THE BEAST OF THE CAMARGUE by Xavier-Marie Bonnot

Dr Xavier-Marie Bonnot, author of the Commandant de Palma series, is the focus of this week’s Alphabet of Crime entry, which is reaching its always fairly head-scratching conclusion now that most of the ‘easier’ letters, shall we say, have been taken. Bonnot  has a PhD in History and Sociology and MAs in History and French literature – he is also a filmmaker. He is the author of five novels (so far) featuring Michel de Palma of the Marseille murder squad, all of them combining history, mythology, archeology and, of course, crime. The first two were translated into English by Ian Monk, the third by Justin Phipps and are published by Maclehose Press.

Along with Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog (you should head over there right now and check out some of the other selections on offer), I also submit the following as part of my 2012 Local Library Challenge, in which I aim to supporting a great and valuable institution currently under threat in the UK from the draconian cuts of the present government by borrowing books from authors that are new to me. I also offer it as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog.

“The true Marsellais is a silent man”

Born in 1962, Bonnot is a native of Marseille though for the last 20 years he has been based in Paris, where he continues to work on TV documentaries. In 2002 he made his debut as a novelist with The First Fingerprint, which introduced Michel de Palma. Nicknamed ‘The Baron’ for his cool intelligence, he lives in the fairly down-at-heel La Capelette area and is an opera buff. Unlike his creator, after spending a few years in Paris he returned home, where he now works alongside Anne Moracchini, the only woman on the squad and now his lover, something that he is only just getting used to.

“The world is divided into two: those who love Callas and those who love Tebaldi.
“What about you?”
“Tebaldi in Aida and Callas in Norma.”

In The Beast of the Camargue Michel is recovering from the brutal attack he suffered at the climax of his previous case in which his head was split with a tomahawk (!) by a killer known as ‘The Hunter’ (nicknames feature heavily in these books). After much surgery he is slowly getting his life back together though is subject to frequent migraines – and, more worryingly, from some memory lapses too. While on medical leave he is approached by Ingrid Steiner, the wife of a German billionaire industrialist with local connections who has gone missing. She is certain that foul play is involved but can’t get anyone to believe her as there is no physical evidence to back her claim up. Ultimately the Baron decides to help her not so much because he believes her but because she reminds him of a victim of his first murder case, still unsolved after 25 years, and which still haunts him. The man’s body, apparently dead from drowning, is eventually found in a nature reserve. The death is classed as an accident but soon other bodies turn up, horribly torn to pieces as if by the jaws of a huge creature, almost as if the eponymous mythic man-eating monster known locally as the Tarasque. Is there a connection between the savagely murdered men (who include a gangster, a lawyer and a policeman)? It turns out that they were all Knights of the Tarasque, an order serving the mythic beast …

“La Tarasque is a female name, but it’s a monster. For me, she’s female, but people see her as they want”

As usual with Bonnot, this is a story that combines the recent past with ancient history and superstition, with the solution to the case ultimately found in family wrangles over land ownership that are well within living memory. This book might well appeal to fans of Fred Vargas, though the style is much plainer, intimations of the occasional prehistoric monster not withstanding, and the characters pretty much cookie counter cops, robbers and corrupt officials we have met hundreds of times before. The occasionally clunky translation doesn’t help in this regard and the overuse of exclamation marks really does start to grate after a while too. The vaguely supernatural elements are fairly well integrated but the resolution, while perfectly logical and fair, is a bit of a damp squib, falling a bit flat. This is because it introduces a hitherto unknown character as the villain, always a bit of a no-no in my estimation,  after a lead-up including several gory deaths, assorted forest fires and several shootouts. It also gets bogged down in some long and unsubtle exposition (some chapter are 40 pages long and do really drag in places) which slows the pace down too often for my liking.. In many ways what this books reminded me of was a slower, less atmospheric rendering of Cornell Woolrich’s third mystery novel, Black Alibi (1942), in which an escaped animal is blamed for a series of murders actually perpetrated by a man. But it lacks the sheer dark power of that book. It will be interesting to see what happens next with the character and see how he develops in the series.

