Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Trevanian's crime classic from my home town

I can see why John McFetridge chose Trevanian's The Main as his Book to Die For.

The Main reminds me especially of McFetridge's new novel, Black Rock. That book departs from McFetridge's Toronto series in several respects. It takes place in Montreal, it views its sweep of character and incident largely through the eyes of a single character rather than from multiple points of view, and it is set in the past, 1970, during Montreal's own wave of terrorist bombings.

Trevanian looks at Montreal's Boulevard Saint-Laurent and its crowded side streets and alleys (known colloquially as "the Main") through the eyes of a tough local cop called LaPointe and, while the novel's setting is roughly contemporaneous with its publication (1976), time and Trevanian's copious research lend it a retrospective, even anthropological air. And that's no bad thing, because his preparation was so thorough, and his writing was so good. Here's an example of research that may not be strictly necessary to the story, but that I loved, because it was so unexpected:
"Guttmann speaks up in his precise European French, the kind Canadians call `Parisian,' but which is really modeled on the French of Tours."
And here's a bit of research that contributes greatly to the novel's atmosphere:
"When LaPointe began on the force, there were almost no Anglo cops. The pay was too law; the job had too little prestige; and the French Canadians who made up the bulk of the department were not particularly kind to interlopers."
Trevanian excels at rendering with complexity characters who could easily be stereotypes. The snooty, careerist police commissioner, a stock figure in police procedurals if ever there was one,  here has the respect of his men, and, Trevanian takes care to point out, has actually read the books that line his office.

Furthermore, Trevanian knew he was doing this. He made the savvy decision to pair the tough, older Francophone cop with a younger, college-educated, Anglo partner, just so he can have the partner think, after the requisite physical inventory ("the wide face with its deep-set eyes that is practically a map of French Canada") that "there are aspects that Guttmann had not anticipated, things that contradict the caricature of the tough cop."  It's pretty clear what Trevanian is up to, but he pulls the strings so well.
(Trevanian talks about The Main at the Web site.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger Unknown said...

You keep coming up with titles and authors that I am adding to my mountainous TBR list. (I know. The adjective does not match up with the noun. Mountainous list?)

In any case, I am now working my way through all of John Le Carre's novels. Perhaps I will post some comments at my blog now and then.

In the meantime, I window-shop at your blog as often as I can find time to do so. Between the end-of-semester hassles (soon to end) and the 20 remaining Le Carre novels, time is scarce as hen's lips. (Wait! That trope doesn't work either, does it?)

April 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Time is as illusory as a hen's lips, one might say, though no one, as far as I know, has argued that hens' lips are a principle by which we organize reality.

The only Le Carre I've read is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which did not knock me out, perhaps because the tendentious prose had not worn so well. Here's what I had to say at the time. Perhaps I ought to read it again and cast my mind back to those golden Cold War days.

April 03, 2014  
Blogger Unknown said...

SPY is the most popular (I suppose), but many opinions point to other Le Carre novels as being better written.

I enjoyed both Call for the Dead and SPY, but I was lukewarm about Murder of Quality. I'm now reading The Looking Glass War.

I think Le Carre is of a genre that people either enjoy or hate. I tend to enjoy the espionage novel.

April 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I love Frank McAuliffe's Augustus Mandrell novels and Michael Gilbert's stories about Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens. I also very much enjoyed Day of the Jackal, but that's more a police procedural than a spy story.

April 03, 2014  

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