Varenne, Antonin - 'Bed of Nails' (translated by Sian Reynolds)
"I've met this girl, John, you'd really like her. She's called Paty, what she does is she strips off and runs at walls."
On the top floor of the Paris Police Headquarters, in a tiny office serving the enormous space that houses the Suicide Archives, a young officer looks on whilst three loud-mouthed police colleagues peer at a CCTV clip of a young man, naked and running against the traffic on the Périphérique, the main Paris orbital. The young man disappears in a bloody confrontation with a truck. "Eeugh!" At this point Guerin, the young officer's boss, enters the office. He takes in what is going on with a look of resignation. He knows that his assistant is trying to gain some respite from his fellow officers' derision by showing them the video; "Suicides" is a pariah division and Guerin himself is ostracised by the rest of the Police Department - an old resentment. "Suicides" is also a tick-box department. All suicides must be investigated, but if there is any doubt concerning the nature of a death the subsequent investigation is handed over to colleagues in the Criminal Investigation Department, the same bullyboys that his assistant is trying to appease. Meanwhile Guerin, with his big brain, studies the archives zealously, convinced that all things are interconnected. Elsewhere, in the woods surrounding a rural village in south-west France, American-raised John Nichols is practising his bow and arrow skills on the slope above his tepee. The local gendarmes arrive, viewing him with distrust and telling him that he must come back with them to the village police station. As had been requested, a call is put through to the American Embassy in Paris and assistant secretary Hirsh informs John that his friend, Alan Mustgrave, junkie and modern day fakir, is dead. Alan died on stage during his act at an underground S&M club in Paris. They want John to come to Paris and identify the body.
Let me make it plain that my "first love" crime book was written by a Frenchman. I was about ten years old and the book was Paul Berna's A HUNDRED MILLION FRANCS; thieves, cash, street kids in the slums of Paris, and a disused carnival novelty factory. Bliss. Since then I have inhaled Renoir films and eaten up books by Daniel Pennac and Fred Vargas. So I had a feeling that I might fall for Antonin Varenne's prize-winning crime debut, BED OF NAILS, and I did. Varenne conjures the particularity of place beautifully. The contrast between the night-time streets of Paris and the sunny squares and woods of a rural village enriches his story, whilst the conversations of each place retain their specific idioms under the expert hand of Sian Reynolds, award-winning translator of several Fred Vargas books. There is plenty of suspense as the investigations of the Suicides Department and John Nichols' own search for the truth about Alan's death converge. Threats, pursuit, secrecy, and John's suspicion that Alan, a Gulf War "Vet", did not kill himself - all combine to ratchet up the tension. Some readers may find the main characters, mostly outsiders, too eccentric or extreme. Varenne treats them with humanity and tells their stories with a compassionate poetry that may occasionally overwhelm the plot. The book also has its share of grim truths and ironies. John, a skilful bow and arrows man, has written a psychology thesis on what he calls the "The Saint Sebastian Syndrome: the victim and the punished". But the darkness of BED OF NAILS lies not in any revelation of acts of brutality but in its almost fatalistic darkness concerning the lives of its characters. For many of them life is indeed a "bed of nails". There are moments of redemption, but I admit that I found BED OF NAILS quite shattering. It is a powerful and original debut crime story, definitely one for Vargas fans to try, and I very much hope that there is more Varenne crime fiction to come. I will be waiting, with bated breath, my hands over my eyes and peeking through my fingers, as I watch his next story unfold.
Lynn Harvey, England
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.