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