“Around us, you’re in danger of catching leprosy”: French Nobel Prize winner Modiano (Villa Triste, 2016, etc.) explores the criminal demimonde in a short but potent novel that’s as elegant as Claude Rains and as sinister as Peter Lorre.
An aspiring writer. A young woman with a mysterious past. An older man with nice clothes. The setup is classic Modiano, reminiscent of earlier works such as In the Café of Lost Youth. Originally published in French in 2012, five years after that predecessor volume, this novel turns on familiar elements. Jean, just beginning his career as a writer, carries a little notebook at all times, with jottings that occasionally intimate literature but more often serve as reminders of people he’s met and dates he has to keep, most notably with Dannie, a waiflike young woman whose every breath carries hints of dark secrets and the memory of a particular “nasty incident” about whose nature Jean can only guess. Is Dannie just light-fingered or with a finger on the trigger? It doesn’t help that the man called Aghamouri, who haunts hotels staffed by whispering Maghrebians and wears a beautiful camel coat, drops hints that give Jean the willies or that a police detective doesn’t bother to hide his professional interest in Dannie and her associates. Why does Dannie have access to a country estate? Why doesn’t Aghamouri ever have dinner with his wife? And, if he’s 30 years old and has a wife, what’s he doing hanging around college, apart from keeping an eye on Dannie, whom the world has nothing left to teach? The questions mount. It’s good that American publishers are catching up to Modiano’s recent works, having mined his output from the 1970s and beyond, but it’s a touch curious that this late-period Modiano seems bound up in old formulas, like a more literary but no more cheerful Simenon.
An atmospheric, smoky, sepia-toned whodunit, though more for fans of Camus than Chandler.