REVIEW: Bed of Nails – Antonin Varenne with translation by Siân Reynolds

Book Reviews

Cover shows a body in the morgue French author Antonin Varenne’s first book, Bed of Nails, is the first in a new crime series set in the underworld of Paris society. The book is translated by Siân Reynolds.

This Parisian mystery was a surprise for me. It is an intelligent thriller with substance. It has an atypical detective in Lieutenant Richard Guérin who works in Suicides at the Criminal Investigation Department in Paris. For two years he’s worked there, mining the archives that date back to the imperial revolution (of which are now used only for research). Suicides is a dead end job and Guérin was handed the keys and told: “From now on, you’re Suicides and Suicides is you.” The only way out is to retire, resign or “[end] it all with a service resolver in the mouth.”

Guérin is a pariah in the police department. It has to do with accusations/rumors linked to the suicide of another police officer. Guérin’s assistant, Francis Lambert, tries to half-heartedly fit in with the rest of the detectives. In the opening of the story he allows three homicide detectives to view the video of one of their suicide files where a guy is running naked through Paris traffic.

There are two parallel investigations in the story. One involves Lieutenant Guérin as he realizes that some of his case files look suspiciously like murder. Another investigation involves the US Embassy in Paris where American psychologist, John Nicols, is asked to identify the body of his friend, Alan Musgrave. He was an ex-Gulf war veteran who died on stage at a cabaret club.

The plot is somewhat complex and unfolds at a decent pace. The suicide looks-like murder trope is used here, too. The background of the story is quite colorful in that we get to explore some of the perversions of the Parisian bourgeois. The plot also involves drug dealers, blackmail, post-war trauma and leftist hippies. There’s also some underground cult-like activity.

The characters drive the story and its momentum. The tone is bleak. Mood is often dreary. I thought the setting was descriptive and atmospheric in a straight forward way. There’s some splashes of humor to lighten things up some. The characters stood out the most for me as some were very well drawn. The plot of the story to me felt credible, too. This was an engrossing read that was also very moving and sometimes disturbing.

I thought Bed of Nails to be an exceptional crime novel because it didn’t need to create mindless killers to riddle the pages with blood and gore to entertain or inform us. What this story does is give you a glimpse at the dark side of humanity, of a culture and the perversions of such which may turn your stomach or it may illicit curiosity or both. This is a cerebral story about the underworld of Paris that I won’t soon forget. My grade, A.

Notes: There is very little I could find about the author without having to use Google translate (and we all know how excellent that tools works). I hope to read more by this writer and I think he would be a great addition to the genre  Source: I bought the ebook

The Author

I love reading crime fiction.

11 Comments

  1. Keishon – This really does sound like ‘not your typical crime book,’ and that always interests me. I also always appreciate a novel with strong character development. This sounds like something I oughta try…

    • If you do, I would love to know what you think. After reflection, I would read this book again. That’s the highest praise I can give it.

  2. Keishon. Antonin Varenne is one of France’s current “hot” crime writers who has received a lot of attention recently, beginning with this book, and then last year his Le mur, le Kabyle et le marin, won a prize (I don’t know if this is being translated or not). Bleak with splashes of humor and “not your typical crime book” sounds about right for his stuff. He was born in Paris but spent his childhood in many places, including on a sailboat. He studied philosophy, climbed buildings, lived in Toulouse, worked in Island and in Mexico and in the US. He is married to an American, has a bilingual child and a Mexican dog, according to a blurb I just read about him online (in French, yes). He lives in Creuse, which is a far-away part of France, somewhat secluded and rural, where he writes. That’s where one of our authors, Sylvie Granotier, spends time writing too. There must be something about that place. It is, for those interested, the setting of her The Paris Lawyer.

    • Thanks so much Anne for the information. I only hope that the publisher will translate his next book and make it available soon.

  3. I will read any crime writer who studied philosophy, climbs buildings, has a Mexican dog, and has traveled around. This writer sounds fascinating. I had hot heard of him before.

    • I hadn’t heard of him either till I read a review of this book and decided to take a chance.

  4. Hi Harvee, if your criteria is that the author studied philosophy, then you might like most French authors. The philosophy thing is fairly engrained in the French culture. I’m reminded of an experience from a number of years ago when I listened to an incredibly long, really very fun analysis on French radio of the social and philosophical impact of one of the Batman movies. I loved it. Just yesterday, I worked on an interview of Frédérique Molay who mentions Voltaire, Aldous Huxley and Planet of the Apes in the same sentence. I have no idea if she has a dog, but she is a Chevalier des Tastevin, that is a knight of the Tastevin Brotherhood, an organization in Burgundy that promotes good wine and has all kinds of old-style rituals–red robes and all–that they perform around elaborate meals with wine tasting. OK, I’m drifting, but I find just about every author I’ve met to be just plain interesting as a person.

  5. Just read this Keishon and loved it. Just my type of book and reminds me of Fred Vargas.

  6. Pingback: Review – Antonin Varenne – Bed of Nails « crimepieces

  7. Kent says

    Interesting enough, Varenne’s Italian Publisher call him “the new Fred Vargas). The book Anne mentions is Varenne’s fourth and latest novel published in France in 2011. His third book, Fakirs, received two Awards in France. Anyway, I agree that he is one of the hot crime writers, Another one is Pierre Lemaitre who was published by the same Publisher as Varenne in 2012. We can just hope that Maclehose will ublish more books by these two great authors.

    • Hi Kent,

      I read Pierre Lemaitre earlier this year, Alex, which doesn’t debut here in the US until the fall but I grabbed a copy from the UK, read it and loved it. I hope they publisher more of their books. I think they both have elevated the genre of crime fiction to a new standard.

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