Shadows and Sun by Dominique Sylvain

Translated by Neil Caistor

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

I enjoyed this book, set amongst the French police in Paris and in Abidjan, but that’s not to say I really followed it – it was most confusing. But Chandler apparently didn’t always understand his plots, so maybe that’s OK. One isn’t trying to follow clues or deductions in this book, but tracing (or being swept along by) an emotional charge. If you want taut plotting, precise writing, balance and subtlety, this may not be the book for you. But if you like a sense of being out of control but a confidence that all will be well in the end – the misfit heroine and her sexy chum will overcome all, the bad guys will meet their comeuppances, and the victim will be triumphantly vindicated, all with a some chic Paris and gritty Cote d’Ivoire action thrown in – this will suit you down to the ground!

The heroine, Lola Jost, is a former police commissioner, but when the novel opens she is bored at home, doing a jigsaw. She is interrupted by a police officer investigating a complex series of incidents, including the attempted murder of Lola’s best friend Ingrid (the lover of a senior policeman, Sacha Duguin) and the assassination of the head of the Paris murder squad in Abidjan, where he had been on the run after a contracts scandal. The gun which killed him belonged to Sacha Duguin, and Lola, convinced of his innocence, determines the find out the truth. This takes her into a murky world of political fixing, corruption, and violence, where she is reliant on playing a solo hand against her own ex-comrades with the help of friends in various services from her former life.

She is also supported by Ingrid and an ex-spy called Joseph Berlin, whose commitment to her cause is deeply questionable. Ingrid is a night club stripper and dancer, who has a ‘passionate but thwarted love affair’ with the French language, which provides a low level running theme throughout the book. Ingrid is now in America, with a new man, and they both come over to help. Her language mistakes are sometimes amusing, sometimes irritating – but mistakes in French must be extraordinarily hard to translate into English. But there are some good jokes, and some absolute clangers: ‘Lola, you haven’t changed a Toyota’, (instead of ‘changed an iota’; or ‘ … your [car] was baby-trapped.’ ‘We say booby-trapped in French, Ingrid.’

The writing is hard to judge in any translation, but in English (translated by Nick Caistor) there are a lot of short sentences, immediate contradictions and reflections, meant to represent the inner voice and give us a more nuanced perspective on simple stories. I think they succeed, though most intelligent readers will find the nuances for themselves, but the language irritated me at times. For example, after a one night stand with a Japanese translator, ‘He was clasping another human being, and could feel life warming him again. He had been cold in Africa.’

But the action is fast and furious, and the cast of characters interesting and full of ambiguity – there is little confidence as who is on which side. There is deceit, fear, and corruption, and violence and betrayal. Lola and Ingrid go to Cote d’Ivoire to find out more about the death of the murdered policeman, Mars, and encounter both high-level violence and village-level storytellers and charm. Lola also goes to Hong Kong, to track down an American ex-spy who knows more about an alleged terrorist incident than anyone else will tell her (I am having to skirt carefully here to avoid spoilers), and Ingrid develops an ambiguous and unsettling relationship with Mondo, servant and more to an eminence grise of the last President of France, in order to pursue their enquiries.

All in all, it’s a potent cocktail and the plot moves along strongly. Comparisons on the cover to Chandler and Simenon are way over the top, but this is still a lively and occasionally charming book, which – while it is full of violence and fear – never lets you fear that there won’t be a good outcome. It’s very much of the moment, in its insistence that the state and power is part of the problem, but there is no real noir here; the sun may not be shining right now, but we know it will be by the end of the book. Enjoy!

Dominique Sylvain, Shadows and Sun (Maclehose Press, 2017). 978-1780876085, 261pp., paperback.

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