It’s A Mystery: “The civilized people in the world are the most dangerous people on earth.”
A Banquet of Consequences
By Elizabeth George
By Bernard Minier
Translated by Alison Anderson
Front Runner:A Dick Francis Novel
By Felix Francis
We were introduced to Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers of New Scotland Yard in Elizabeth George’s debut novel, A Great Deliverance (1988). The newest, nineteenth in the series, is A Banquet of Consequences, wherein their path to serving justice is very bumpy indeed.
Lynley and Havers are both first-rate detectives who have formed a sometimes testy, albeit strong, bond. They are worlds apart in background and temperament. She comes from the so-called working class and he is the eighth Earl of Asherton, with a family tree that had its roots somewhere just this side of the Battle of Hastings. She dresses like a bag lady and eschews cosmetics. She thinks outside the box and bends the rules and as much as this infuriates Lynley, together they’ve achieved remarkable, often brilliant results.
As this novel opens, Havers is no longer the maverick who has been the mainstay albeit bane of Lynley’s existence. For the past two months she has not been herself. She defied orders one time too many and if she doesn’t completely toe the line she will be exiled into oblivion. And it is this polite and cooperative Havers that brings Lynley to the office of their boss, Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery:
Forever it had been his most ardent wish that his longtime colleague would see the light of reason and begin to dress, talk, and otherwise comport herself in a manner designed to win the approval of those superior officers in control of her fate. But now he found that the version of Barbara Havers he’d been praying to see for years was simply no match for the Barbara Havers whose maddening company had always ended up inspiring the work they did together.
…the fact of the matter was that even on her best days, with attitude seeping from her every pore, Barbara Havers was twice the officer of anyone else…. This new, putatively improved, toeing-the-line version…? It didn’t serve anyone’s interests to have her keep her every thought to herself until she knew which way the wind was blowing. Least of all did it serve the interests of getting to the truth in an investigation. But so far she’d had absolutely no choice in the matter of her behavior. For Isabelle Ardery held in her desk a transfer request that Barbara had signed, which would catapult her to the North of England. One wrong move guaranteed her a stunning new life in Berwick-upon-Tweed…. Because of this, Lynley made the decision to have a word with the superintendent. He wanted to have a go at talking her into removing the sword of Damocles that was fixed above Barbara’s head.
Much to his chagrin Isabelle won’t budge. She quite likes the “new and improved” Havers. Moreover, she wishes to make it crystal clear they’d both better be satisfied with the way things are. And that, it would seem, is that. Then a case comes their way that changes everything.
The feminist icon Clare Abbott, author of the controversial new book Looking for Mr. Darcy: The Myth of Happily Ever After, is found dead. At first her death is thought to be caused by a seizure or a heart attack, but a second autopsy shows that she was poisoned by a substance called Sodium azide. Not long after, Abbott’s close friend and editor, Rory Statham, almost dies from the same poison. Lynley goes behind Isabelle’s back to manipulate circumstances to allow Havers to pursue this murder case outside her jurisdiction. This almost gets him exiled, except that having been Isabelle’s lover still counts for something. Havers is on the case on the condition that she swears by all that’s holy she will not cross a single line. And she is to work hand in glove with sergeant Winston Nkata. She knows Nkata is there to keep her on the straight and narrow. But she reckons there are worse fates than being watched over by a six-foot-four-inch former street fighter from the Brixton Warriors. Besides she’s back together with Lynley and they make a formidable team.
The prime suspect is Abbott’s assistant Caroline Goldacre. A fair amount of circumstantial evidence comes to light pointing to her as the killer. On top of that, she’s imperious, uncooperative and, it turns out, a pathological liar who contributes unnecessary complications to the investigation. She is, as they say, ‘a piece of work’. Actually, the story that emerges behind the suicide years earlier of Goldacre’s younger adult son William adds a particularly ugly dimension to the picture. As the detectives get closer to uncovering what may or may not be the truth, all sorts of dirty little secrets are unveiled. All the main players have a closetful, especially Abbott and Goldacre.
