Book Review: Summer Fiction

Hackers, heretics, and spies, oh my

Summer Fiction

History Detectives

Bellringer: A St-Cyr and Kohler Mystery

by J. Robert Janes, 334 pp., $23.99 (paper)

For readers drawn to adventures in violence and human depravity, Nazi-occupied territory during World War II is an ideal destination, and it would be hard to find a better guide than J. Robert Janes. Like its 12 predecessors, Janes's new novel, Bellringer, takes place in occupied France during World War II.

That the stories are about a pair of police investigators who solve homicides during the biggest lollapalooza of murder in history is only the first of many stimulating ironies in store for you. Shoptalk between the two detectives is enlivened considerably by their divergent backgrounds: Hermann Kohler works for the Nazi occupiers and Jean-Louis St-Cyr for the Vichy French. Both are honest policemen, however, dedicated to the task of solving grisly crimes and setting the wheels of justice in motion. They also share the traditional cynical attitude endemic to not only policemen but all professions – their bosses are clueless, heartless bureaucrats with a talent for mucking up the simplest of jobs and making difficult cases near-impossible.

Meanwhile, the locals despise both sides, and everyone misses what they had before the war. Whether visiting a homicide scene or listing suspects, St-Cyr and Kohler can be counted on to complain almost as much about the scarcity of good cheese and wine as the ambiguity of forensic evidence. In Paris – renowned for its naughtiness even before the war – the local police already have their hands full. The Nazis run it as a wide-open town so the Aryans can experience first-hand the glories of the future world they're fighting for, but during the blackouts, muggings, rapes, and murders get out of hand.

Bellringer is a slight departure in the series (the first 12 titles of which have just been re-released as eBooks from Imagine a Gosford Park-type murder mystery of an elegant estate where all the possible suspects are under one roof. The location is Vittel, a town where the wealthiest members of French society formerly flocked for R&R. But this is no summer vacation: It's the winter of 1943, and two of the most luxurious resorts in town have been transformed into internment camps for British and American women who got stuck in France as the Nazi army invaded. In this elegant hell, the residents have been making do with Red Cross aid for the past two years, but now they're on thin ice, dying off just like the common folk.

Kohler and St-Cyr are summoned from Paris after the body of an American woman is found impaled on a pitchfork. A search of her pockets turns up Hershey's bars and Cracker Jacks – obviously bribes for the guards. The body is frozen solid. Insert wisecrack: The murder happened this week and already it's a cold case.

There are other writers more skilled at making action scenes fly off the page, and the pace of the narrative lags at times, but as usual, Janes' evocation of place and authenticity of detail creates its own vivid reality, and the reader can almost imagine being there. In a setting like this one, "almost" is definitely close enough.

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