Written by Sylvie Granotier — Catherine Monsigny is an ambitious young Paris lawyer, eager to make her mark with her first ever murder trial. The case that she’s convinced will make her name is that of Myriam Villetreix. Born N’Bissi, she’s a refugee without papers from Gabon, and stands accused of poisoning her elderly husband. They were living in an insular village in the Creuse region in France, where people are suspicious of outsiders from Paris, let alone an exotic black woman.
Catherine initially seems very much her own mistress, aware of what she wants, with no qualms about using legal loopholes to get her clients off. She’s image-conscious and media-savvy, and will use her boss’s connections to advance her case. But she’ll take risks too, including an affair with former client Cedric. However her key weakness seems to be her imagination. After being warned by her boss not to go digging into the case, she can’t resist the temptation and looks into the Villetreix affair. And she’s egged on by characters like the eco-warrior Olivier, and journalist Louis.
Travelling to the region takes Catherine on a journey into her own past. When she was just a baby, Catherine’s mother was battered to death in the forests nearby. Her melancholy and over-protective father changed their surname, and they moved away from the area. He believes that ignoring the past will make it disappear. Yet Catherine is haunted by memories of what she saw and heard that day – her mother’s laughter, followed by screams and a malevolent pair of eyes staring at her.
Past and present blend as Catherine tries to investigate both murders at once. She falls more and more under the spell of Cedric, but also enlists her reluctant father to help her out on both cases. However, she is soon aware that someone is following her, watching her every move. Someone who wants the secrets buried in those dark woods to stay there.
French crime fiction is often unconventional by English standards. Here, the action takes place over a longer time period of time – four months rather than the few days seen in many police procedurals. This allows the characters and their relationships to develop. The characters are complex and their motivations are not always clear. The book deserves, almost demands, to be re-read. Ambiguity and melancholy pervade, much like in a French film, although there is still a satisfying build-up to the climax. Overall, The Paris Lawyer is a powerful, well-written thriller, but also a meditation on the nature of love and marriage, and whether we can ever escape the past and reinvent ourselves. It has been published in English by Le French Book, a new publishing house that aims to introduce English audiences to the best of French crime fiction. If this translation by Anne Trager is anything to go by, we could soon see Gallic Noir become the new trend in the genre.
Le French Book
CFL Rating: 4 Stars