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Barely twelve hours after being named the newly elected Socialist party presidential candidate, François Hollande (who was of course later to be elected President of France) performed his first official act - he unveiled a plaque on a bridge over the river Seine in Clichy in honour of a tragedy that had taken place in the vicinity fifty years before. On October 17, 1961, some twenty thousand Algerians marched in Paris to protest a curfew that had been imposed on them as a consequence of various terrorist attacks that had occurred in support of the war of Algerian independence. Although the protest was peaceful and the protestors unarmed, the police, under the direction of Maurice Papon, unleashed a wave of violence that resulted in numerous beatings, woundings, and deaths - some were said to have been shoved alive into the Seine to drown. Over 11,000 people were arrested and detained and a large number, perhaps as many as three hundred, were killed. The numbers are still in dispute and French officialdom has been reluctant to disclose a full report of the event, making Hollande's appearance at the anniversary commemoration especially notable.
Chief of police Maurice Papon was a former official of the Vichy government during World War II. Twenty years after the Algerian massacre, an investigation was begun into his activities during the Nazi occupation. He was revealed to have been a collaborator, one who methodically and unquestioningly facilitated the infamous deportation of French Jews from Drancy to Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944. In the course of the investigation into his crimes, which took seventeen years and culminated finally in his conviction of crimes against humanity in 1998, his responsibility for the Algerian massacre and other assaults on Algerian residents became known.
Now what has this lengthy historical introduction to do with a fairly short crime novel, one itself published almost thirty years ago? Merely that Didier Daeninckx's Meurtres pour memoire, which appears in English as MURDER IN MEMORIAM, played a role in the eventual successful prosecution of Papon at least to the degree that the author is credited with establishing Papon's link to both outrages and to bringing to public attention past shames that had been conveniently ignored for decades.
In the novel, Roger Thiraud, a history professor at a local lycée on his way home from indulging in his guilty pleasure - horror movies - is shot dead as the police riot swirls around him. The assumption is that he was caught in the violence by accident. But then, twenty years on, his son Bernard, who was as yet unborn when his father died, is also killed in mysterious circumstances. Without the benefit of a convenient cover, the coincidence seems a bit strong for police inspector Cadin, who undertakes a semi-official investigation. Why should two apparently inoffensive and unremarkable history teachers, father and son, come to so similar and so violent an end?
The answer, of course, likes in their profession. As historians, they are both trained to look at evidence and, in the course of researching the history of the town in which he was born, Drancy, the elder Thiraud had uncovered some explosive facts about the role the town had played as a staging area for the deportation of Jews to the death camps. It was his father's research that his son was looking into when he himself was murdered.
As a specimen of crime fiction, MURDER IN MEMORIAM leaves quite a bit to be desired. As Daeninckx's first novel, it has a number of freshman flaws, especially in the awkward introduction of a bit of improbable love interest. On the other hand, there is some complexity of characterization, particularly in the case of Cadin and some unexpected and decidedly quirky humourous moments. Sadly, the translation is excessively literal and bristles with more exclamation points than a teenager's diary, something likely to put off all but the most determined of readers.
Still, this was an important book and one that deserves to be re-issued. Whether it is enough, as Nick Hornby says on the cover, "to begin to restore one's confidence in the detective story" I cannot say, as I've never lost it, but it certainly is a crime fiction landmark in the sense that in a world where official crime takes place on a monumental scale, this is the genre best equipped to confront a modern reality.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2012
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