Mouron makes his English-language debut with a knife-edged noir set in Watertown, Mass., which combines spare prose with a compelling murder mystery plot. Sheriff Paul McCarthy must deal with an unusual homicide; his decades-long casual acquaintance, Jimmy Henderson, has had his throat cut while sitting in his pickup truck on a quiet street one night. Beforehand, the killer slashed Henderson’s eyes, cut out his tongue, and gashed his cheeks. Nothing was stolen, and there seems to be no motive for the killing and the subsequent butchery. There is, however, an obvious suspect—drug dealer Alexander Marshall, a local ne’er-do-well with a record for attempted homicide, who shacked up with Henderson’s daughter, Laura, and sexually abused her child. But McCarthy is unwilling to settle for an easy answer to the case. Cornell Woolrich readers will recognize Mouron’s portrayals of “simple folk, disturbed by life,” who “commit only rational murders, justified by drunkenness or necessity and tempered by tears and regrets.”
Franck is a detective and a half glass empty man. This hedonistic and jaded jeremiad wants a world where people are interesting, authentic, beautiful and original, something that will make his next precious breath worthwhile. Inevitably, the human race disappoints him. Franck being human needs his compensations. The cloud of cocaine referred to in the book title is mainly around Franck. This latest thriller from Bitter Lemon Press is top drawer. The book is original and formidable. Not everything in Three Drops Of Blood And A Cloud Of Cocaine is flawless. Although it contains a fabulous surprise the scene in the art gallery is over-extended. The final seduction between the responsible puritan and amoral pleasure seeker feels glib and unconvincing. The rest of the book, though, is fabulous. Fans of the horror genre expect at least two spine tingles from a story or film. Crime fiction should provide two mouth-dropping plot twists. Three Drops Of Blood And A Cloud Of Cocaine has them.
Ambitious crime fiction tends to rely on the thriller format when it tilts towards literary appeal. Three Drops Of Blood And A Cloud Of Cocaine, though, is centred on the mysterious murder of old Jimmy Henderson. The book has an Ed McBain type puzzle. To dazzle with invention and style in this format is no small achievement. The clues that confuse represent both mundane ambition and inhibited perversity. The plot resists familiar mechanisms, and the prose has plenty of style. The translation by W. Donald Wilson is superb. The book is a pleasure to read. The humour is dark and essential to the confusion but is not overdone. Gangster Le Carré mixes worlds and deserves to be bewildered.
Franck meets a novelist called James Ellsor. Crime fans will recognise the sly reference to a famous but overbearing author.
Franck is a fabulous character. His self-centred hedonism he pursues with the purist dedication of a Zen Buddhist. It is tempting to think of the book as a mix of dark Patricia Highsmith and a twisted Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. Franck is as memorable as anti-heroes Tom Ripley and Anton Chigurh. Not that Three Drops Of Blood And A Cloud Of Cocaine is a one-man show. Like Cormack McCarthy, author Quentin Mouron has the ability to create a distinct character in a couple of sentences. He mixes dilettantes, aesthetes, celebrities, down to earth policemen and low life criminals in a tale that surprises and pretends to wander. Franck has contempt for everyone. He also has a temper but then the man does have standards. Author Mouron is also good about things. He persuades us that the world we inhabit is inherited rather than invented. The opening description of the pick-up truck of victim Jimmy Henderson mixes precise detail and is first class.
The Book Bag:
Paul McCarthy is a man of simple pleasures; Sheriff in a small town, a good husband father and neighbour, he moves through life buoyed by his faith, in both God and justice. The brutal murder of old Jimmy Henderson rocks this simple man's tenuously ordered life and drags him to the edge of the abyss. McCarthy is tasked with leading a fractured investigation whilst managing his own soul-searching questions about morality and the nature of existence. Into this quagmire steps Franck, a private detective with a shadowy agenda, a raging cocaine habit and a twisted sense of morality. As McCarthy tries to solve this apparently motiveless crime, Franck acts as a perverse Jiminy Cricket, dripping immorality and depravity into his ear with a kiss and a wink.
