All Pure Souls
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that comes down through the mountain passes and curls your hair and makes your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s necks. Anything can happen.Raymond Chandler begins Red Wind, one of his Philip Marlowe detective stories, with a blood-boiling heat wave:
A lot has happened to the crime novel since the ’30s when Chandler began selling his stories to magazines like Dime Detective and Black Mask. Because of Chandler and a few others, the detective novel is now taught in universities. The genre has changed, of course, and the hard-boiled gumshoes of Chandler and Hammett are now a cliché.
Montreal author John Brooke’s second novel featuring Inspector Aliette Nouvelle is about as far from the hard-boiled style as you can get, although it does begin with a heat wave. The story takes place in the Alsace region of France. “It rains, the air clears, people decide not to kill themselves,” Brooke writes. “Or their spouses or their neighbours or their neighbours’ dogs. Residual drops falling from charming medieval eaves and the leaves of hovering plane trees are like blessings for the new clean morning, lightly touching people’s heads as they venture out…”
But the heat wave has led to the murder of a prostitute, a Marilyn Monroe impersonator who works in a brothel frequented by the town’s influential men. The prime suspect is found unconscious with the murder weapon in his hand, but Inspector Nouvelle senses he’s been framed.
Inspector Nouvelle is a woman in her mid-thirties. She’s a good detective and has just solved a big case, but she’s been passed over for promotion in favour of a less-talented male colleague. “Why should I accept it?” she asks herself. “It was me who broke the case.” Nouvelle, too, is an interesting case. (One so interesting that the reader may wish she had been investigated more thoroughly.) She is sensual but prefers not to show it. She seems shocked by the prostitutes yet she’s no prude – she poses nude for art students. And the qualities she relies on most to solve the murder – intuition and a keen sense of smell – are often said to be more developed in women than men. In short, she’s the perfect (wo)man for the job.
One reviewer called Brooke’s first book, The Voice of Aliette Nouvelle, “more Jean-Paul Sartre than Georges Simenon,” and there is an existential feel to this book as well. The usual motives – greed, lust and power – are absent. And the murder is not your typical bumping off.
All Pure Souls is definitely not a dimestore detective novel. The writing is good and the dialogue is sharp. But the point of the book seems to be less about solving the crime than figuring out what motivates the characters. Chandler and Hammett were interesting because they produced gems within the commercial confines of the detective story. Abandoning the proven formula is an ambitious and creative move by Brooke, but one that may not satisfy readers looking for a whodunit. mRb