes, but this one is worse than the first!  Let me put it another way, for about 50% of this book, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IS GOING ON.  Well, that's not fair, I do know that there were three (perhaps four) murders, a few more related deaths, a couple of possible rapes, a healthy dose of familial deceit, not to mention black market dealings, looting of luxury goods, Gestapo rafles (roundups) of hostages, and any number of people - French, German, others - looking out for themselves first and their country or cause second.  I do know that our heroes are in it up to their necks, since no one trusts them after they turned up a murderous Gestapo colonel in the first book (at least . . . I think this is what they did).  And I do know that Paris is dark, and damp, and hungry, god is it hungry, and the only people with enough to eat are the Germans. 

Maybe I am getting old or slow or am just plain too stupid to have survived the labyrinth of loyalties that marks this world of German dominance and French collaboration.  I cannot keep all the Germans and their departments straight, nor the various French factions (most of whom work for the Germans, in this story anyway).  Janes' habit of referring to people and organizations obliquely, by the street name or the branch of service that they represent, for example, is a challenge if you can't remember that this group at this address follows that service, and so on.  And I just find the idea of calling St-Cyr "the Sûreté" all the time, a bit contrived.

But I did have an ephiphany while reading a scene in which St-Cyr and Kohler are in with Kohler's boss at the Gestapo, Walter Boemelberg.  I found myself thinking, if I could see what was happening, watch this scene play out, I'd know instantly what was happening.  I'd have visual cues galore of uniforms, props, faces.  Without that, it all jumbles together.  So maybe Janes is a closet scriptwriter.

The fragmentation of plot works against a clear trajectory, but as was the case with Mayhem, there are beautifully written scenes that pop up now and again.  As in that first book, St-Cyr visits his lady friends Chantal and Muriel, an elegantly aging couple who run a very high-end parfumerie and lingerie shop on the place Vendôme.  They take him in for a few hours, feed him, bathe him, provide a new suit of clothes, offer any number of nubile young lingerie models should he wish for that kind of diversion, and provide valuable clues in the form of perfume identification and professional knowledge about the state of German-controlled silk supply chain.  St-Cyr and Muriel spar over a sample.
"'Lemon grass' breathed the Sûreté [see what I mean?] with excitment.  'Rosemary and coumarin.'
'Yes, yes, don't trouble me,' she scolded.
The nose was flattish, the cheeks still strong - indeed all of Muriel's features exuded strength.  But in perfumes and their concocting she had perhaps her only sign of weakness, apart from her friend and lifelong companion.  The voice was one of gravel and incongruous in a perfumer.  'There is musk and civet in this and it has the anger, Jean-Louis, of a woman who knows her own mind and body.  What we used to call a "fast" woman.'
'Sex . . . sex with many men,' whispered Chantal with great modesty.
'The civet is subtle, the musk has been used mainly to accent its sharpness.  There is some Balsam of Peru, some sandalwood - she wanted those elements of mystery - the wildness of thyme as well.  A woman of much abandon, Jean-Louis.  One who teases, or did so, since she can longer be so young and foolish.'
'The cloves of Bourbon and a touch of sweet fennel?' he said, watching her every expression wiht all too evident admiration.
So loyal!  Ah, Mon Dieu, it was at once tragic and elevating to see Monsieur Louis and Muriel exchange views like this.  A sensitive man, an unmarried man now, a widower.  Childless too.  Another tragedy but for the best.  Ah yes.
'The lime is for the acid with which she would turn each of her love affairs into bile.'
'Are you certain?' he asked.  One could have heard a pin drop.
Muriel took a last breath of the scent.  'It was called Revenge, Jean-Louis, and it was made by a German in the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré.  Gerald Kahn.  He died in an automobile accident in Cannes in 1926.'"  (193-194)
Fantastique, eh?  I love the tension, and again, this is a scene I can totally see playing out on screen.  Would that they were all this contained and clear.

I don't know if I'll rush out for the next in this series right away.  I need to recover from the hopelessly complicated final scene, which involves all the possible killers of all the dead people, and a few others as well.  But I wouldn't mind smelling Revenge!

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