Hazel McHaffie

Paris

Historical fiction par excellence

The year is 1785. The place is the centre of Paris. Unusually heavy spring rain causes the bank of the cemetery of les Innocents, crammed full of bodies from the plague and the years since, to give way. The neighbours are overwhelmed by the stench and the effluent washing through their cellars. It’s poisoning the very air of the city.

A young engineer from Normandy, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is called in. The church and the burial ground must be destroyed, he is told; everything must be made sweet again, the poisonous influence of the past must be eradicated. So says no less a personage than the king! Baratte sets about amassing a rag-tag workforce and equipment to achieve this objective, and the macabre task begins. Before long the skeletons become visible … the depths of the many plots are plumbed … a steady procession of horse-drawn carts carries the disinterred bones, under velvet drapes, accompanied by chanting priests, to a newly sanctified quarry for their last resting place … the church and its precious organ are dismantled piece by piece. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, the terrible smell lifts, beautiful flowers begin to grow in the new sanitised soil. But it comes at a price.

It’s a year of
bones, grave-dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. … A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of desire. Of love …

The cemetery has been at the heart of life in the area for many people. Their very breath smells of it. Some indeed perceive themselves as its guardians. So what does this clearance mean for them?

There’s pretty Emilie Monnard aka Ziguette, daughter of a prosperous shop owner, whose window overlooks the cemetery. She’s watched burials there for years. Long after the mourners have left, she’s continued to keep watch over the dead like a sister or an angel. Now the man who is to destroy all she holds dear is lodging in her family home, and she will go to any lengths to save her precious heritage.

Then there’s the sweet auburn-haired emissary of death, Jeanne, teenage granddaughter of the aged sexton, who knows the cemetery intimately, and regards herself as custodian of its inmates, her vast extended family. Her affiliation to the dead moves her to be protective of what the project unearths. But her naivety, her dreams, end in smithereens when she’s rejected and then ruined.

Jean-Baptiste, however, from the moment he glimpses her, is unaccountably obsessed by the mysterious Austrian, Héloïs Godard – otherwise known as the town’s whore, nothing to do with the cemetery. No one is more disconcerted than he when she agrees to move in with him in his lodgings.

An unlikely setting for a novel you might think: a rank burial ground; it’s destruction. Especially in an age when justice, mercy, honour, sanitation and medicine are crude concepts. But somehow, the very unlikeliness of the backdrop gives additional heft to the story.

Pure, by Andrew Miller, is beautifully rendered with exquisite turns of phrase, and similies, and descriptions, which are pitch-perfect for the era they capture.

… riding out of the rags of last night’s mist

… the kitchen – that scrubbed and orderly world where even the light seems to lie like lengths of rinsed muslin …

Somewhere between very late and very early, some deep velvet-lined pocket of a winter’s night.

He has a candle in his head, all the light he needs, and he begins to play a Couperin trio from memory, his spine and neck arched slightly backwards as though the organ was a coach-and-six and he was hurtling through the centre of les Halles, scattering geese and cabbages and old women.

I was mesmerised – read it in a sitting!

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The Enzo Files

The Enzo Files by Peter May are billed as a ‘mix of whodunit, investigation, thrills, suspense and humour’. They feature a forensic scientist of Scots/Italian descent, called Enzo Macleod who, thanks to a reckless wager, takes on the challenge to solve seven cold cases reported in a book by the widower of the seventh case, journalist Roger Raffin. The stories are all set in France (where May currently lives) and he clearly knows the country well.

Extraordinary People is the first novel in the series: ten years ago Jacques Gaillard, a distinguished scholar, expert in the history of early French cinema, a celebrity with contacts and friends in the highest echelons of society, simply failed to turn up at the end of the August holiday in 1996. Armed with modern technology and a total disregard for the justice system, Enzo begins digging. He applies modern techniques to a few remaining artefacts and soon finds out that Guillard was murdered and probably dismembered in front of the very church altar before which he had worshipped for thirty years, the deed being covered up by the slaughter and incineration of a pig on the same spot.

Little by little Enzo unravels a series of puzzles in the macabre treasure hunt – finding bones and assorted artefacts in each site, all leading him to the next body part and set of clues. ‘An extreme IQ test where cracking the clues was rewarded with the pieces of a murdered man.’ But powerful people and clever minds are determined not to allow the truth to emerge. The government and then his employers warn him off the detective work. Scarcely veiled threats come from a minister and a judge. He persists, but one after another, key people whom he suspects were involved are found dead just as Enzo is about to talk to them, and before long he himself is singled out to be the next victim. But the identity of the last suspect appalls him – it’s someone he knows.

I confess this first book in the Enzo series didn’t quite live up to my expectations of Peter May. It’s more Google-searching than scientific know-how, and large chunks of regurgitated information bog the story down. Much of the setting reads like a French travel guide too! The supporting cast are more promising, and indeed much of the leg work is done by a young student assistant Nicole. The suspense is slow in starting and gets watered down and lost in the morass of Google information. So sorry, Mr May, I wasn’t enamoured of this one.

Nevertheless I persevered. I’ve learned not to judge any writer on a single work. And the second one irritated me less. It feels as if May has got rid of all the background information he wants to share and is settling down to the meat of the search. In The Critic, Enzo is searching for answers to the disappearance of famous and seriously influential wine critic, Gil Petty. Winemakers’ reputations and businesses are lost and found on the basis of his assessments. But then Petty’s body is discovered pickled in wine. More deaths follow and again Enzo’s own life and that of his informants are in danger. May cleverly drops in enough real people and places and wines and historical details to give this one a ring of authenticity. My main niggle was a rather annoying habit of using French words in italics where an English word would have been wholly appropriate and less pretentious.

Fast forward to Cast Iron and the sixth unsolved case in Roger Raffin’s book, and by now the cast of supporting characters are fully fleshed out and we’re rooting for them. This cold case involves the twenty-year old daughter of a judge, Lucie Martin, whose body was disposed of deep in a lake back in 1989, but an unusually hot summer 14 years later reveals it. It’s now 22 years since it happened, and yet someone is still desperate to prevent the case being solved. And this time Enzo’s own daughter Sophie is abducted and in mortal danger. The pressure is on big time: Enzo must stop his investigation or else …

It seems nobody is the kind of person they purport to be, paternity is a flexible concept, and once again Enzo is devastated to find people he trusted and loved are in fact villains. And he himself has changed – ‘everything about him … everything he had known and understood … everything he had been … ‘ the very bedrock on which he had built his life had fallen away beneath his feet … he is a stranger haunting his own past.’

Reading one book after another by any author has its benefits and disadvantages. With this series I found that little by little the characters grew on me and the overall picture consolidated reassuringly. I was glad I’d persevered beyond the first one. However reading several on the trot has its drawbacks. It’s a bit like TV series set in small villages/cities like Midsommer/Oxford where one detective solves murders regularly. Totally implausible. And what are the chances of every single cold case involving violent people bent on silencing Macleod and anyone else getting near to the truth? Vanishingly rare. Sigh! Except … in this instance, by the 44th chapter of the sixth book it all makes sense! Now that’s clever plotting … if you have nerves of steel and the confidence of a few million fans!

 

 

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