Book 1 of the Banlieues Series.

A gritty crime novel from France that manages to be upbeat and has a refreshingly original cop at it’s heart – entertaining, scary and realistic:

“Darius Abassian, head of the I.G.S., the police inspectorate, had few illusions about the human race, still fewer about policemen. Power is a source of temptation that is hard to resist. A police I.D. card and a firearm can give the impression of superiority in many ways, sometimes to the law itself.’

Olivier Norek was a cop for seventeen years, his beat was Department 93, Seine St. Denis, one of the toughest, most crime ridden districts in all of France. The Lost and the Damned is set there, the stories, there’s more than one here, come from those streets and that cop’s experience. It’s not so much that Norek researched this book as actually lived it; for him every street has a memory attached, each is the scene of a crime.

Norek says that Capitaine Coste, the main protagonist of the novel, is in part a reflection of himself, and he has the same view of his beat and of the people of Department 93. Remarkably, given everything they’ve seen, Norek and Coste, are positive individuals despite an understandable cynicism about humanity. Norek says being a policeman colours your view of the world and every day involves dealing in human misery and problems of one kind or another. Yet neither author nor character is jaded. Coste is not a pessimistic cop, despite the weight on his shoulders, and he is certainly not crushed by the experience of being a police officer. He is driven by that sense of duty and, here’s one of the refreshing things, a desire to do right by the local people. This is a novel about people who fall into the dark hole created by violent crime, (murder, kidnapping, trafficking etc.), and the police officers who assume the responsible for helping them. As Norek says, most cops want to restore some balance in the world. Fiction is better when it reflects on reality, especially as it cannot eclipse the depths human depravity can reach. It may sound like an odd mix of optimism and pessimism but it works very well.

Norek is a writer on the superb French crime series, Spiral/Engrenage. Anyone who knows the series, (why wouldn’t you if you love Euro-noir?), will know the crimes are nasty and the team of cops led by Capitaine Laure Berthaud are a pretty messed up bunch of individuals – they have baggage. This applies particularly to Gilou but one way or another they all flirt with alcoholism, drug abuse, corruption, unsavoury friends and inappropriate relationships. In The Lost and the Damned the cops are not like this at all. Protagonist Capitaine Coste, is a fairly balanced guy, trying to run a decent team dedicated to solving crimes and helping people, again this is refreshing in a serious crime novel. Even as someone who likes the dark side I appreciate this approach to the officers of the law. But the novel is not at all soft and glossy, the crimes are horrifying, the indifference of the wider society to them shocking. Norek isn’t painting rosy pictures of police life, he’s not blind to corruption, in fact, he’s very clear that the power the police have in investigations is a poison that needs to be guarded against. Part of the background to the novel is the manipulation of statistics, loading the crime rate in Department 93 which has been written off, in an attempt to make the rest of Paris seem cleaner/less crime ridden. Something that comes up in the crime novels of Sophie Henaff too; where she chose to go with the dysfunctional, drop out cop unit, Norek has gone for ordinary, mostly honest cops in a new but functional unit. They are not problem free cops though, Lieutenant de Ritter, new to Coste’s unit, faces the kind of casual sexism you might expect but most of the trouble comes in the form of crime and criminals.

March 2011. Dr Léa Marquant performs an autopsy on a young woman, her body is riddled with the signs of drug and alcohol abuse, it’s also clear she was brutally assaulted, her injuries are shocking, even for a forensic pathologist. Later, a man and an old woman in a wheelchair arrive at the mortuary to identify the body, the police think it may be their missing sister/daughter. Léa is disappointed Victor Coste is not the accompanying officer. Despite the injuries the woman is clear, this is not her daughter. The son seems to concur but the way he looks at the corpse unnerves Léa. The old woman believes she has done the right thing, denying her daughter is for the best, she will live with her decision, her son also recognised his ‘almost’ sister.

2012. Police Judiciaire Capitaine Victor Coste gets a call in the early hours, it can only mean one thing, someone is dead. He passes the gypsy site, next to the municipal dump, on his way to some abandoned warehouses. The victim is a black man, a giant, three holes in his jumper speak to his end. There’s a nasty killer out there needs catching, he wants to play with the police and Coste picks up the gauntlet.

The Lost and the Damned is an homage to the forgotten victims of crime, it’s a dark mystery that also reflects on the absurdity of life. There are lighter moments that relieve the tension and add depth to the story. Coste, for example, is single but looking for a relationship. He really likes Léa but the fact that they come together over work, usually over a dead body, is a bit of an inhibitor:

‘He often wondered what she would look like with her hair loose and a little less blood on her clothes.’

Norek is a no nonsense writer, no slow build up, but plenty of character development as the story progresses and the sharp chapters reinforce the pacey narrative. Much of the stuff I attribute to the author here comes from an appearance, with translator Nick Caistor, at the Noirwich festival, which is available online and well worth catching if you can. The Lost and the Damned is a really entertaining opener for a series. I will be looking out for more in the future.

MacLehose Press, Hardback, ISBN 9780857059628, 12/11/20

Personal read 5*, group read 4*