Bed of Nails by Antonin Varenne and Sian Reynolds (translator)

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Bed of Nails by Antonin Varenne and Sian Reynolds (translator)

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Squint, and this is Fred Vargas, but beyond that this has a very commendable, straighter character on a dangerous path for the truth away from any moodily wacky detectives.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: June 2012
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 9780857050373

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When you're a policeman in Paris and your involvement in office politics takes a turn for the worse, you could end up in charge of suicides. That would make it your job to cope with all the jumpers, the pill-takers, the apparent suicide with two types of bullet through his head - even the naked men running into the flow of traffic around the ring-road. You might not get the case of the American junkie who dies performing a pierced-man act in a seedy club. No, looking into that is that man's closest friend, John, fresh from living in the French wilds as an outdoorsman. But in a Paris where cause of death can be so bizarre, a reason for death can have very far-reaching consequences...

To start with, the book has a major problem, in that it is written in the shadows cast by those of Fred Vargas. Most fans of Gallic crime will have met her Adamsberg, and Guerin here is far too much of the same. He lives alone (of course) with a coarse-talking parrot, and generally has an unsufferable, unbreachable working attitude, caused by his unusual thought processes. But he is a poor second - this one sits at home and gives himself the exercise of seeing a link between Formula 1 and junkies, whereas Adamsberg suffers in a universe where he doesn't have to care how everything is connected, just how it will help his work. Guerin forces himself to join the most random of dots, and Varenne tries too hard too - leaving a character with all Vargas' humour turned to contrivance.

Much more satisfying is the character of John, and his side of things. He's a mean huntsman, but just because he's good with bow and arrow, and has psychological training, doesn't mean he is not a most enjoyable, non-stereotyped fish out of water. His friend is a strange character for me to like reading about, but John's connections to him make this the book's selling point. The greater proportion of the book is his, not Guerin's, and with him gaining our sympathies easily this has a happy blend of typically atypical police procedural, and what I guess is a straighter thriller, as someone much nearer to - yet greatly removed from - an Everyman has to force a corpse to give up its secrets.

Throughout, the style is commendable - a snappy, intelligent yet smooth telling that never tries to force itself on the narrative to hand, but instead backs away and leaves the excellent plot, edgy dialogue and cleverness to shine. It is ultimately a very clever and enjoyable book. Perhaps this, the author's debut, in English after just a couple of years' wait (and courtesy of Vargas' translator, for obvious reasons) will be his formula, perhaps not. He can certainly write crime, but it's a shame he writes it in the shadow of what's come before, and always dragged me back from his brilliant best to a more derivative corner he paints himself into.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Adamsberg's first case, chronologically, was The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas. More French crime can be had with The Dying Minutes by Martin O'Brien.

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