JULY 10, 2017
I ENJOY BINGE-WATCHING Netflix as much as the next person, but what I really love is binge-reading. There is a special pleasure in encountering a book by someone you have never read before, and then devouring everything by that writer you can get your hands on. From Charlotte Brontë to Graham Greene to M. F. K. Fisher, I have spent countless uninterrupted hours basking in the newly discovered landscape of a single author.
Especially enjoyable is coming upon a crime writer deep into a series. You can hurtle through one new investigation after another, all the while keeping company with the same characters and their maturing (or devolving) relationships with one another. When I came across French writer Philippe Georget’s Crimes of Winter, translated by Steven Randall, I was excited to learn that it was the third of his Inspector Sebag novels. But as I read from book to book, I found that Georget has not written a typical crime series.
Inspector Gilles Sebag, the main character, remains consistent, as does the police procedural approach to the plots. But each novel feels distinctly different from the others. The first, Summertime, All the Cats are Bored, is very much a love story. The second, Autumn, All the Cats Return, is a less intimate but more substantial examination of displacement and the fickle verdicts of history. The third, Crimes of Winter, takes a more extreme turn as it delves into the subjective implications of jealousy, loyalty, and love; its subtitle says it all: “Variations on Adultery and Venial Sins.”
In Summertime, All the Cats are Bored, a Dutch woman is murdered, another Dutch woman is missing, and yet another Dutch woman is assaulted in the French town of Perpignan. It’s up to Sebag and his colleagues on the local police force to figure out if the three situations are connected, and if they are — how? The mystery is intricately calculated, but it pales in comparison to Sebag’s personal life. With both of his children going away in July, “This was the first summer [Sebag and his wife Claire] were likely to spend entirely alone. That should have been an opportunity for them to get re-acquainted […] [t]o imagine and prepare for a future for two people and no longer for four.” But Claire, who is a teacher, has decided to spend her school holiday on a cruise.
Claire is an enigmatic, independent woman, and her choice is not out of character, but Sebag catches her in a lie, and then, during the course of his investigation, he makes a discovery that plunges him into the dangerous marital terrain of “what if?” He is engulfed in doubt, and every possible scenario takes shape in his head. In his efforts to assure himself that their marriage could survive a betrayal, he considers the freedom Claire’s potential infidelity would grant him, and he even tries to convince himself that “[s]he could allow herself a sexual parenthesis, after all, so long as she continued to love him.”
As for the crimes involving the Dutch women, while they occupy more real estate on the page, they feel secondary to the novel because they are secondary to Gilles. Years earlier, when his second child was born, he took advantage of a part-time work schedule program for parents of both sexes. But “[a] man who chooses his children over his profession […] This has not been well-received in the macho world of the police, and it had affected the development of his career.” As a result, “something in him was broken: He no longer felt any real passion for his work.”
Usually, in crime fiction, it’s the other way around. The protagonist puts his job first to the detriment of his family relationships. But Sebag, although he is a good cop, has meager ambitions. He would rather play Scrabble with his children than work overtime, and his feelings of fulfillment and accomplishment come from fatherhood, not his career. Sebag is attached to the small, domestic details of his life, and when these moments are revealed, the books shine. There is a touching passage in the first book when Sebag discovers a small, unfamiliar bra in the laundry. When he realizes the delicate item belongs to his preteen daughter, Séverine, the reader feels his nostalgia for her rapidly vanishing girlhood. And in another scene:
Gilles took the time to look at his son. His features had gotten coarser with adolescence, and a few ugly pimples studded his cheeks. But when he joked like that, the last embers of his childhood still burned in his eyes. Like the light of a star that manages to reach us many years after it has died.
The Sebag series is billed as noir, and there are times when these books do follow expected tropes. But Sebag does not wear the stereotypes of hyper-masculinity and chauvinism well. When he ogles a woman or has a wolfish thought, it feels out of character, unlike when he thinks about his wife: “Claire came toward him. She wore a flowered dress, light on her tanned skin. Her walk was aerial. Earlier, she’d studied dance for ten years, and her body remembered it.” Some characters are simply not meant to be confined by their genre, and Gilles Sebag is one of them.
