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Frederique Molay’s first Nico Sirsky novel, The 7th Woman, won the prize for Best Crime Novel in France in 2007, so you’re quite justified going into this book with high expectations. And you won’t be disappointed. This is an intriquing, polished murder mystery featuring the very likeable Police Commissioner Nico Sirsky.

Sirsky has now recovered from his gunshot wound, and his divorce, and life is good again. He has a new woman in his life and some interesting cases to get his teeth into. And one of these actually involves teeth. A student dentist doing a dissection as part of his training comes across something in a tooth. It turns out to be a tiny bit of paper stuck in a makeshift filling that says, ‘I was murdered’. Not that’s got to catch your attention! Of course, it could be a sick joke but soon Sirsky and his team uncover more macabre murders. Something is crossing the line of acceptability at a hospital renowned for its progress in cancer treatment. And at the heart of it all is a little girl.

The author
The author

The French edition of this book was titled Dent pour Dent – A Tooth for a Tooth. I had misgivings about the English title mainly because there are already so many books called ‘Crossing the Line’ out there. Amazon.com gives you 22,589 to choose from under the category ‘Books’. The worry with using a popular title is that a book can get lost. That may not be quite such a worry with such a prestigious, prize-winning author as Fréderique Molay, but generally a unique, distinctive title helps a book in terms of discoverability. However, Crossing the Line is certainly an apt title for this novel, since several lines are crossed – in terms of relationships, personal accomplishments and what’s ethically acceptable in the fight against disease. So yes, the title has won me over.

Crossing the Line cover

There is one thing about the very eye-catching cover that I don’t like. It’s not the Eiffel Tower, that iconic symbol of France, which at once portrays the setting of this novel and acts as a beacon of attraction. It may be horribly overused as meaning France, but it works brilliantly on this cover. And the title crossing the ‘Do Not Cross’ line is a very clever, creative touch.  No, it’s the inclusion of that ugly, glaring red label: ‘She is the French Michael Connelly’. Possibly in the mind of whoever wrote this, Molay is, but I personally can’t see any particular similarity other than they’re both authors. To me Molay is by far the better author of the two, with the depth and dimension of her writing. Too many crime writers get caught up in overdoing the dry details of terminology and technology used in forensics departments, but here we have descriptive, beautiful details about settings, personalities, relationships – everything. The publisher should let readers make up their own minds. I imagine its purpose is to boost sales but that presupposes everyone knows Connelly’s books and automatically likes them, and personally I think it will deter as many readers as it attracts. I imagine I’m not the only one who doesn’t like being told what to think! The cover would look much better without it.

This novel, the second in a series, works very well as a standalone, but you get more from it having read the precursor. Sirsky’s Russian heritage can be a little baffling at first if you dive into this second novel, although you have a strong hint with the son being called Dimitri. Plus you get the added element of seeing the characters develop.

In conclusion, Crossing the Line is an extremely enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

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Nightmare in Burgundy

Nightmare in Burgundy is the third in the Winemaker’s Detective novel series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Blaen, featuring Benjamin Cooker. This adventure sees him in Burgundy where, at the beginning of the book, he is given the honour of being named Chevalier du Tastevin by the Knights of this order, who have, as their slogan, ‘Never whine, always wine’!

The morning after he receives this honour,  he is, not surprisingly, a little slow but is soon aroused to full capacity when he goes to inspect the graffiti that has appeared overnight in the country town Vougeot, where he’s staying. It inspires him since it’s in Latin, which isn’t usual for graffiti. Sadly, the locals think it’s young vandals, and two of them, the Mancenot brothers, shoot two teenagers whom they believe are responsible. Cooker, appalled by this vigilante justice, isn’t convinced they’ve got the right person.

An elderly friend of his, Brother Clément, helps Cooker determine what this Latin graffiti is all about. It’s a Psalm, and a rather foreboding one at that. Virgile, Cooker’s young and virile assistant, lends a hand too and the sleuthing begins in earnest.

Like its predecessors, this book is a wonderful combination of entertainment and education. We learn about wines, local folklore, history and, this time, some Latin. There’s suspense, suspicion, desperation, humour, lust and erudition. Benjamin Cooker displays his customary calm, loyalty and tenacity as he gets to grips with this definitely different mystery that faces him.

As you would expect from authors Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Blaen, there is some haunting imagery in this tightly-written, enjoyable novel. My favourite passage is: “In the distance, the massive silhouette of the Vougeot château seemed to be dozing in the middle of a burial ground of vines whose bony limbs and gnarled stumps were packed all the way to the back of the vineyard. A thick sky was brushing against the points of the tower where the crows were performing sinister and mocking spirals.”

If that doesn’t tempt you to want to read more of this book, then I’m not sure what will!

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paris lawyerThe Paris Lawyer by Sylvie Granotier (Le French Book, kindle €4.07, paperback €13.01 – prices per Amazon.fr) is an absorbing and enjoyable novel. If you’ve never read French literature before – and many of us haven’t, a fact greatly begrudged by French writers who suffer from being tarred with the same brush as French cinema which, rightly or wrongly, is famous for being depressing and boring – then this is a good book to start with.

Heroine Catherine Monsigny has fleeting memories of the murder of her mother, which happened when she was a toddler. This happens in the quiet, rural département of Creuse (my home). She is now a dedicated and ambitious lawyer in France, travelling to her cases on her scooter and living an independent life. However, she is called back to the Creuse, to the very same area where her mother was killed, to deal with a case involving Myriam Villetreix, who is accused of poisoning the rich man who married her to save her from deportation.

Not surprisingly, returning to the scene of her childhood trauma stirs up painful memories for Catherine. She becomes deeply concerned with discovering more about her mother, believing this will help her understand how she herself us. It is thus a multi-layered novel. There is contrast between bustling, pressured urban Paris and the usually peaceful, relaxed atmosphere of Creuse. You couldn’t find two more different areas of the same country. There is also contrast between Catherine’s need to find out the truth about her mother, to bring things to the surface, and her father’s desire to keep the past well buried. Fabulous.

It is difficult to say a great deal about this story without giving too much away. It is part psychological thriller, part self-discovery, part crime fiction. It is peopled by rounded, compelling characters, brilliantly structured and a gripping, rewarding read.