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Un drole de couple

Despite a mutilated corpse and a daring daylight robbery where Kalashnikovs are the weapon of choice, there is a pleasingly old-fashioned quality to Dominique Sylvain's Parisian murder mystery.

There is an echo of Chandler's gallant, world-weary Philip Marlowe in grumpy former police commissioner Lola Jost. There is a salute to Agatha Christie in the way the prime suspect is finally confronted and shamed by a chain of evidence pointing to their unequivocal guilt. There is also a strong flavour of Simenon in the way she evokes Paris through the inviting fug of its glowing cafés, after-hours clubs and shady denizens with guilty secrets they are reluctant to share.

Sylvain seems to have a particular preoccupation with weather. The Dark Angel unfolds in a Paris on the cusp of winter. The fragile light, weeping skies and soggy streets around the Bois de Boulogne are the marks of a city gripped by a damp chill that penetrates the bones.

The murder of a young woman called Vanessa also chills. She has been strangled. Both of her feet have been cut off using a butcher's meat cleaver. There are a handful of suspects, but the finger of suspicion points to suave restaurateur Maxime Duchamp. The fact that his first wife was also brutally murdered casts a shadow over his claims of innocence.

There is a brisk efficiency in the way Sylvain sets out the pieces of her puzzle. The narrative is a pacy page-turner that invites the reader to join the dots and play detective, working out the connections between Vanessa's murder and the robbery at a bureau de change on the Champs Élysée that nets the gang €1.5 million and loose change in dollars and yen.

The plot is intriguing enough, and Sylvain successfully weaves a spider's web of unexplained events, suspicions and compelling motivations. There is also a dry wit sprinkled across the proceedings. A doorman's face is "as expressive as a cold cut of lamb". A character walks "a good distance before finding a taxi, a threatened species in Paris, especially at night".

More appealing is the way she develops the central characters. Retired detective Lola Jost is described as someone who "always emerged triumphant from the worst possible situations". Scarred by tragedy, she has embraced retirement as a warming comfort blanket. She spends her days consuming red wine and diligently attending to jigsaw puzzles.

It is no life for a woman with a healthy curiosity, a quotation for every occasion and the tenacity of a terrier. Vanessa's murder happens in her neighbourhood and draws her back into the detective game, encouraged by Ingrid Diesel, an American masseuse in Paris who also has a reputation as a mesmerising striptease artist by the name of Gabriella Tiger.

The odd-couple friendship that blossoms between the two women becomes the heart of the novel. They bicker and banter, finding unexpected common ground in their very different approaches to life, and eventually solve a murder that brings Lola back to life and provides the key to unravelling other mysteries.

Sylvain has an obvious fondness for old movies. Lola wears "a raincoat buttoned up to the neck. It was the kind of coat Bogart wore in old films, except that it looked much better on him." It is the way she blends the world of Bogart and Jean-Pierre Melville with the modern age of manga and mutilation that gives The Dark Angel its distinctive flavour. It is also a welcome antidote to the dominance of Scandinavian Noir, Nordic Noir and the fifty shades of grey and gruesome that seem to define a good deal of modern crime-writing.

Sylvain acknowledges a Paris of extremes and the city's underclass of immigrants and unfortunates, but she has no inclination to turn the stomach, nor has she any appetite for shock-value tactics. The Dark Angel is concise, plot-driven and mercifully unlikely to give you sleepless nights.

In the characters of Lola and Ingrid Sylvain has created a partnership that leaves the reader with a sense of anticipation for their further sleuthing adventures. All told, this is a highly readable introduction to what could well become a series of Lola and Ingrid investigations.

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