Review 1424: Little

Often I don’t read reviews attentively or more often I don’t remind myself what a book is about before reading it, so I didn’t realize for some time that Little is a fictional biography of Madame Tussaud. It is an idiosyncratic one, to be sure.

Marie, often called Little for her small stature, is familiar with loss. In 1760, when she is five, her father dies. Her mother never recovers from it, and shortly after she and her mother take up residence with Doctor Curtius, for whom her mother is employed as a servant, her mother commits suicide.

Doctor Curtius is one of many peculiar characters, Marie not excepted, who occupy the novel’s pages. He is a very odd creature, unused to others, who models body parts in wax to be studied by anatomists. Marie is not dismayed by his peculiarities and is entranced by his wonderful collection of body parts. So, he begins teaching her to draw and model objects in wax.

At Little’s suggestion, they model the entire head of some subjects. Soon, they have a business of selling heads of themselves to customers. Dr. Curtius is mistreated by the hospital, so when a traveling Frenchman, Louis-Sébastian Mercier, suggests they move to Paris from Switzerland to model great men, they do.

Shortly after they arrive in Paris, Doctor Curtius falls under the influence of their landlady, the Widow Picot, who soon has Little working for the entire family, not just Doctor Curtius, even though Little has never been paid. Madame Picot makes no secret that she would like to get rid of her. In the meantime, she and Doctor Curtius begin by modelling the heads of famous criminals. By now, the French Revolution threatens.

Little is narrated in a sprightly, whimsical fashion even when it relates things that are not so pleasant. That, and the pervading personality of its main character, are two of its charms, even as it becomes darker. This is a strange and wonderful novel.

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Review 1421: Death Has Deep Roots

I usually give older crime novels more leeway than modern ones, because the genre has evolved. Some of the older novels concentrate on the puzzle to the detriment of character, for example, or even plausibility. Not so with Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert, published in 1951.

Gilbert, rather than having an all-knowing detective, has recurring characters in his novels, apparently. Although Goodreads lists this novel as Inspector Hazlerigg #5, he is only a minor character. Instead, the novel rests on the combined efforts of the Rumbolds, father and son solicitors; Macrae, the barrister; and Major McCann, a former soldier and pub owner.

Victoria Lamertine is charged with murdering Major Eric Thoseby, once her British contact when she was in the French Resistance, in his hotel room. The police case is built around the fact that she had been trying to contact him and that no one else could have committed the crime based on who was in the reception area of the hotel. The police think that Thoseby was the father of her child, who died just after the war, that being deserted by her lover was her motive.

Victoria claims that in fact Lieutenant Wells was the father and that Thoseby had been helping her search for him, as he was last seen when the Gestapo raided the farm near Angers where he was hiding. Victoria herself was taken in that raid.

Nap Rumbold thinks the links to the crime lie in France and the war, so he goes off to investigate. McCann investigates Lieutenant Wells in England, hoping to verify Vicky’s story about the parentage of her child. They only have a few days to find the facts while Macrae mounts his defense.

This novel is an unusual combination of legal and action thriller, Rumbold’s part providing the action. It has compelling characters, an interesting plot, and zips along nicely. I think it’s the best of the British Library Crime Classics I’ve read so far. I’ll be looking for more Michael Gilbert, whom I wasn’t familiar with before.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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Review 1390: End Games in Bordeaux

I had already planned to post this review today, but last week I noticed that September 1 was also the beginning of Readers Imbibing Peril, where participating readers read mysteries, horror, suspense, and so on between September 1 and October 31. I usually read a fair number of books in those categories anyway, not to mention trying to read something suitable for Halloween. So, here goes. Let me count this book as my first entry!

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Those who select the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize have an annoying tendency to choose books from the middle or end of a series. I read five long Matthew Shardlake novels just to read Heartstone for my project and then felt it wasn’t necessary to have read the other books. I didn’t realize that The Quality of Mercy was the second of two novels until I began reading it, but I found that it was easy enough to figure out what I had missed.

So, when it came time to read End Games in Bordeaux, I reasoned that since it was a mystery, it probably wasn’t necessary to read the preceding three books. That turned out to be a mistake. Not only does the novel check in periodically with a plethora of characters whose relationship to the main character is not explained, but an understanding of the plot relies heavily on the cases covered in the previous books. So, I was fairly well confused the entire time I was reading the book.

World War II is winding down. There are rumors that an invasion by the Allies will come soon. Superintendent Lannes is suspended from duty by order of the Germans for reasons that are not clear.

Count St.-Hilaire asks him to find a young girl who has run off with a ne’er-do-well, Aurélien Mabire. When Lannes finds Mabire, however, the girl isn’t with him. Mabire is, in fact, gay, and he lured the girl away with a promise to meet her father, long estranged from the family. Mabire was working at the bidding of Labiche, a crooked advocate whom Lannes despises.

The situation begins to deteriorate as people begin changing sides preparatory to the end of the war. Lannes finds himself being threatened and rumors being spread about him.

I had to wonder if I would have liked the book better if I had understood who some of the characters were and what the background was. I’m not sure I would have. The novel is narrated in terse little blocks of text while we skip from one situation to another, which doesn’t give me confidence that I would have found it much more understandable. Perhaps Massie was relying on readers’ knowledge of the other works in the series, but novels need to stand on their own. In the case of a series, therefore, some reiteration is necessary. Furthermore, the writing style makes me not want to go back and read the books in the series that I missed. One quote on the cover says the characters are evoked vividly. Well, maybe they are if you’ve read all the books. I didn’t find that to be the case.