De Palma made his English translation debut in 2008 with The First Fingerprint, followed by The Beast of the Camargue in 2009 and The Voice of the Spirits earlier this year. In France the original publication details are as follows and you will see that there are currently a couple of gaps in the sequence:

  1. La Première empreinte (2002) – The First Fingerprint
  2. La bête du marais (2004) – The Beast of the Camargue
  3. La voix du loup (2006)
  4. Les âmes sans nom (2009)
  5. Le Pays oublié du temps (2011) – The Voice of the Spirits

For further details about the author, visit his page on Facebook and the Maclehose Press site at: http://maclehosepress.com

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2012 Alphabet of Crime, Crime Fiction Alphabet, France, Noir, Scene of the crime, Support Your Local Library Challenge. Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to THE BEAST OF THE CAMARGUE by Xavier-Marie Bonnot

  1. TracyK says:

    I guess it is not surprising that I have not heard of this author, since he is only available in Kindle editions in the US. The character sounds very interesting, but long chapters do not appeal. Maybe I will give the author a try someday.

    The author also sounds very interesting and this is a very thorough overview, as usual.

    • Thanks TracyK – I’m not a Kindle person yet though most of my family are so I dare say the slide is inevitaable! I did enjoyt this book for its setting and themes though stylistically it is a bit dull and predictable – thank goodness I still have a local library!

      • TracyK says:

        We just got a tablet with the Kindle app primarily so I can read e-books on a trip that I am about to embark on. So far I am not thrilled with reading e-books but I need to give the experience more time. On the other hand, now it is getting so that many books are only available in e-book. So I guess you can make a case for using the tool when it is necessary.

        • I can only really imagine using it in that way, as a practical tool for traveling on trips or to work but not as a replacement for real books – besides, Kindle doesn’t sell books, only leases them (which allows them to be all taken away if amazon gets angry with you). So what have you got loaded on it so far?

          • TracyK says:

            Not a lot. Some free vintage mysteries. A fairly recent Swedish mystery I wanted to try. I actually paid a good bit for Death in a Cold Climate by Barry Forshaw so I could mix fiction and non-fiction. The Humble Bundle with mostly SciFi / Fantasy stuff that was raising money for a charity. A few free or inexpensive books that Peggy at Peggy Ann’s Post recommended. The Necropolis Railway by Andrew Martin, Painting in the Dark by Russell James (read about that one in an old Crime Time mag) and some other very inexpensive or free books. Trying not to load down with a lot of books that we will forget we have.

          • Sounds like a really great mixture TracyK – there are some wonderfully cheap things out there that I certainly will want to get my hands on like the complete SS Van Dine for instance (12 books for the price of a single paperback!) – the charity selection sounds like a really excellent move I will definitely keep that in mind. Cheers.

  2. Srivalli says:

    My local library has these two books too. Though the story sounds intriguing, its a shame that the villian is an unkown character. I would probably pick up Woolrich’s Black Alibi. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Thanks Srivalli – I am very partial to the Woolrich classics of the 40s and early 50s but he was such a sui generis author that it seems unfair to compare Bonnot or anyone else to him really. I did quite enjoy this book – maybe not as much as I thought I would but it’s definitely worth a look! Byt yeah, Black Alibi is definitely superior … Even made for a decent movie as The Leopard Man.

  3. Colin says:

    Hmm, never heard of this guy. The book sounds like it has an interesting premise but I the negatives you point out are not encouraging. like you, I don’t like the idea of previously unknown characters popping up as convenient villains – not exactly a cheat, but not far off either.
    That and the lengthy chapters would leave me wary. Maybe I’m getting lazy but I appreciate a certain punchiness in writing and find myself frowning slightly when I’m presented with mammoth chapters.

    • More than anything the lengthy chapters seemed out of place – some were quite brief and others were much longer but could easily have been broken down and I just couldn’t see why they were left like that. In a polce procedural I don’t mind that the standard ‘rules’ of the whodunit are not followed, but this is a bit of a hybrid and left me feeling a bit dissatisfied. His novels I should add have won several prizes and I’m surious to see how things have developed with hsi most recent title. Incidentally, you might be interested in the fourt book in the series, Les âmes sans nom (2009), not yet translated into English however as far as I can tell, as it is set in Belfast.

      • Colin says:

        Cheers. That might indeed be interesting – I always enjoy seeing an outsider’s take on the city. I’ll have to wait for a translation to appear though as my French is extraordinarily poor.

        • It is irritating when books great translated out of sequence – I sound that really ennoying with the Arnaldur Indriðason books whic in fact has stopped me reading them for the moment. Usually I’m not too anal about such things but then plots and characters get spoiled and if you think they are goingt o get translated eventiually I prefer to wait …

          • Colin says:

            True. No big deal if they’re completely stand alone titles, but a real bummer if plot and/or character development depends on reading in sequence.

