Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Translated crime fiction offers authors the opportunity to share their work in lots of different markets. It also makes a wealth of different kinds of crime fiction available to readers. Including some translated crime fiction only enhances this feature, so let’s take a closer look at a translated novel today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, translated from the French by Anne Trager.
As The Paris Lawyer begins, fledgling attorney Catherine Monsigny has just successfully defended Cedric Devers in an assault case. Fresh from her victory, she is even more excited when she gets the chance at a high-profile trial. Myriam Villetreix is on trial for poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston and wants Catherine to defend her. With the approval of her boss Catherine begins excitedly and nervously to prepare her case.
Myriam’s claim is that she is being framed for murder. She says that Gaston’s cousins have accused her of murder because she’s foreign – originally from Gabon – and because they are greedy for whatever they can get of Gaston’s considerable fortune. There is also circumstantial evidence against her though, so this isn’t just a case of ‘she said, they said.’ Catherine travels from Paris to Guéret, where the murder took place, to begin investigating.
As she settles into the town and talks to the people involved, including her client, she soon finds that there is some sentiment against Myriam. Bit by bit, too, she and the reader learn that Myriam is not exactly the way she appears to be. The truth in this case is not immediately clear but Catherine’s job is to defend her client. So she does her best to put her own doubts aside as she gets ready for what could be the case that makes her career.
In the meantime, Catherine is facing a very much more personal struggle. Years ago, when she was three years old her mother Violet was murdered. As if that weren’t devastating enough, Catherine was present at the murder although she has only vague memories of what happened. As it turns out, Violet Monsigny was killed not far from Guéret and as she spends time there, Catherine becomes more and more haunted by her memories and determined to find out what happened to her mother. She knows she can’t ask her father Claude to fill in any gaps. He’s determined not to relive that horrible day and not to burden his daughter. And she values her relationship with her father too much to risk alienating him with too many questions. So she begins to ask around and do her own investigating.
As the two main story threads come together, Catherine slowly builds up a picture of her mother and of what led to her death. She also slowly builds up a picture of Myriam Villetrieux and of what happened on the day of her husband’s murder. And in the end, the knowledge of what really happened in both cases enables Catherine to get some closure.
And closure is an important element in this novel. Catherine’s been haunted since she was a little girl by not knowing exactly what happened to her mother and by not having a really clear portrait of her. While her father seems content to put the past behind him, Catherine is not, and her determination to find out the truth and get some peace is a strong thread through this novel.
So is the element of the reliability of the narrator. The stories of both murders are told from a few perspectives, including Catherine’s. Readers who prefer just one point of view will be disappointed. That said, what’s fascinating is that it isn’t made clear which characters are reliable and which are not. Sifting through what people say, what Catherine remembers and what’s in the official files adds tension to the novel as the reader tries to sort out what really happened in both cases.
Another element that adds suspense to this novel is the preparation for the trial. This is a major case with real implications for Cahterine’s career. We feel her excitement and anxiety at being a young and somewhat inexperienced attorney who’s working a case where nothing seems to be what it appears. Catherine’s desire to make good and her fear that she won’t are believable aspects of her character.
So is the way she deals with her mother’s death. On the one hand, witnessing her mother’s murder was traumatic and Granotier doesn’t downplay that aspect of Catherine’s character. On the other, Catherine is a strong and independent young woman. She is haunted but not debilitated. She can, as the saying goes, take care of herself and she is able to form and benefit from several bonds (more about that in a moment). Still that doesn’t mean she doesn’t occasionally give in to her nightmares and terrible memories.
Throughout both the trial and her search for the truth about her mother’s death, Catherine gets support from several people and those relationships form another element in this novel. For instance, while she’s in Guéret Catherine stays with a warm and welcoming couple Jean-Claude and Françoise, who take care of her as though she were a relation of theirs. The bond she develops with them is a welcome touch in this novel.
The novel takes place in Paris and in the French countryside and Granotier places the reader unmistakeably. Here, for instance is a bit of Catherine’s first trip to Guéret:
‘There is a small abandoned mill on the left, with a guidepost announcing a village named ‘La Lune’ three kilometers further on, and the salutary signs certifying that she will eventually come to the city of Aubusson.’
There’s also a fascinating and clear distinction here between life in Paris and life in the country.
The mysteries themselves are believable and the truth about the murders makes sense. And Catherine finds out those truths in believable ways. She gets some closure and it’s clear at the end of the novel that she’ll be able to move on. For all that though, this is not a ‘bright, happy’ novel. There is real sadness in it and even though both cases are solved, you can’t say that either solution brings Catherine contentment.
The Paris Lawer is a credible double mystery told in a way that brings both story threads together. It’s got a distinctive French setting, a strong protagonist, some well-developed and likeable other characters and a haunting link of past to present. But what’s your view? Have you read The Paris Lawyer? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 19 November/Tuesday 20 November – Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery – Anthony Berkeley
Monday 26 November/Tuesday 27 November – Desert Wives – Betty Webb
Monday 3 December/Tuesday 4 December – March Violets – Philip Kerr