Reviewed by Terence Jagger
This is a complex murder mystery set in Perpignan, but its essential Frenchness is augmented and challenged by the Catalan themes, and the roots of the investigation in France’s troubled Algerian past. I am not familiar with the first book, Summertime: All the Cats are Bored (don’t ask about the cats, I never found out), but I enjoyed this, with some reservations – but I’ll come to those later.
From the very first paragraph, you the reader know quite a lot about the murder – and later, the series of murders. You know it’s carried out by an old man, you know it’s revenge for a crime 50 years old, and you know that the perpetrator has not lived in France for many decades. You then follow Inspector Gilles Sebag through the investigation in what is basically a police procedural, with strong historical elements, including vivid and substantial flashbacks by the murderer and more conventional investigations by the police with some of the survivors of the Algerian catastrophe. As the investigation develops, there are other murders, and various false trails are laid and followed, and the case intersects with another investigation which touches Sebag’s daughter personally – which works well enough, although it adds an unnecessary unlikelihood which I would prefer to have dispensed with. After many twists and turns and ill-tempered police meetings, Sebag and his colleagues achieve both an intellectual then a physical resolution of the problem. It’s pretty gritty at times and the plot is strong, and there’s plenty of local colour and good tough writing – but it isn’t overburdened with gore, and there are no stomach churning or mind numbing details of bodies or forensic investigations, as in so many modern crime novels.
After several blustery days, the cold dry wind out of the southwest had just about died down. It had swept the sky clean of its last clouds and a still bright autumn sun was drying the puddles on the asphalt and the tears on people’s faces. It was a fine morning to bury a child.
What hasn’t been swept clean is the history of Algeria, with all the bloody senseless terror, the feelings of betrayal on all sides, and of alienation of those who came back to France (or came for the first time, for many of them knew only Algeria, which was both home and was France in their eyes). This is where this story is rooted, and we end up learning something about the politics of the period – the FLN and the OAS, the barbouzes and the pieds-noirs – something I imagine is much better known for French readers than for British. It’s not a heavy historical diet, but it is slightly clumsily delivered on occasion, and can be muddling if attention slips!
So overall, it’s a good solid read in a relatively unfamiliar milieu, and I enjoyed it. Tough and gritty but not repellent or mindless, there is an enjoyable suspense as the police close in after misreading the crimes more than once. But there are some irritations, some of which no doubt stem from it being in translation. First of all, some of the dialogue seems very formal and complete, even between colleagues in a hurry, and the problem of dealing with a French text spattered with occasional Catalan words and Arabic names gives the translators extra problems – but footnotes (to be fair, not many) are not the answer in a book of this kind! Sebag spends quite a lot of time worrying about his wife’s possible infidelity, a trope which is not relevant to the plot or even to his behaviour, and which goes nowhere; his discussions with himself about it smack rather of adolescence. Sometimes, these tics do no more than remind you that you are reading a translation in both language and culture, but they slightly impeded my immediate appreciation of the book.
But that said, I did enjoy it, and I can imagine finding the first book too and reading that. Perhaps I’ll find out whether his wife did step off the straight and narrow, and what cats have to do with anything!
Terence Jagger speaks little French and no Catalan, and has never been to Algeria. But he has solved many a murder from his armchair, assisting detectives both official and private from the celebrated Mr Holmes and his contemporaries through the golden age to the more refined of practitioners in these debased times.
Philippe Georget, Autumn: All the Cats Return (Europa Editions (World Noir): New York, 2014) ISBN 978-1-60945-226-1 430pp, paperback, £10.99.