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Review 1379: The Nightingale

I wasn’t impressed by the only other Kristin Hannah novel I read, but my brother recommended The Nightingale so strongly that I decided to give her another chance. I know I’m probably in the minority.

The novel begins with an old lady living in Oregon in 1995 who is moving into a retirement home and is sorting through old papers with her son. Her son finds the identity papers of Juliette Gervaise, a person he’s never heard of. This launches most of the rest of the novel, set in France during World War II.

The two Rossignol sisters are very different women. Vianne is a mother, wife, and schoolteacher. When the Nazis arrive in the village, she is careful to follow orders and try to stay out of trouble. Isabella, however, is a rebellious teenager who runs away from school and immediately begins distributing fliers for the Resistance.

As Vianne fights to survive and protect her daughter, Sophie, she eventually finds that she can’t always follow the rules. In the meantime, Isabella’s involvement with the Resistance becomes more dangerous. Obviously, one of hooks of the novel is to find out which sister becomes the little old lady in Oregon.

It took quite a while, but I did become involved in this novel. It’s an interesting story, based on a real one. I still, however, consider the writing mediocre and trite and the characterization flat except for a few characters. I found the novel affecting, though.

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Review 1364: Madame de Treymes

If you have read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the situation in her novella, Madame de Treymes, will seem familiar. As Madame de Treymes was written before The Age of Innocence, perhaps Wharton was trying out some ideas in this novella that she developed more fully in the later novel.

John Durham is in love with Madame de Malrive. He knew her as Fanny Frisbee in their younger days in New York, but now she is separated from her husband and has a young child. He proposes to her, expressing himself willing to adapt to any conditions she may make, but she says her husband’s family will never agree to a divorce. She has used her leverage because of her husband’s dissolute life to keep her son and does not want to jeopardize her custody.

Fanny says that the family never explicitly states its intentions, and she never knows what they are going to do. Her sister-in-law, Madame de Treymes, seems to be sympathetic, however, and she asks John to try to discover from her the family’s intentions.

Durham arranges a meeting with Madame and is first inclined not to believe the stories he’s heard about her. However, the meeting goes badly wrong.

This novella is about the inability of the aristocratic French and the Americans of the same class to comprehend each other. A misunderstanding on both sides results in unforeseen circumstances. This novella is subtle and more of a character study than a plotted piece, about the gulf between two very different cultures. I read this interesting novella for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1314: The Paris Architect

Cover for The Paris ArchitectLucien Bernard is an architect in 1942 Paris who is eager to prove his abilities as a modernist designer. He has an opportunity to design a factory for Auguste Manet, a wealthy businessman, and is undeterred by the knowledge that it will be used to manufacture arms for the Germans. All he wants is the opportunity to advance his career.

But first, Manet wants his help in designing an undetectable place to hide a person. He has been helping Jews hide from the Gestapo until they can leave the country. Lucien has no love for Jews and is terrified he’ll be caught. But he takes on the challenge.

This is an interesting premise for a novel, but Belfoure’s writing ability isn’t up to the task. The writing, especially the dialogue, is crude and obvious. Most of the Germans are cartoonish as villains, and other characters are flat as pancakes. Lucien’s secret is threatened from several directions, which is supposed to heighten the tension but almost makes it ridiculous. Lucien’s assistant hates him and is involved in helping his own uncle finds Jews, while Lucien’s mistress is two-timing him with a Gestapo officer.

Most problematically, Lucien is a jerk. He is supposed to evolve into a good guy during the novel, but there is a fairly late scene where his reaction to thinking his girlfriend is cheating on him is brutal. Of course, he is rewarded by falling in love with a beautiful model in Paris.

As you can probably tell, I disliked this novel.

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Day 1262: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau

Cover for The Disappearance of Ademe BedeauThe R.I.P. challenge surprised me this year, so I thought I’d look at what I already planned to review that would fit the category. The first book was this one. The idea is to spend September and October reading books that fit into specific categories, and mine are most likely to be mystery, suspense, or thriller, but a horror book or gothic novel might creep in there.

* * *

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is an unusual character study wrapped around a semblance of a murder mystery. Although it is labeled Inspector Gorski on Goodreads, much of it is concerned with the actions and thoughts of Manfred Baumann.

Manfred is a bank manager in Saint-Louis, a small town in the Alsace region of France. He leads an isolated life of extreme regularity, spending every evening at the Restaurant de la Cloche. He has no friends and spends most of his time by himself.

Manfred does not really date. He takes care of his needs in a weekly trip to a brothel. But he has become fascinated by surreptitiously observing the waitress at the restaurant, Adèle Bedeau, a sulky teenager with a well-developed figure. He even goes so far as to follow her when she meets her boyfriend.

Then Adèle goes missing. Inspector Gorsky can find no evidence of a crime, but he fastens on Manfred because he tells some lies. As far as the reader knows, he has not harmed Adèle, but maybe Raymond Brunet, the fictitious author of this novel, isn’t telling us everything.

Gorski begins to feel there is a connection with another crime years earlier, his first, for which a culprit was identified and convicted. Gorski was never satisfied, however, that they got the right man.

The depth of character portrayal of both Manfred and Gorski is what makes this novel stand out. It is portraying a creepy and paranoid guy in Manfred, however, and that may affect how much you enjoy the novel.

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