Wolfnight by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
With "Wolfnight" (1982) my quest to read Nicolas Freeling's entire opus reaches about 40% mark. It is the sixth novel in the French series featuring Inspector Henri Castang, now promoted to Commissaire-Adjunct. Having read the six novels in order, I can appreciate how Mr. Freeling's prose gets better and better - meaning quirkier and quirkier - with each new installment. This idiosyncratic and intellectual prose is absolutely unique among the crime novel writers, and even most of the so-called serious writers should envy Mr. Freeling his unparalleled mastery of the literary craft. While reading the novel is a pleasure because of sharp characterizations and sparkling prose, plot-oriented readers might be severely disappointed: the plot is not that interesting, and - to me - the goings-on are not plausible enough.
A nationally-known politician appears in the Police Judiciaire office and tells Castang that he had an auto accident about sixteen hours ago and that a woman might be dead. He claims he is in a state of shock and does not know exactly what happened. When the police get to the scene of accident there is no body there and, what's more, the woman in question cannot be found at all.
It soon becomes obvious that the case is a part of a heavily political affair and perhaps even conspiracy. The local countess, Madame de Rubempré, seems to be somehow connected to the affair and soon she becomes one of the central characters in the novel. Right-wing and left-wing groups seem to be involved; even some ties exist with groups supporting Polish freedom (the plot takes place just after the imposition of martial law in Poland). Through his superior, Castang obtains clear instruction "to be unaggressive" in pursuit of the solution. The author's repulsion for politics and politicians comes across loud and clear, which is one of the major strengths of the novel. I love the passage where an idiot politician is extremely excited when giving orders to the commanding officer of a special forces squad. The politician undoubtedly has an erection while talking about "surgical strike" and "rapid assault".
As a sample of the superb prose, below the rating I am enclosing half of a phenomenally well-written paragraph that contrasts nuances of English, American, and French. The penultimate sentence of that fragment is one of the most delightful sentences I have ever read.
Three and a quarter stars.
"English is a language where intonation counts above almost anything. Such a phrase as 'I, um, don't feel quite convinced' is meaningless on paper, is viva voce worth a page of prose, and a prosy page at that. The American language is quite dissimilar. It will produce a single word like 'candyass' worth in itself a paragraph, embedded within volumes of such polysyllabic hermeticism, such thick, black, deathly-boring opacity as to make Henry James kneel and beat his pure marble brow howling against the dirty deck whence all but he had fled. The French, than whom - it's a very than-whom people all round - none can be more vacuously orotund, are (the same ones) obligingly terse. On occasion."
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