Throughout this novel, the theme of morality is ubiquitous, from the upstanding moral code which guides Paul McCarthy to the warped moral compass of Franck. Both men are led by their own code of ethics, although these morals are vastly different. The tension between Franck's vice and Paul's virtue builds to a lurid, iniquitous conclusion and sees McCarthy refer to Franck's recitation of a nihilistic text as being Like an organ, but better, much better than in church…, a statement which gave me a pang of heartbreak, its innocence at odds with the hellish scene of corruption and vice. This demonstrates the strength of Mouron's writing and Wilson's excellent translation - although the narrative is dreamy and the story less than typical, the characters are still human enough for readers to feel real emotion about the debasement of McCarthy, a moral beacon throughout the story brought to his knees by violence and sin. The lasting effect of wickedness is hard to shake off and we are left in no doubt that the world can be dark and full of malice.
Three Drops of Blood and a Cloud of Cocaine is, from its very title, a different spin on the traditional crime story. The fact that Mouron is a French author writing about small town America gives a quirky tone to the story and is a delightful departure from the saturated market of police and crime fiction. His eloquence and lyrical style adds interest and warmth and ensures the story never feels formulaic. The characters are vivid enough to capture your interest but vague enough to allow for the reader to identify with them, even Franck who is a decidedly decadent dandy. The story moves quickly and draws you in and could easily be read in one sitting. Whilst it is clearly a crime story, it is so much more than that; a tale about the price of justice and the tenuous façade of faith in a cruel and senseless world.
Three Drops of Blood and a Cloud of Cocaine really is something else. The writing is terse and witty, the pacing immaculate and the books’ atmosphere extraordinary. The plot purports to be based around the murder (and the solving of the murder) of Jim Henderson, who is found dead and mutilated in his pick-up truck. But the real heart of narrative is its descent into the minds of Paul McCarthy, local sheriff and a family man, and Franck, a private detective from New York.
Franck is a deeply complex and at times unfathomably motivated character who, for me, resembles American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. As a protagonist he makes this book utterly compelling, playful and quite, quite frightening – he frequently quotes philosophy or literature (mostly Joséphin Péladan) and has a penchant for puns, mind games, metafictional reflection and the darkest of dark humour.
Mankind may be ugly, and pitiful, but there’s no denying that there’s something comical about it!
He is an unusual hero, even for the crime genre, but more often than not I found myself more interested in what Franck might do next than who the murderer was – he is the undoubted star of the novel. However I do have a soft spot too for Sheriff McCarthy, the more traditional (in all senses) lawman. Whilst not a sensational character, like Franck, he is surprisingly profound at times; he takes both his job and his family life seriously but struggles to reconcile them and there’s real torment in his thoughts and actions:
He is especially apprehensive of these silent hours when the abysses of insanity and alcoholism begin to open up yet again beneath his feet. They devoured his parents. He knows they threaten him as well. My life, he sometimes tells himself, is basically a struggle against my own leaning toward disorder, my own heredity. The drug dealing, the organized crime, are secondary. The neatly trimmed hedge, the mailbox, and the shiny floor are a valid defense, but there are times when this approach no longer seems adequate.
Quentin Mouron is a writer who is assiduously self-aware. As well as Franck’s reading habits and artistic sensibilities, Mouron treats the reader to a healthy smattering of Dostoevsky, Georg Lukács, Maurice Blanchot and Witold Grombrowicz. His own evident knowledge of crime literature enables him to expertly manipulate the genre conventions, to great effect. Franck is as cognisant as his author and delights in shocking whatever company he finds himself in with his opinions and knowledge. During a dinner party discussion about the murder, he scandalises his new acquaintance by asking:
“It’s wrong to kill your neighbor?”
“Do you find that ridiculous?”
“No, I find it charming. It’s just that I think there are certain people you can kill.”
Now, I obviously can’t talk about the ending – although I really want to! – but, just when you think things have wrapped up rather nicely, it comes clanging down upon you and is every bit as trippy and hilarious as it is mind-blowing. All I can say (except what I just said) is that, after that exit, I really hope Franck returns for a sequel…