Sunday, May 31, 2015

SabineSabine by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nicolas Freeling's "Sabine" (1978), first published in the U.K. under the title "Lake Isle" taken from the famous poem by W.B. Yeats "The Lake Isle of Innisfree", frequently alludes to that poem's fantasy of a quiet, peaceful life in the country. "Sabine" is the third novel in the Castang's series, and - having now embarked on the project to read the 16 books in the order they were written - I find it the best of the first three.

It would be hard to find a mystery novel that has a thinner plot, and this "thinness" is one of the main attractions for me. An elderly woman, Sabine Arthur, an owner of a grand country house, is apparently killed by burglars, perhaps by wandering hippies. Inspector Castang, fresh from surviving a shootout in Paris, is sent to a small town - a large village, really - to investigate Sabine's death, suspected to be the result of a "crapulous crime". Not much happens in the book, almost nothing; instead we have Castang's fascinating conversations with various characters connected with Sabine, including one of the most sympathetic characters, Sophie, a "village call girl", and an utterly repulsive one - the mother of Sabine's daughter-in-law. The dynamic of the conversations is enthralling and satisfying: real people come through the words.

The atmosphere of a small, gossipy village is rendered perfectly: "I am learning about small towns," says Castang, and we are learning too. I find Mr. Freeling's writing more engaging than in the first two Castang's novels. Let me quote a nice sentence: "The soubrette smiled winningly and tripped off: he couldn't remember ever having seen anybody tripping off before." Also, Mr. Freeling wouldn't be himself if he did not show his knowledge of Europe: "Seven in the evening, when this already means nightfall, is the best time for looking at provincial towns in Europe. The animation is highest: the women who have worked all day are shopping; the streetlamps hide the ugliness and dreariness. Best of all when it rained, and each shop a glowing haven from the raw air, and faces seen through the glass of these brightly lit aquariums, laughing."

It is a good book, but only "almost very good", so I am rounding the three and a half stars down. And by the way, the last two sentences of the novel are "Well, now you know. The lake isle does not exist." I am of the age that I know it does not exist.

Three and half stars.

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