          • I now tend to ask, before embarking on a series, if they ned to be read in order. Never used to bother me and now, well I guess I’m older and crankier and want to hold on to my pleasures – plus, serial elements have infiltrated story-telling to such an extent in all media that it can be a genuine issue (hell, even the next Bond movies are apparently being designed as a two-parter – I blame Harry Potter and the Twilight sagas myself …)

          • Colin says:

            Yes, this is a trend I’m not especially fond of. I like books and films, even if they’re part of a nominal series, to be capable of existing alone on their own terms. I see it as basically a marketing ploy to keep the customers hooked rather than something which has any particular artistic merit.

          • I agree with you only in part though. It is certainly true with the increasing development of franchises (I hate that term) for the cinema, but in TV the introduction of serial elements has been pretty impressive it seems to me. OK, it’s hard to imagine anyone attempting what Babylon 5 did and map out a 5-year arc in advance, but The Wire and so on to me really work as ‘novels for television’ with a genuine beginning, middle and end that is carefully and logically worked out. I have a lot of time for those sorts of dramas – or rsther, I would if I had the time to spare (sic) …

          • Colin says:

            Personally, I don’t go for that. I want to be able to sit down and watch a show when the mood strikes or the time allows. The ubiquity of the story arc pretty much rules that out – miss a few episodes and you’re lost. That’s probably why I’ve more or less given up on contemporary television viewing.

          • I know what you mean as I find I have less and less time – on the other hand, I increasingly watch on DVD or via catch-up so I can schedule presonally so it just feels more like a question of whether I want to watch somethign short or long (as it were). It does need to be done well as opposed to just having the story spun out endlessly – I say that as someone who cannot abide soaps …

          • Colin says:

            I’m glad you mentioned that actually. I’m another with a strong aversion to soaps. OK, this may just be a prejudice of mine, but I often feel that the whole story arc business tends to encourage the gradual seeping in of soapiness. As I say, this may not be strictly accurate, but it’s the feeling I get.

          • As it got harder and harder to get people to stick with TV shows this was bound to be a tactic, let’s face it, but I do think there have been genuine dividends. Hugely popular shows like CSI and The Mentalist have fairly ‘light touch’ arcs, while others like say Damagaes are clearly intended as long-form serials, which in a way was just as true 40 years ago except they’re not written by Francis Durbridge or Michael J. Bird …

          • Colin says:

            I guess that’s true enough.
            Wow, we’ve drifted a little from French police procedural novels, haven’t we? Sorry for hijacking your post, again.

          • There is no track at fedora! But what the hell, ever seen the french serial Spiral (in the original, ‘Engrenage’)? It is sort of their version of Denmark’s The Killing, which is to say a European serial take on 24 (which I was a bg fan of personally).

          • Colin says:

            Nope, that’s new to me. But, as I said, I’m kind of out of the loop when it comes to contemporary TV.

          • Ever seen the Jesse Stone series of TV movies starring Tom Selleck from the books by Robert B. Parker? They play a bit like updated westerns and are, to my eyes, fantastic thrillers and character studies and, in the best possible sense, very old-fashioned. I did a post on the books and series a little while ago but you can find it here.

          • Colin says:

            Cool. I’ll check out the link later after work. I’ve seen three or four of these and thought they were very good. Unfortunately though, I seem to remember reading somewhere that the series was coming to an end.

          • The most recent was Benefit of the Doubt and Selleck, who is also busy doing the cop series Blue Bloods, intimated that a couple of TV-movies a year was no longer an appetising idea for the networks. I hope he can shop it slewhere – he has become the co-writer of the films as well as the producer and it is clearly a labour of love. I certainly hope there are more.

          • Colin says:

            IIRC the network had no issues with the ratings numbers for the movies but didn’t like the fact that they were attracting an older demographic. The fools.

          • I think you are right there – but that’s pretty much been the case since the 80s really. With luck TNT might pick them up – they will probably work better on cable in the US anyway (well, let’s hope – if not, well they had a damn good run).

  4. You had me until your comment about the unknown character being the murderer. That’s the reason why I’ve never returned to Tess Gerritsen’s books, after she did the same trick in one of her books.

