Cold Iron by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Imagine a climactic gun battle scene in a movie - think "High Noon", "Reservoir Dogs" or "The Matrix" (electromagnetic pulse weapons are ok). Several people with guns in their hands. Life or death - the tension mounts. The spectators hold their breath. And suddenly someone orders: "Take off your pants! Undress!" Imagine the intrepid gunmen and gunwomen standing there bare-bottomed: Marshal Kane, or Mr. White, or Neo with their naked behinds. The one and only Nicolas Freeling wrote such a scene in "Cold Iron", the ninth novel in the Castang series.
Henri Castang is promoted to a Principal Commissaire in a smallish town in northeastern France. Monsieur Lecat, the owner of a nationally-known wine company, calls Castang to report discovering the dead body of his wife. As soon as Castang begins the investigation, he quickly finds himself between quite a few rocks and a hard place: M. Lecat has powerful, highly-placed friends, the deceased's sister is married to a retired Army General with connections at the top levels of the military, and the combative judge of instruction, Castang's legal superior, is known to have ruffled some VIPs' feathers in the past. Castang is supposed to tread lightly and exercise "prudence and discretion".
For a Freeling novel the plot is quite interesting and involved, but again this is not why one loves the author. The incomparable writing and razor sharp social observations are what is most valuable. Here's a funny and typical 'Freeling passage': "He didn't even get home for lunch and sat staring into vacancy biting on a hamburger revoltingly warm and squdgy and bland, not even noticing it, this assemblage of American molecules so carefully designed to be the very perfection of tastelessness. How could you possibly use the word design? Di-seg-no; three Italian syllables like rifle shots, something as tough and alive as the town of Florence, meaning a drawing by Giotto and strictly inapplicable to plastic bottles." Alas, in the 30 years since the book has been published, the European reverence of quality has suffered further setbacks.
And consider this pearl of cynical wisdom: "The rich are after power and they rot quicker. They rot on the way up, and being rich they spread rot quicker around them." An acute diagnosis. This is not to say that I like everything in this book. For once I am unable to relate to Mr. Freeling's choice of title. "Cold iron is the master of us all", which comes from Rudyard Kipling's "Rewards and Fairies". Maybe I just do not understand the connection? Or maybe I do not like how the author over-explains the title in the middle of the book?
Three and a quarter stars.
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