It can take the eyes of a foreigner to see what is special about a place; it’s true of Donna Leon’s Venice, Robert Wilson’s Seville and most definitely, Martin O’Brien’s Marseille, the setting for his series of novels featuring Inspector Daniel Jacquot. O’Brien captures the very essence of the hot south of France: the scents, the flavours and the landscapes. You can smell the garlic in a bowl of steaming bouillabaisse, the distinctive aroma of hot black coffee or the buttery whiff of a flaky croissant. O’Brien shifts the action effortlessly between pretty inland villages where the scent of lavender fills the sultry air, Marseille’s harbour with its salt damaged facades and the opulent homes of the city’s gang leaders.
Of course, even the most brilliantly depicted backdrop is irrelevant without a story to match and I’m pleased to report that Martin O’Brien obliges on both accounts. This is complex crime fiction expertly executed and though the number of characters can be confusing at times, the excellent and colourful characterisation combined with short snappy chapters helps everything fall into place.
This is the seventh outing for Jacquot, a Marseilles born former rugby player turned cop. The Dying Minutes finds him recovering from injuries sustained in a shoot out (at the end of the previous novel in the sequence). His pregnant girlfriend Claudine, hurt in the same incident, has gone to the Caribbean to recuperate with her daughter (from a previous relationship) leaving Jacquot alone. It doesn’t take long for something to occupy the Inspector as he learns he has been left a sailing boat by an old fisherman. At the same time an old flame and former colleague, Isabelle Cassier arrives on the scene: she’s returned to Marseille and she wants to pick Jacquot’s brains on a big case she’s working on. The case is centred on a couple of brutal murders and the police suspect that two of Marseille’s most prominent gangland families are involved. Gradually it emerges that there is a link between the murders and a massive heist that took place thirty years earlier: cue a thrilling race against time to find the missing gold.
I’ve seen this particular instalment described as a ‘police procedural’ but the gangland theme and a high body count as well as some blood curdling torture are the hallmarks of something nearer a thriller, if you really have to pigeon hole The Dying Minutes. That said, the resolution of the story is achieved by solid police work and O’Brien provides plenty of clues without losing any of the suspense. This is quality crime writing in which a strong plot, well defined characters and a beautifully depicted setting blend together to make a rounded novel that engages right to the last page. O’Brien’s portrait of the Marseilles underworld is deliciously dark and shadowy and some may find this an unsettling read, at least in the methods of dispatch for some of the characters – a chilling demise in a lobster basket being just one. This is not a novel of unrelenting blood and violence, though: writing about relationships, O’Brien is sensitive and warm and his depiction of the women in Jacquot’s life is particularly impressive.
It’s possible to read The Dying Minutes as a stand alone but I’m pretty certain that readers who enjoy this novel will feel compelled to retrace Jacquot’s adventures in sequence. Two unopened novels from earlier in the series have been on my bookshelf for ages and I’m really kicking myself that it took me so long to become acquainted with the engaging (and rather fanciable) Daniel Jacquot. Reading these novels out of sequence does mean that there are inevitable spoilers because Jacquot’s personal history and domestic situation is an intrinsic element of the stories. In this case the fact that Claudine and Daniel are recovering from gunshot wounds is an immediate spoiler if you are thinking of reading the preceding instalment, but by the time I’d finished The Dying Minutes this had become more of an enticement to check out what went before.
O’Brien does such a fine job of evoking the sights, smells and sounds of Marseilles, and Provence in general, that I was easily able to imagine sitting outside a cafe, sipping a calvados, feeling the warm sun on my face. He does such a good job, in fact, that there’s no need for the slightly tedious use of italicised French expressions slotted into the dialogue: it feels almost as if the author doesn’t believe in his abilities and needs to give the reader a bit more help to feel the setting. These expressions are ones that the majority of readers will understand, may even use within English conversation from time to time; occasionally O’Brien includes some expressions in French for which there’s no direct translation but the majority of these are obvious and so add nothing to the dialogue.
I thoroughly enjoyed this fast paced and colourful trip to the south of France. It’s possibly a little longer than it needs to be but this is top quality crime writing that combines the key elements of plot, pace, characterisation and location. Marseilles will be one of the two European Capitals of Culture in 2013 and while there’s no reference to that accolade in this novel, I’d say that Martin O’Brien makes a very good cultural ambassador for the city. If the various exciting events planned for 2013 don’t have you booking a trip to this vibrant city, then O’Brien’s Marseilles must might.
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