#10 Dominique Manotti / Affairs of State

Dominique Manotti, Affairs of State, translated from the French by Ros Schwarz and Amanda Hopkinson (London: EuroCrime 2009 [2001]). A breathtaking exposé of political power games and corruption in 1980s Paris  4 stars


Opening sentence: Outside, it’s sunny, summer’s round the corner, but the offices of the RGPP, the Paris police intelligence service, are dark and gloomy with their beige walls, grey lino, metallic furniture and tiny north-facing windows overlooking an interior courtyard.

In one way, Affairs of State is less a crime novel than a tale of power and corruption, in which murders are inevitable as the stakes for political survival rise. In another, though, this is a crime novel through and through, in the sense that it dissects a bewildering range of criminal behaviour and leaves the reader looking at the world of politics through somewhat jaundiced eyes.

The spider at the centre of the web is François Bornand, a special advisor to the French President, who is guilty of all manner of corruption and decadence in the mid-1980s: the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, lucrative arms deals with Iran, and a never-ending consumption of high-class call girls.

Bornand is the ultimate survivor, and when information about his illicit activities threatens to reach the press, he uses a maverick security unit based at the Elysée, the very heart of the French political establishment, to protect his empire. As the bodies pile up, the novel focuses less on the puzzle of who commits each crime (readers are privy to the identities of all the murderers), than on the investigative efforts of the police and intelligence service, who would like nothing more than to bring Bornand down. In the process, we are shown the fascinating journey of rookie policewoman Noria Ghozali, who starts out at the periphery of the investigation, but makes the crucial shift into intelligence work by the end of the novel. Like one of the murder victims, Ghozali is of Arab extraction, and her battle for acceptance within the police force and wider society allows Manotti to examine French attitudes to gender and race in an uncompromising and very effective way.

What’s particularly fascinating about the novel is how closely it dares to reference the reality of French politics in the 1980s. The original title of the novel is Nos fantastique années fric, or ‘our fantastic years of dosh’, and Manotti sets out to critique what she describes in her afterword as ‘this decade in which money came to represent, for an entire political class, an end and a value in itself’. Particular venom is reserved for the Socialists who came to power with Mitterrand and who ‘assumed and practiced their new religion with the zeal of neophytes’.  A professor of economic history in Paris, Manotti demonstrates an acute understanding of the corrupting influence of money in political life – and this is really the novel’s central theme. Bornand appears to be a composite of several politicians of the time, outwardly respectable but tainted by a Vichy past, and bears a particularly marked resemblance to one individual (as I learned from Véronique Desnain’s paper at the Belfast ‘States of Crime’ conference). Manotti sails remarkably close to the wind here, and I salute her bravery in doing so.

That having been said, there are elements of the narrative that are overly melodramatic, especially towards the end of the novel. But I suspect these are designed as symbolic indicators of corruption more than anything else – and they didn’t overly detract from the power of the narrative.

One lovely extra detail: it’s noted on the inside front cover that ‘this book is supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’!

 A film of the novel, entitled Une affaire d’État, was released in 2009.

Mrs. Peabody awards State of Affairs an intrigue-filled 4 stars.

#8 Karin Alvtegen / Shadow

Karin Alvtegen, Shadow, translated from the Swedish by McKinley Burnett (London: Canongate 2009 [2007]). A gripping psychological thriller, but one which tips over into melodrama at times  4 stars

Opening sentence: The key to the flat had arrived in a padded envelope from the police.

Karin Alvtegen’s Shadow immediately caught my eye with its rather intriguing opening. When 92-year-old Gerda Persson dies alone, estate administrator Marianne Folkesson visits her flat to glean the details of her life, and finds the freezer packed with signed copies of books by prize-winning author Axel Ragnerfeld. What on earth could have led Gerda to put them there? And what connection might they have to a young boy who was abandoned in an amusement park back in 1975?

So far so good: a literary puzzle that leads the reader into the dark heart of a family’s story – as well as that of a traumatised Holocaust survivor – and expertly keeps us wanting to know more. Well-written and gripping, and with a multi-layered, uncompromising ending, Shadow is in many respects a highly enjoyable read. In particular, I found many of the novel’s characters sensitively drawn, and their relationships described with a keen eye for psychological detail. Alvtegen is particularly good at exploring human weaknesses, and the kind of personal prisons individuals create for themselves without even realising what they are doing. Tracing the consequences of these weaknesses, and of the criminal decisions or actions they generate, are the novel’s great strength.

However … there was one element of Alvtegen’s story-telling that grated, namely a tendency to melodrama in the final third of the novel. There came a point where so many dramatic events were piled on top of one another that the narrative threatened to tip over into ridiculousness, and to undo the finely observed psychological detail of the rest of the novel.  This tendency also weakened the depiction of a couple of characters, whose actions at certain moments just didn’t ring true.

In spite of these reservations, I did enjoy the novel, and found that the questions it raised about life choices, trauma and morality lingered on. In particular, the ‘one last question’ on the final page of the book stayed with me for a number of days after closing its covers.

Mrs. Peabody awards Shadow a thoughtful 4 stars.

Trivia special, courtesy of @Petrona: Karin Alvtegen is the great-niece of Pippi Long-stocking author Astrid Lindgren. Petrona’s own excellent review of Shadow can be read on the Euro Crime blog (and contains a more detailed description of some elements of the plot).