Stick Together by Sophie Hēnaff

Review published on September 8, 2018.

This novel is a real treat for noir fans, especially if you like a touch of the absurd and a bit of humour with your murder quotient. Maybe it won’t cure the black dog but it sure as hell will bring a smile to your face. Either crime fiction is getting funnier or I’m developing a sense of humour because Stick Together made me laugh out loud. Hēnaff knows how to take a dark issue dress it up like a clown and make it even more hard hitting than most serious novels. I hope they get around to televising this one day because it’s such fun. So, let me ask you a question:

What do you do when you’re Monsieur le Directeur de Police Judiciare and the crime stats are tanking? Bear in mind, It’s attracting political attention and the reputation of the police force in the eyes of the public is deteriorating. You have two choices:

a) Improve policing and crime solving, become more efficient, increase budgets, or
b) Dump all the departmental misfits and bad eggs into a new squad and give them the unsolved cases that blight the records of existing divisions which will instantly boost the stats for the rest of the Paris constabulary.

Directeur Buron chose the latter and the Awkward Squad was formed. “A special, force wide initiative… optimise the performance… The squad… will comprise some of the force’s least…conventional members.” Commissaire Anne Capestan accepts the poison chalice of commanding the new group. She’s a good flic but very glad not to be fired or banished to the provinces following the shooting of a suspect. Brilliant and mercurial, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and she likes to do things her own way. They gave her the drunks, thugs, depressives and layabouts who can’t be sacked. Agent Santo has been on sick leave for four years, Capitaine Merlot is an alcoholic, Eva Rosière is a millionaire novelist who brings her dog to work and Torrez is called Malchance or the ‘unlucky one’ because four of his partners have been wounded in action or killed. To top it all a new recruit Henri Saint-Lô, known as D’Artagnan, fresh off the psych ward will join the team in Stick Together. Luckily for good law enforcement, but a blow to the police force in general, the team tackled a couple of cases and managed to solve crimes that had baffled the elite of the force. A combination of very clever detecting, wholly illegal methods and absolute mayhem did the trick. The awkward squad earned a special kind of love from their colleagues in return for their efforts, the kind usually reserved for the heroes from Internal Affairs when they take down a corrupt officer.

Still, you might think the success would bring this finely tuned scourge of the crime world some joy but at the start of Stick Together the awkward squad are languishing in the depressing offices they have been allocated – out of sight, out of mind. How they could do with a new case to get their teeth into!

L’isle-sur-la-Sorgne, the Vaucluse, November, 2012. Jacques Maire is on his daily constitutional, greeting his friends and passing the time of day until he reads the last name on the war memorial in the town square: Jacques Maire 8th July, 1943 to 25th November, 2012. That’s tomorrow’s date. We’ll come back to Jacques (by which time he will be dead).

Torpor is infecting the team, they are exploring the merits of pigs as an alternative to police sniffer dogs due to their greater number of olfactory sensors. Capestan finally gets a call from Directeur Buron – it’s a murder. “A guilty rush of misplaced glee ran around the officers. Sure, a man was dead; but then none of them knew him, and a fresh case would do their status no end of good…”

When she arrives at the murder scene, the criminal investigation Unit, the local cops and the BRI (Antigang Brigade) are already on the scene. The Directeur seems reluctant to explain why Capestan and her squad are needed too. BRI legend Serge Rufus has been shot. So the Director’s motives are two-fold; first the awkward squad can carry the can for any failure in the investigation. Secondly, Rufus just happened to be Capestan’s ex-father-in-law. The bright side is if her people can solve the case everybody wins. Capestan’s first duty is to tell Paul, her ex, that his father is dead and he’s quick to point out that Capestan never liked the man. He was one of her first commanding officers at École National Supérieure de la Police and the relationship was frosty; “No disrespect, Commissaire, but your orders – as with your insinuations – sometimes seem inappropriate.” It’s also where she met handsome actor, Paul (and at the time it was true love).

While criminal investigations and BRI are happily trawling through old gangland cases, as far back a Mesrine (although if you’ve seen the film you’ll know he’s dead) and causing havoc across the city. Capestan knows that her team might as well investigate a different angle. It turns out someone bought a new street sign for the place where Rufus was killed. ‘Rue Gassendi’ now reads ‘rue Serge Rufus, 1949-2012, Bastard Commissaire’. Orsini, one of the team, remembers Jacques Maire’s murder a couple of days earlier where the killer gave notice of his intentions to the victim. It all seems too much of a coincidence. Rest assured that Rufus is not the last victim, next is Alexis Velowski, his death announced in his daily morning paper. Criminal Investigations and BRI think they have it sown up. The Awkward squad know better, fresh mayhem, under the table tactics and answers that lie in the distant past make for an exciting, page turning mystery.

This irreverent novel is packed with belly laughs, wry humour, and also the absurd that the French so love in their crime fiction. Stick Together is a biting satire that lampoons authority. The investigation itself is as intriguing, complex and satisfying as any I’ve read this year. This is black humour and deliciously droll noir. There is suspense and excitement enough for two books. The translation by Sam Gordon conveys the original humour and style perfectly. Please hurry up with investigation number three!

Paul Burke 5/5

Stick Together by Sophie Hēnaff
MacLehose Press 9780857055804 pbk Jul 2018

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