The Voice of the Spirits: A Commandant de Palma Investigation by Xavier-Marie Bonnot and Justin Phipps (translator)

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The Voice of the Spirits: A Commandant de Palma Investigation by Xavier-Marie Bonnot and Justin Phipps (translator)

Category: Crime
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: 1936: An explorer and his guide flee from head hunters in Papua New Guinea. 2006: A famous surgeon is murdered in an unusual way. Finding the connection may uncover the killer. At least that's what Commandant de Palma hopes in this real page turner with more depth than the average crime thriller.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: March 2012
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 978-0857050779

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In 1936 explorer Robert Ballancourt and his guide Kaingara visit a tribe of head hunters in Papua New Guinea. Ballancourt, seeking artefacts to sell on to museums, is drawn to the highly decorated skulls venerated by the tribe as they hold the spirits of dead ancestors and conquered enemies.

Fast forward to 2006 and Commandant Michel 'The Baron' de Palma of the Marseille murder squad receives a late night phone call from a burglar. He's come across a body during his nefarious wanderings and doesn't want to be blamed. As usual, de Palma gets out of bed to inspect the crime scene, but that's where normality ends. The victim, highly respected neurosurgeon Dr Fernand Delorme, has been killed in a way not normally witnessed in 21st century France. Could there be a connection with Ballancourt's trip? De Palma hopes to find out, and, preferably, before all his prospective witnesses die.

This is Xavier-Marie Bonnot's third Commandant de Palma book (after The First Fingerprint and The Beast of Carmargue) but, I'm ashamed to say, I hadn't heard of him. This is indeed my error as The Voice of the Spirits isn't just a detective novel, it's an education. The author knows how to research, as his PhD in history and sociology demonstrates, but there's nothing for those of us without degrees to fear. He shares his research in an entertaining rather than high-brow manner that draws the reader in, providing more depth than normally expected from a crime novel. In this case, Bonnot's background information regarding the head hunting tribes in Papua New Guinea is fascinating, seasoning the story with eeriness and anticipation. More of that later, but meanwhile, what of the Commandant himself?

Bonnot knows how to write (and, indeed, Justin Phipps translate) a character that will ensure future material. Michel de Palma is very human. He loves opera (like Morse) and the Clash (unlike Morse), he has a way with the ladies (definitely unlike Morse!) although strictly a one-woman man since his marriage broke up. (His heart belongs to Eva from the bakery... along with his stomach, looking at the bakery's specialities.) 'The Baron' even gets along with his colleagues, counting Commandant Maistre as a best friend as Maistre comes to terms with his own new, enforced single status. However, a lingering sadness lurks behind de Palma's sense of humour and twinkle. He's haunted by the past and his brother's untimely death. In a nutshell, 'The Baron' is the sort of character who brings any genre of book alive, making the crime itself an added bonus. In fact where the crime is concerned, the reader can more or less guess who's next for the mortuary but, due to these intricacies of character (and indeed story), it doesn't detract from the enjoyment.

So, the next question is how does a tribe of Papuans fit into a modern day murder mystery? The answer is, under this author's care, very well. This novel is a collision of two worlds, not only tribal versus modern 'civilisation' but also superstition versus knowledge. In fact the power of the unseen is depicted so well that even the well-grounded de Palma has a creepy moment.

The influence of the Papuan tribe permeates through the novel, being seen as a negative but with lingering notes of sadness for a lost culture. It's as if Bonnot is asking, despite practices that 'civilised man' deemed savage, would the tribe have been better left alone? Bonnot is adept at imagery too. When the novel opens in 1936, the tribe's 'Men's House' is a seat of power, excluding the presence of women but recognising and celebrating their influence. This is the heart of the tribe and a place of honour for their ancestors. By the time the novel ends in 2006 that same majestic edifice is no longer a place of pride but ramshackle and overgrown by weeds as Papuans adapt to western ways.

De Palma's world as related by Bonnot has so far eluded the makers of films and television series. Looking at the popular appetite for complex detectives like Inspector Morse, I'm sure the call of the screen will arrive. However, I'm not someone to sit back and wait. I've ordered Bonnot's back catalogue and will devour it as voraciously as it deserves.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to try another crime novel with an exotic backdrop, try Anarchy and Old Dogs by Colin Cotterill.

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Buy The Voice of the Spirits: A Commandant de Palma Investigation by Xavier-Marie Bonnot and Justin Phipps (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Voice of the Spirits: A Commandant de Palma Investigation by Xavier-Marie Bonnot and Justin Phipps (translator) at Amazon.com.


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