Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ready for the Caribbean? Try THE HONEST FOLK OF GUADELOUPE, Timothy Williams

Maps change, as politics reshape them. And our interest shifts the familiar parts. So if it takes you a moment to locate Guadeloupe, in the “French West Indies,” roll with it. And at the same time, locate neighboring Martinique. It will help with geography and perspective as crimes, some deadly, rapidly accelerate in the new mystery from Timothy Williams, THE HONEST FOLK OF GUADELOUPE (Soho Crime).

William is a CWA (Crime Writers Association, UK) award winner, and this is the second in his new series featuring “judge” Anne Marie Laveaud, a French import in the island’s justice system. If you’re not yet a steady reader of French crime fiction, note that the term “judge” here is not the same as its American meaning: It’s “juge d’instruction” in the full term, meaning the person who directs a criminal investigation and who also makes the call on who to charge with the crime.

Anne Marie’s overwhelmed this time: The high-profile death of a local environmental activist, Rodolphe Dugain, is being blamed on the police for harassing the politically prominent man. A first quick survey of the situation convinces Anne Marie that a “suicide” label could be premature, and that there are a lot of women in the area with complicated relationships with Dugain.

Just as she could be untangling the threads, though, her boss pushes another death to higher priority: the probable rape and murder of a young tourist, whose bikini’d body is discovered near a nude beach. (This will be almost the only chance to get to see "tourist" side of the island -- most of the narrative slips behind the hospitality front, into the frictions of island life.) Meanwhile Anne Marie’s own life is cascading into disaster, with her son acting out at serious levels in school, her lover (one of the dubious perks of being a single mom) putting pressure on her for commitment (and he’s the one who’s still married!), and her clerk (griffier in the local language) setting her up repeatedly for discomfort and argument.

Williams is a gifted storyteller, who deftly braids Laveaud’s conflicts around being an attractive, unmarried, powerful woman into the press of dual unfolding investigations. (I found some of the novel’s transitions abrupt, making me suspect the original manuscript of this book was shortened with some cuts that bled a bit … it almost feels like the bumps of a translation at times, but that can’t be the case; Williams is London born and teaches in the French West Indies. But the plot is intense enough to drive the narrative past these moments.)

And the layers under the murder investigations include more than the personal for “madame le juge”: The conflicts around her resonate with class conflict, captured in the local expression that sets urban Martinique against the island residents: “the gentlemen of Martinique, the honest folk of Guadeloupe.”

Nor is Laveaud herself blameless in the stresses threatening to derail her investigations. Whether and how she can untangle her career seems likely to influence whether she can find a politically workable solution that will also bring justice – which is, after all, the root word for judge. Right?

You don’t need to read the preceding book in the series (Another Sun), but … once you walk with Anne Marie Laveaud and her questions for “the honest folk of Guadeloupe,” chances are that you’ll want to make room on your shelf for more from Timothy Williams, who also has a series set in Italy; the author website is here.

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