Friday, December 21, 2012

Death on the Marais

I really wanted to like Adrian Magson's Death on the Marais (Allison & Busby, 2010).  Takes place in France, in a time not too far (but far enough) removed from our own.  Written by that Magson chap whose Harry Tate series (well, the first one anyway) I found entertaining.  Lauded by mystery bloggers here and there. 

But it just didn't happen for me.  It's not a bad story - two threads, one fairly obvious, the other the murder bit.  In the first, Our Hero, Lucas Rocco has been more or less rusticated , sent away from Paris in an administrative shakeup, to Picardie (a map would help).  It's not a punitive move, but he apparently regularly pisses off his superiors with his tough guy approach to policing so it is convenient.  We're told this multiple times, esp. via the irritating little chapter sub-headers that appear for the first half of the book. 
"Lucas Rocco?  Insubordinate bastard.  And insolent.  A good cop, though.  Capt Michel Santer - Clichy-Nanterre district." (10)
"Sgt. Rocco?  Solid  . . . professional.  Pity he hates officers.  But hey, who doesn't?  Capt Antoine Caspard - Gang Task Force - Paris Central."  (79)
"Rocco?  A gentleman.  A cop, too, unfortunately, but he always treated us like ladies.  Mme Viviane Bernard - escort services provider - Etoile"  (141)
These subheaders mysteriously disappear after Chapter 18.  But by then we get the point, good cop, rough around the edges.  Do I even need to mention he's divorced, no kids?  And saw combat in Indochina, suffering from a mild case of PTSD with respect to his experience at Dien Bien Phu?  Rocco also suffers from some very mild PTSD in his case caused by his experience at Dien Bien Phu.  This means flashbacks in the swamp, and while I don't mean to belittle the experience of PTSD or the humiliating French denouement in Vietnam, in Rocco's case it just feels a little shallowly written.  Why did he join the army in the first place?  There's an interesting side story with his then and now commanding officer in the new region, involving their shared past in Indochina. 

 I should also note that as with Harry Tate, Magson employs that most irritating of thriller fiction methods, the cliff-hanger chapter.
"'Because whatever took his hand off wasn't just a dodgy grenade. It was part of a detonator. The kind used with plastic explosives.'" (168, Ch. 21 ends)
(169, Ch. 22 begins) "Claude stared at him. 'He was using plastique? That's madness.'"
Irritating, too.
Anyway, surprise!, a body is found in a wartime cemetery, a young woman dressed in a rented Gestapo costume.  She turns out to be someone of substance, financial anyway, and how she ended up in a WW2 cemetery is the story. 

Despite the Indochina references, and the close connections to WW2 resistance, the story did not feel as deeply set in the mid-1960s as I'd have liked.  Other than references to old models of Citroën, and the relative paucity of telephone lines (land lines, natch), it just didn't transport me temporally.  Maybe I'm spoiled by Benjamin Black's extreme attention to period detail that drops you into the 1950s before you turn the first page.  Even the wartime promises, heroics, and betrayals that form the heart of the story just felt like they could have been 50 years ago instead of 20.  Consider this stock-ly sterile scene: 
"There were few other people about and no traffic.  A paper bag blew across in front of him, cathcing on a telegraph pole and fluttering in the breeze.  It felt like a scene from a western movie, where the white hat walks towards certain death and dubious glory against the black hats at the other end of town.
Cue a cowboy's lament."  (227-228)
Or a reader's.  There must be a better way to embed the sense of menace in a rural French town, than dipping into American film stereotypes? 

The one thing that does give a bit of a shiver is the omnipresence of UXBs from both of the wars fought in France.  WW1 artillery makes a wood a deathtrap, and WW2 shells open the first scene.  You are reminded of how profound was the impact of these wars on this civilian population. 

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