Those in Peril by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Although Nicolas Freeling's "Those In Peril" (1990), the twelfth novel in the Castang series, is a marked improvement over the previous entry, it does not reach anywhere near Mr. Freeling's usual stellar level. While the novel has its peaks, some of them quite high, it suffers from a major flaw, which I discuss after the synopsis. Maybe the author is beginning to feel a burnout caused by the series being too long? Maybe the Castang formula has worn out? Well, I will refrain from going on my trademark rant against "series literature".
Commissaire Castang, sacked as a result of politically embarrassing happenings described in "Not As Far As Velma", is "promoted" into a backwater job in Fraud Squad of the Fine-Arts Division of Police Judiciaire in Paris. The job allows Castang to travel widely: for instance, he dines in the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg (then still called Leningrad), and spends a few days in New York, all at the taxpayers' expense. The criminal plot is pretty thin, which - of course - is fine; one does not read Freeling for the plot: an expensive stamp collection has been stolen and, more importantly, a classmate of Castang's daughter is sexually abused at school. The suspicions focus on Monsieur Dampierre, a television personality and a member of the Academie Française, who teaches advanced literature in an afterschool enrichment program.
So what's wrong - to me - with the novel? It is the way that Commissaire Castang plans to demonstrate the suspect's guilt. To clarify, I do not mean "morally wrong", let's not go into debating the moral issues of entrapment, etc. I find the whole design of the baiting scheme totally far-fetched and I do not believe any responsible person would choose to act like that (alas I am unable to explain this more clearly without spoiling the plot).
There are some very good parts in the novel - perhaps not the top-level Freeling but close - the New York trip episode is written with typical Freeling-esque panache. The ending is wonderfully cynical, ooops, I mean realistic. And there is a cute meta-prose reflection "For Auctor thus to address Lector in ponderous parenthesis is ridiculous, but the Who Did It convention encapsulating most crime fiction is no less so" (one of these sentences that I love so much). I would also love to quote a hilarious sentence about Alice and Lewis Carroll's wardrobe item, yet some readers might find it offensive.
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