Translated by Nick Caistor
Reviewed by Gill Davies
This is the first novel by Olivier Norek to be translated into English. It was first published in France in 2013 and he has since written two more novels to complete a trilogy featuring the detective Capitaine Coste. The novels are set in département 93, Seine Saint-Denis, to the northeast of Paris. Norek knows the area well, having worked there as a lieutenant in the gendarmerie. And he draws on his experience and knowledge to create a gripping, entertaining and – one assumes – realistic novel about murder, violent crime and corruption in high places. As well as his day job and his fiction (five novels to date), he is a script-writer for the successful French TV series Spiral (Engrenages) – one of the great pleasures of BBC4’s Saturday night crime slot.
You can tell from the cover – a pastiche image of a lone woman, a hooded youth and tower blocks – and the English title, The Lost and the Damned, that this will be more pulp fiction than Agatha Christie. The lives (and deaths) of the criminals are at the centre. The novel opens with a prologue in a mortuary: an old woman and her son are brought in by the police to perhaps identify the body of her daughter, dead from drug abuse and also violent sexual assault. They deny it is her, but there is something odd about their reactions to the brutalised corpse. As the narrative progresses we realise that this will be a key scene, linking the case to others that seem initially unconnected.
A year later, Capitaine Coste is woken by a phone call at 4.30 in the morning. He knows “that someone, somewhere, had been taken out.” Briefly and effectively we find out the essentials of his character: there’s no other reason for anyone to call him other than the job. He’s a loner, a man who finds it difficult to commit to relationships, and who lives in a flat almost empty of furniture and belongings. Coste is called to one then two very odd crime scenes where there has been much gruesome violence. They have been deliberately connected by the supposed killer and seem to have been staged to attract the police’s attention. Moreover, the murders are so unusual and horrifying that they demand massive police and media attention. There’s a blackly comic element too – one corpse wakes up during the post-mortem and other deaths resemble vampirism and spontaneous combustion. And then there are some anonymous notes pointing Coste in the direction of previous unsolved cases that do not seem to have been properly investigated. So we have an intriguing and fast-moving plot and a set of characters rapidly established.
The location of the action is very important. The French title of the novel is Code 93 thus foregrounding the district that has the highest crime rate in France. It is renowned for its poverty, social exclusion and racial tensions. It is one of the most deprived of the banlieues, the areas outside the Paris Périphérique ring road where the people who work in the city and are often second or third generation children of migrants from French overseas territories live in tower blocks in urban wastelands. The proximity to but separation from Paris the capital city and tourist magnet is made clear from the start. Driving to work, Coste moves through suburban housing to high-rise blocks, rubbish dumps, Roma camps by the railway, and by the side of the road are “the black economy workers waiting in a huddle for the gangmaster’s van”. I found it interesting that Norek’s experience as a cop in this milieu has not prevented him from writing about its victims with sympathy and understanding. The characterisation of the petty criminals and drug-dealers is just as careful and nuanced as that of the privileged Parisian middle class. Indeed as the plot develops we realise that the social problems of violent crime, prostitution and drug dealing in the 93rd are being complicated by something that originates in the heart of Paris. And it isn’t only rogue bourgeois living in Saint-Cloud but corrupt dealings at the heart of politics and the police themselves. As Coste remarks, ‘You do realise this is going to be one of the most fucked-up cases I’ve ever had to deal with?’
Still, it’s not all gloom and violence. There’s quite bit of humour too – often rather knowingly addressed to the cliches of the genre. There’s a joke about a female officer wearing a sweater with snowflakes on it, looking like Sarah Lund in The Killing – which was one of the breakthrough foreign language cop series on TV. Coste feels that ‘he was beginning to feel like the caricature of a TV officer. He knew that was not a good thing.’ Norek knows his audience and can be playful as well as shocking and this is very much a crime novel for the TV age. Its pace is quick, the chapters are episodic, short and snappy. There’s little description or background information and we learn about the characters as we encounter them in action. As the first in a trilogy, the author has to establish his characters while taking us quickly into the milieu they inhabit. Norek does this very well – the established partnerships, their quirks and weaknesses; the new recruit, female so having to prove herself to her colleagues; the isolate officer with a secret pain; the friction between managers and cops. But it all moves along quickly, helped by sharp dialogue, fast action and tight plotting. Norek is certainly a very interesting new writer and I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy as they are translated. If you want to hear what he has to say about his writing, the genre and life in département 93, he is on YouTube talking at the 2020 Noirwich Festival with his translator Nick Caistor. Well worth a look.
Olivier Norek, The Lost and the Damned, translated by Nick Caistor (MacLehose Press, 2020). 978-0857059628, 299pp., hardback.
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