    • Hi Steve – yeah, I wasn’t best pleased either (obviously), though, in fairness, this is mostly a police procedural where you don’t expect to have a bunch of suspects to choose from right at the beginning as so much of it is about pursuit and forensic evidence gathering etc. It plays more like a TV drama in this respect, but Bonnot does I think get it shlightly wrong because the ending isn’t especially conclusive and therefore having the villain be a basically unknown character does hurt this … Shame really as I think this has quite a lot going for it and indeed might otherwise very well appeal to you. The most recent book, The Voice of the Spirits, has done well and it is perhaps worth looking there first (I have bot done so yet however) …

  5. Sergio – I’m so glad you shared a bit of Bonnot’s background (which is quite interesting) and this particular story. I’d heard of his work but only just and haven’t read it. The premises seem really interesting but I know just what you mean about a book that goes on for too long and is too caught up in narrative and/or detail. And the resolution doesn’t quite seem my cuppa either. I may give it a go, but honestly, after your excellent review, I think I’ll wait a bit…

  6. John says:

    Add me to the crowd of readers who has never heard of this writer. This sounds like something that Fred Vargas would write up with that unusual French legend of a monster of southern France. I’ll have to track this one down even with the warning of a “damp squib” (love that phrase!) of an ending. I am disappointed to learn that the beast is not a monstrous flamingo. Wouldn’t that make for some pulpy fun? I visited the Camargue during migration season several years ago and never saw so many flamingos in one place. We have some very cool photos of a huge flock flying low over our rental car. We had to duck to get the shot! There are also those handsome wild horses running wild in the Camargue that might make for an interesting atmospheric addition or plot element for a crime novel set in sourthern France. Someone must’ve done it already.

    • Love to know what you make of it John – and no, not a flamingo in sight sadly, but pretty darn scary all the same (though, in typical fashion, the ‘creature’ is kept off the page, which is an artistically valid approach but from a more purely atavistic standpoint it is a bit hard not to feel gypped …). What it kept reminding me of, mainly because of the location, is the Hammer thriller Maniac, which we chatted about nearly a year ago (doesn’t time fly when you are enjoying the fruits of fictional crime …).

      • John says:

        There I go again — repeating myself. I did think of that Hammer film when I saw the title of the book. Should’ve had the brains to check out my comment on the MANIAC page before I rehashed my memories of that fun trip to France.

        • John, it was a) a year ago, b) I need reminding at my age and c) it is very envy-making and I think you should be dining out on it on at least a monthly basis mate, no matter what the book review actually is!

  7. Todd Mason says:

    Hmm…I kinda see some thematic relation to another De Palma, too…SPIRAL/ENGRENAGE is coming to the US this month via the small public-broadcasting network MHz Worldview, which will stream it online (at least, most likely) for those with no MHz Wv affiliate handy…and did I miss mention of this? How is your French? Up to the reading level? (I see you’ve been reading the British bound editions in translation…)

    Thanks for the kind words on my post…and here’s the link to my review of NELSON ALGREN’S OWN BOOK OF LONESOME MONSTERS from 2009…http://socialistjazz.blogspot.com/2009/04/fridays-forgotten-books-nelson-algrens.html

    • Schoolboy French I’m afraid – I usually read it translated into Italian on the assumption the languages are much more similar though this ignores the role of the translator, which is pretty darn crucial! The first three series of Spiral have been screened here and are available on DVD – in many ways I prefer Braquom(slang for ‘heist’), a sort of Gallic version The Shield.

  8. I’m interested in any TV show or movie with a heist in it. Books, too, which is why I’m a big fan of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. When I read a book that’s been translated from another language and didn’t like it, I always wonder if it was me or the translation. As you point out, translation is crucial.

    • Just the word ‘heist’ conjures some wonderful mental pictures, like ‘caper’ – all very 60s and swish and exciting! Braquo on the other hand is brutal and hard as nails but will probably take your breath away if you get the chance to see it (clearly inspired by The Shield but very, very French).

  9. Forty-page chapters that drag in places…thanks for warning me, Sergio. I have no problem with that except once I start reading a book I don’t put it away until I’m through with it, no matter how excruciatingly slow the pace is. ‘The Baron’ does sound like an interesting protagonist, especially with his love of the opera and a live-in lover (a seemingly new trend among modern suspense novels). You have made it a regular habit of springing surprises on me every Friday…so thanks very much for introducing me to yet another “new” author. I might not always read them, but it helps to know something about them and their work. I came to know of Ed McBain through your many reviews and today I’ve nearly a dozen of his paperbacks.

