Written by Gilles Pétel, translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken — A dead body on a train is a mystery straight out of Agatha Christie and the Golden Age of crime fiction. When the murder was committed on the train’s journey through the Channel Tunnel, though, which country’s police force should take charge of the case? Is it a British or French murder investigation? It’s an intriguing enough premise that has something in common with TV crime drama The Tunnel, the French and British remake of The Bridge.
However, don’t read Under the Channel in the expectation of a cast of suspects and a stand-off between the flics and the bobbies. Pétel, a former student of philosophy, is far more interested in the mysteries surrounding relationships and identity than producing a typical police procedural in which justice prevails. The result is a novel that recalls the disquieting standalone novels of Patricia Highsmith, though this French author is never quite in her league in terms of prose or plotting.
Pétel gets off to a slightly shaky start with his portrayal of a Scotsman, John Burny, a middle-aged estate agent in Chelsea. When Burny mulls the benefits of the British Empire, he doesn’t really resemble a typical 45-year-old in London. The author is better at capturing the indecision of the traveller with time to kill. The Scot is taking a Friday evening train on a jaunt to Paris. He’s carrying £3,000 in cash and it emerges that he’s planning a liaison with a French butcher from the 20th arrondissement.
The online relationship is the latest chapter in a complicated set of affairs with various men, some of them possibly underage. He’s also concerned about the global banking crisis, which is part of the backdrop to this novel. Pétel has established sex and money as possible factors in the murder, which takes place during a brief mechanical failure and subsequent blackout on the last Eurostar of the evening to Paris.
Somewhere in the 31-mile tunnel, 75 metres below the seabed, Burny is strangled. When his body is found by an elderly British couple, the heavy-handed response of the French police at Gare du Nord prompts outrage in the UK press, who seem to consider their few hours’ detention a crime worse than the murder itself.
When Parisian detective Roland Desfeuillères enters the scene, the serious investigation can begin. But he’s also distracted by his troubled marriage to Juliette: with two young children the spark has gone and Roland can sense middle-age decline setting in. But the sight of Burny on the slab seems to revive his need to live life fully, especially as the dead man bears a resemblance to the French cop.
The collapsing marriage is convincingly portrayed from both sides by the author, who also does a good job of creating a fish out of water story when the detective heads to London for his investigation. Although he’s glad to get away from his wife, he receives half-hearted cooperation from his British counterpart, which prompts some amusing French observations on what lurks beneath English politeness. When Roland immerses himself in the dead man’s hedonistic life, he discovers much about himself if not the murder.
Despite the opening chapter, Pétel never really sets out to write a police procedural, which will likely disappoint anyone expecting to discover a new voice in French crime fiction. It’s better to bracket this author with the interesting writing to be discovered at the boundaries of the crime genre, along with books by Richard House (The Kills), Keith Ridgway (Hawthorn & Child) and Joel Lane (Where Furnaces Burn).
Under the Channel is certainly intriguing and mysterious, especially the Highsmithian blurring of identity, and the French detective gives us a valuable outsider’s perspective on the economic excesses of London.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars