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Taut plots

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 19, 2018 Published on January 29, 2016

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My right hand is almost back to normal. First the charred and blackened skin of my first three fingers turned hard and shiny as an enamel sheath. Then one day it slipped right off. The new skin underneath was satiny soft. According to Bins, the raw pink colour will also gradually fade back to brown though right now it’s hard to believe that.

What will not return to normal, however, is this column. Bins claims that after two stints at the helm, he’s not ready to give up. “We can argue about new books every week,” he says. “The readers are tired of the same old blah-blah about me, you and fire alarms.” I start to protest but he shushes me. “Stop! Don’t waste time. I want to talk about those two murder mysteries set in France – ” I roll my eyes up. “Don’t make that face! You read them so fast you got a nosebleed!” he says.

The books are called Irène and Alex, both by Pierre Lemaitre, both set in and around Paris. Irène precedes Alex but the English translations appeared in reverse order so that’s how I read them. In some ways I am grateful: the novels are linked by one particular death. It occurs in the first book, but if I had read about it in the correct sequence I think my nerves would have been shattered beyond repair. Bins read them in French, in the correct sequence. “You cannot imagine the level of sadness and terror,” he says, “when you don’t know what is going to happen. It is like breathing your last on every page. Reading it back-to-front is a sissy-way to read!”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” I say in my defence. “And they are SO gory. Really, it was almost too much.” Though blood-soaked and gritty-real they are also written with wry humour and a kind of tired acceptance of human foibles. The protagonist, a police detective called Camille Verhoeven, is 4 ft 11” — practically a midget. He suffers the indignities of a short man in a tall world with fortitude. “He’s like Asterix,” I say, “without the magic potion.” “— yah, except that he is credible,” says Bins. “Even the killers are credible: you can smell their madness. Taste their bile.” “YUCK!” I squeal.

That’s what makes the books so intense: they’re like watching security-cam footage of the characters scurrying about in the maze of the plot. In Irène we see the diminutive detective struggling inside a trap so fiendish that readers don’t realise how neatly we ourselves are trapped inside it too. Then in Alex, another kind of inward-curling plot uncoils around a very troubled young woman and her equally troubling history.

There’s a third book in the series, Camille. I haven’t read it yet. Neither has Bins. “The title is the same as the hero’s name,” he says. “That makes me worry.” “Oh — so now you’re worrying about a fictional detective?” I tease him. “He lives in my mind,” says Bins tapping his head, “I care for him.” I tap my head too. “These Frenchmen are crazy,” I say.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author, artist and writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US in this weekly column

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Published on January 29, 2016
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