Thursday, May 7, 2015

Lady MacbethLady Macbeth by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For many writers, especially in the so-called mystery or crime novel genre, the prose -meaning the sentences and paragraphs that they put on paper - is just a vehicle to carry the plot. But there are also writers for whom the plot is a secondary concern and who focus on psychological and sociological observations or even on the writing - or perhaps I should say the language - itself. Nicolas Freeling's prose is an outstanding example of the latter approach and he is well known for his extraordinary "turn of a phrase". I believe I would recognize his writing in a blind 'Who wrote it' experiment, based on just a single paragraph. I am enclosing one of the stunning paragraphs at the end of this review. Thank God for Nicolas Freeling!

For whatever it is worth (not much), here is the setup of the plot of Mr. Freeling's "Lady Macbeth" (1988). A gardening architect Guy Lefebvre and his wife Sibille, ex-neighbors of Arlette (one of recurrent characters in Mr. Freeling's novels) leave for a business trip. In the evening Mr. Lefebvre returns alone and claims that his wife left him. Arlette suspects he has killed Sibille and asks her acquaintance, Police Commissaire Henri Castang, to undertake an unofficial investigation. The story is presented in a series of vignettes narrated by different characters.

This is Mr. Freeling's book so the plot is not very important. In fact, I am quite unhappy with the ending, where too much happens and which provides kind of a resolution. I would prefer the mystery to remain unresolved, which would better fit the overall mood of the novel. Also, when one considers what "really" happened, the answer to the question "did he or didn't he?" does not seem important.

There are so many wonderful things in the novel: stunningly vivid portrayal of Europe, with the events taking place in France, close to the German border, among mostly British people. Phrases in French, German, and Spanish frequently appear in the text. One can learn so much about various quirks of the French judiciary system. All characterizations are superb, and the author is fond of puns and word games (I love the word "akshally"). My perhaps favorite twist is that one of the main characters is a British professor, Dr. Davidson. Davidson happens to be Mr. Freeling's birth name.

An extraordinary book, spoiled for me, by the presence of a definite and hardly satisfying ending.

Four and a quarter stars.

Here's just one sample of the Freeling-style (also free-style!) paragraphs (to me this is Prose with a capital 'P' and exclamation marks):

"I was slouching along the verge when I saw a little old man, a 'petit vieux' approaching me in a brisk hobble: the liveliness caught my eye. Beautifully dressed up, cap à pie. A check overcoat looking new and loud - it was a lowering chilly day. Twinkling polished shoes, shirt with a modish sporty cut and a rich silk tie; sharp-pressed legs. On top a curlybrimmed hat with a fresh ribbon. He looked highly rakish, helping himself along with a cane that was newly varnished, had chased silver bands and a bone crook. As he came nearer he was still older than I had thought; eighty, the prehistoric saurian look of an old Mexican peasant - no; birdy and brilliant, the rapid eye of a cultivated Jewish gentleman."

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