A Banquet of Consequences is a stylish, complex, multilayered crime novel. Elizabeth George’s plots and prose are fluid. She excels at giving even the most minor characters depth. Havers and Lynley wind up in their element. And, by the way, there is an eleventh hour zinger that is nothing if not inflammatory. It’s a splendid addition to a superb series.
Bernard Minier is a master of the macabre, as he proved in his debut novel The Frozen Dead (2014). The opening scene of The Circle zeroes in on a woman who has been trapped in darkness, drugged and repeatedly raped. Her ordeal, captured in a brief prologue, is as haunting as it is ominous—all the more so because, though we see her again, nothing about her identity is ever revealed.
It is June 2010 and most of France is distracted by the first matches of the World Cup in South Africa. Commandant Martin Servaz of the Toulouse crime squad gets a distress call from his former lover, Marianne Bokhanowsky. Her 17-year-old son Hugo has been found at the scene of a brutal murder. A woman lies drowned in a large, old-fashioned clawfoot bathtub, her body tightly bound with rope and a small flashlight rammed down her throat. She is Claire Diemar, a classics professor from the area’s prestigious lycée. Hugo was found outside by the swimming pool, whose surface is covered by floating dolls. He is dangling his legs in the water, seemingly oblivious to the scene. He claims he was drugged and pleads amnesia. Nevertheless, he gets taken into custody. Marianne implores Servaz for help. For him it is immediately personal. The victim was not only Hugo’s teacher but taught his daughter Margot, who was also a student at the lycée. At the crime scene, Servaz can hear Marianne’s voice on the telephone still resonating in his ears:
She had told him that Hugo had called to explain he had just woken up in his teacher’s house…he had no idea how he got there…. He thought he would pass out when he discovered Claire Diemar’s body in the bath on the top floor. Marianne had explained to Servaz that for at least five minutes her son could do nothing but cry and speak incoherently. Then Hugo had pulled himself together and gone on with his explanations. He had grabbed Claire in the water, shaking her to wake her up while he tried to undo the knots, but they were too tight. And in any case he could see that she was already dead…he dragged himself out of the house and to the swimming pool. He had no idea how long he’d been out there before calling his mother. He told her that he felt weird – as if his head was were full of fog…while he was still groggy, the gendarmes had shown up and handcuffed him.
Servaz went over to the swimming pool. A technician was fishing the dolls out with a net. …Claire Diemar’s gaze looked as dead as could be, while the doll’s gazes seemed strangely alive. Everything about the way the crime had been staged told him the victim had not been chosen by chance…Servaz frowned. There was something not right about the whole scene.
Servaz and his team, chiefly his trusty assistant Lieutenant Vincent Espérandieu, go at the murder investigation full throttle. They begin, of course, with Hugo, whose obvious link to the crime includes eighteen calls to the victim from his mobile. Seems he’s writing a novel and the professor was critiquing it. Considering the circumstances under which he was found, his explanation for the calls is less than convincing. In fact, nothing Servaz gleans from Hugo has the ring of truth. Moreover, the boy calls the victim, who was after all his professor, by her first name, Claire. But what spooks Servaz is that the CD found on her stereo is a Mahler piece that conjures up Julian Hirtmann, that horrific serial killer from Servaz’s past, who after 18 months remains at large. A love of Mahler was the one thing they had in common. When Hugo tells Servaz that Diemar never played classical music, just jazz or rock, he is chilled to the bone. And just what are we to make of the fact that Hugo’s novel-in-progress is called The Circle? Minier makes it a recurring symbol whose significance changes with the story’s context. Indulge me in putting too fine a point on it: Dante’s nine circles of Hell come to mind.