That said, Sebag has distinctive quirks and habits, per the conventions of a crime novel hero. He is meticulous with clues and proof, but relies heavily on his instinct — and has such great success with it that his superintendent recognizes its worth, much to the annoyance of his colleagues. He is addicted to gourmet coffee to the point that a bad cup of joe can capsize his mood, and he is a marathon runner. The latter nicely allows Georget to immerse readers in the setting of Perpignan, the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales department in southern France.
This setting is especially important in Autumn, All the Cats are Bored because the location of Perpignan is essential to the story line. The city sits near the Spanish border and the Mediterranean coast, directly north of Algeria, whose French colonial history infiltrates the present day when an old man is murdered and the killer leaves a message painted on the back of a door: “OAS.” The OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) was a clandestine paramilitary group dedicated to maintaining the French hold on Algeria. It formed in 1961 in response to the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), an independence group that began in 1954. Both the OAS and FLN were extremist. Both believed in armed resistance and killed civilians in the name of their causes. But because the FLN won, at the same time that self-determination was becoming the moral rule for countries casting off colonialism around the world, OAS members vanished into the background in Europe and South America to avoid punishment for their terrorist acts.
Soon after the first murder, a second body is discovered, also accompanied by the message “OAS.” As Gilles searches for the killer, his gut tells him to focus on motive. After all, Algeria gained its independence more than 50 years ago. Why has such an old grudge surfaced now, and why is it being settled so viciously? He searches for answers among the local Pied-Noirs — French nationals born and raised in Algeria. Having retreated to France after independence, these former colonials still gather to reminisce and carry on the culinary and cultural traditions of their birthplace. By contrasting this dwindling group of homesick exiles to the individuals who once belonged to the OAS, Georget underscores the fine line that separates passion for a unique way of life and fixation on a narrow ideology.
Autumn, All the Cats are Bored could easily be a stand-alone. It has its own purpose, and Sebag’s personal issues sit on the backburner throughout the book. The reader is aware of his nagging doubts about his wife’s infidelity, but the murders of aging OAS militants play the lead role. The balance shifts again in Crimes of Winter, though, when thoughts of adultery consume Gilles, and spousal treacheries also turn out to be the motive behind each and every crime he is charged with investigating.
The institution of marriage in Perpignan feels as if it’s in peril when a husband murders his wife, another husband commits suicide, and a different husband douses his house in gasoline and threatens to burn it down with his wife inside. All of these incidents occur after each husband learns that his wife has been unfaithful, and Sebag finds himself faced with a series of transgressions linked by only one thing: infidelity. Evidence connecting the crimes to one another is slim, but Gilles doggedly searches for intersections, driven by his intuition and by his personal demons.
In each of the Sebag books, Georget has a signature: a criminal on a mission. This unknown person has a deliberate plan for the crimes he or she is committing. In the first two books, this works well. In the third, the driving purpose feels a little far-fetched. At the same time, Crimes of Winter is the most ambitious thematically. In it, Georget takes the stuff of existential novels and folds it into the crime genre’s formula.
It is this kind of ambition that carries all of the novels, which have their interlacing flaws. The majority of the secondary characters in the Perpignan police department are not clearly shaped, and it’s sometimes hard to remember who is who. The POV shifts randomly — sometimes just a few sentences in a scene — the function seeming to be to hold Sebag’s narrative together. There are also awkward moments that feel driven by the translation from French to English: too often, for instance, tough cops throw off a scene with the grade school exclamation “yuck!”
I’m aware that these are quibbles, but I know many readers who will ditch a crime novel over quibbles, and so I like to mention them, to get them out of the way and, in this case, to make it clear that the Sebag books deserve to be judged by Georget’s fearlessness when it comes to taking on meaningful ideas and the bigger picture. As for me, I’ve never sought perfection in the novels I read. What I require is a writer working with purpose and a main character worth knowing:
A heavy melancholy was numbing [Sebag’s] body and his mind. For each investigation, how many lives were broken, how many bodies lay in the cemetery, and how many souls were locked up behind four damp walls in a prison? And how many wounded hearts were there among the survivors?
A man like this — a cop like this — is definitely worth knowing.