    • You are always much too king Prashant, but thank you. Actually, Anne doesn’t really ‘live in’ – the ‘Baron’ is having a bit of trouble settling down (isn’t that just like us hardboiled guys in fiction – what jerks we are, eh?)

  10. Jeff Flugel says:

    Cool review, Sergio! Several aspects of this novel sound intriguing (the allusions to a monster linked to the crimes, the intellectual detective, etc.). The title and monster legend sound like they were inspired by the “Beast of Gevaudan” story featured in BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF. I’ll keep a lookout for this author, although I must confess a slight aversion to translations, as sometimes they are sloppily done and I feel like the original flavor is somehow lost.

    As an aside, it’s interesting to me how so many European authors (especially Scandanavian ones) continue to dominate the mystery novel market. These kinds of books have always been enjoyed in limited form in the U.S. but that particular market has really exploded recently (thanks in part to THE GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO and its sequels). It’s good to see, as fresh blood and perspective is.needed in these problematic, precarious days for the book industry.

    • Hiya Jeff, thanks for that – and I think you are very correct in that anything that gets people excited about buying and reading books is always a good thing (though in fairness I shall admit to not really being a Stieg Larsson fan). The Erlendur series by Arnaldur Indriðason, which has got name-checked here a couple of times is to my tastes much superior. But if you want to keep up with all things crime and Scandinavian, you really must check out the blog of the redoubtable Mrs P at http://mrspeabodyinvestigates.wordpress.com/ as she really knows what she’s talking about in this arena.

  11. Anne H says:

    This writer was new to me too, and sounded interesting to this fan of Fred Vargas so I’ve been away from here checking out availability. My local library has recently linked up with all the libraries in the state and suddenly many more books are available to borrow so there’s no need to buy. (Actually the Book Depository has never heard of Bonnot anyway. didn’t try ABEbooks.) Bonnot is in the catalogue here! So I’m beginning at the beginning and have ordered the first in the series, tantalising as the Beast one sounds, with reservations.
    It’s always great to hear of a new author. As for Indridason, I can’t find any indication that there’s another book after the one translated as Black Skies, Sigurdur Oli’s investigation. Where is Erlendur?? I hope he hasn’t suffered his brother’s fate.

    • Thanks Anne H – and well done on the library front! I look forward to hearing what you make of The First Fingerprint. As for the Erlendur series we have at least two further books in the as yet to be translated that follow Black Skies, Furðustrandir (2010) and Einvígið (2011).

  12. Anne H says:

    Well. I’ve just read The First Fingerprint. I read for pleasure, not to be critical and pull things apart, but I have to say I was really disappointed. There were so many things that made this book impossible to be positive about! I can’t blame the translator, though he was too free with unnecessary commas, with one in the first line of the book, and the name of the city in English is Marseilles. Persistent small irritations.
    The problem was with the writing. There was plenty of incident, and gruesome murders, plus interesting background information about pre-historic man and yet an absolute lack of overall tension and suspense. What tension there was seemed to be constantly diffused by switches to a different part of the storyline and from one character to another. Opera lover as I am, the book and I could have done without lengthy excerpts of libretto that contributed nothing. (I have vision of that particular scene from Boheme with Tebaldi and the incomparable Jussi Bjorling, but his recording with de los Angeles is the best.) An experienced professional editor might have shown how to tighten the storyline to improve the construction, for example to disguise the fact that the police should have discovered who the mystery man might be or actually was much sooner – and was there no colour photo of Christine? Too, who was the misidentified woman?
    Oh dear, picky picky! After the final potential victim disappeared any tension there might have been was allowed again to lapse, not least in banal dialogue between cops. I’m sorry to say I thought the climax itself was dreadfully muffed. (Poor writing.) Was it necessary to have Vidal’s version, not verbatim even, inserted into the denouement? Where also my copy had a typo in just the wrong place, naval for nasal, spoiling one’s supposedly horrified reaction to the account of de Palma’s injuries.
    I hate to be so negative about a novel in my favourite genre, but there it is. I daresay I will take on The Beast when I’ve recovered, though re-reading your review, Sergio, I see the same sort of faults persist.

    • Thanks very much Anne H for the splendid review – I think, sad to say, that we are basically coming from the same place and its just a question of degree. I think his books may be steadily improving, but with so little time and so much to read … Thanks again for the review of The First Fingerprint, much appreciated.

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