As things heat up and Diemar’s life is exposed, political connections emerge that must be delicately investigated. A fatal coach accident in the Pyrenees in 2004 that killed 19 people surfaces as pivotal to the case. There were 19 dolls floating in Diemar’s pool! Servaz gets a taunting e-mail from Hirtmann, who might be somewhere in the vicinity:
You’ll have news of me soon. I doubt you will like it very much—but I am sure you will find it interesting.
One other person from Servaz’s past with a consuming interest in Hirtmann is Irène Ziegler. She was part of his team in 2008 when they first encountered the monster. A la Barbara Havers, she broke the rules, hid information from the team, and concealed an important piece of evidence. But she also saved a policeman’s life and risked her own to capture the murderer. Servaz couldn’t salvage her job, but he did rescue her from oblivion (shades of Lynley). Now she is taking up a position in the investigation squad of a small county town. But her heart belongs to Servaz. She is not only trying to track Hirtmann but has hacked into Servaz’s computer (Lisbeth Salander would applaud her hacking skills) Ziegler wants to find out what he is up to, the better to serve him unofficially. She sees this as her right and her duty.
Martin Servaz is a strong, beautifully developed, vibrant character constantly fighting the demons of his past in an admirably human fashion. The novel abounds in richly fleshed-out characters, who all have fascinating back-stories. The intricate plot, calibrated with precision, unfolds like a nest of Russian Daruma dolls: “Everyone has their secrets, everyone has something to hide, and no one is exactly what they seem.”
The ending, as you might imagine, will blow your mind. The Circle is a virtuoso accomplishment that delivers on every level.
Front Runner is a horse of a different color, to use a particularly apt metaphor for the milieu of Felix Francis’ books. This is his second novel featuring Jeff Hinkley (after 2014’s Dick Francis’s Damage), senior investigator for the Integrity Service of the British Horseracing Authority.
As the novel opens, Dave Swinton, twenty-nine years old and already an eight-time champion steeplechase jockey, is sitting in his sauna with Jeff Hinkley. He has summoned the BHA sleuth, whom he considers a friend, because he needs to unburden himself about intentionally losing some races. Swinton, “the pinup boy for British racing,” is painfully aware that this is a breach of the BHA’s rules, to say the least, and could get him barred from racing for at least ten years. He tells Jeff in confidence that he was blackmailed into throwing the races by a person who threatens to tell the tax authorities about the sizable gifts he has neglected to report. Hinkley, who is now in a completely awkward position, tells Swinton to go to the internal revenue department and tell them he made an error of omission on his tax return:
“Pay the tax. That will be an end to it. I’ll try to forget what you’ve told me.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then you’d be a fool. If someone has that information, they will use it. They may not go to the authorities directly, but they will use it nevertheless. Perhaps they will try and sell it to a newspaper. You’d be right in the shit. Much better that you go to the tax man before they do.”
Swinton makes no promises but instead has Hinkley accompany him to a race that he wins. It turns out to be his swan song. Soon after, Swinton’s body is found burned almost beyond recognition in his car in what appears to be a suicide. Hinkley starts an investigation into the death, convinced that despite Swinton’s confession to him he’s an unlikely candidate for suicide. Although Hinkley has many longtime friends in the racetrack world, he has also acquired an increasing roster of enemies who want their secrets buried—with him if need be. As the investigation expands, he survives several attempts on his life, and winds up confronting a formidable and very surprising adversary.
This is what can now be called vintage Francis. You will race through it (pun intended) at breakneck speed, riveted by all the insider details that were the hallmark of Felix’s father, Dick. He may have inherited the style of his famous dad but he has a fresh voice that has allowed him to carve his own niche in the literary world.
It’s worth noting again that what makes these thrillers special is the fact that you don’t need to know anything about the equestrian mise en scène or even be fond of horses to get great pleasure from them. As the critic John Leonard wrote, “Not to read Dick Francis because you don’t like horses is like not reading Dostoevsky because you don’t like God.” This can now be applied to Felix. Front Runner is an absolute winner.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.