Review of Walls of a Mind

Walls of a Mind

Publishing popular genre fiction, like mysteries, when you only have a population of thirty million, (compared to the U.S's 300 million), is a more "perilous trade" than Roy MacSkimming meant by the title of his 2003 history of CanLit– at least so many Canadian publishers would have us believe.  Yet Norway, a country of just under six million people, and Sweden, with just under nine million, have both produced a couple of generations of mystery writers who are not only popular in their own countries; in translation their books routinely make the North American and British bestseller lists. Combined, they have a  domestic market hald the size of ours, so why aren't a bunch of Canadian mystery writers up there in bold print on those lists? It certainly isn't for lack of talent.  

Undaunted, a few publishers like Signature Editions and Turnstone Press under its Ravenstone imprint, keep tooling up and going to the gunfight.  Interestingly, Signature and Turnstone are both based in Winnipeg, making it the "murder mystery capital of Canada"; a nicer distinction than being the murder capital of Canada.  Most of the murders in their novels do not take place in Winnipeg. . . Signature has also been publishing John Brooke's series of novels about French policewoman Ailette Nouvelle, starting with The Voice of Aliette Nouvelle in 1999.  Based in Montreal, busy as a freelance writer, translator, as well as video editor and director, Brooke sets his novels in France, probably because it gives him an excuse to do "research" where the living is large.  He's followed the original Aliette story with All Pure Souls, Stifling Folds of Love, The Unknown Masterpiece, and now Walls of a Mind, a complex tale of love and deception in which every character has a past they either revere or despise.  Set in the idyllic wine country of southern France, the idyll is real enough in the abundant sunshine, but lurking in the shadows of the vines are EU politics and businessmen and elected officials willing to eploit the overproduction of wine in Italy and Spain that has resulted in the so-called "wine lake" of southern Europe for their own cynical ends.  They are opposed by French wine traditionalists fiercely determined to stop the dumping of cheap foreign porch-climber on their traditional markets.  

I missed the earlier books, probably because Brooke isn't compulsively prolific, doesn't crank out a book a year to qualify for a Canada Council grant.  He's too busy to fill out the application.   I'd order The Voice of Aliette Nouvelle and begin at the beginning with a comfortable chair and the comforting excuse of a good reason to stay in it. 

— John Moore SubTerrain

More Reviews of this title

Walls of a Mind

Walls of a Mind by John Brooke – Chief Inspector Aliette Nouvelle has been transferred from the Alsace region to the Midi of Southwestern France after a bad ending to a relationship.

Walls of a Mind is the 5th book in the series but the first I have read. I would not have read the book if it was not on the shortlist for the Best Novel in the 2014 Arthur Ellis Awards sponsored by the Crime Writers of Canada. It is my loss not to have read earlier books in the series.
On a lovely crime free afternoon the inspector decides to treat herself to a picnic on the beach. Taking book, beach towel, parasol and lunch (“jambon-beurre on frest baguette, one hard-boiled egg, a few black olives. Carrot Sticks. A white peach” and one bottle of 1664 beer) she settles down on the sand. Being just before the summer rush the beach is quiet.
In a first for female sleuths I have read, Nouvelle rolls down the top of her swimsuit so that she is topless for tanning. As a good looking man in a suit gives her but a cursory glance walking by it appears she has a tinge of disappointment in the disinterest. (The cover captures the moment.)
Shortly after she is called to lead an investigation into the sniper killing of Joël Guatto, a member of a well known local family and an obscure politician who gained less than 1% of the votes in the last election for a federal representative. He had run for a right wing agrarian party, the Chasse, Pêche, Nature, Tradition Party, better known as the Hunting and Fishing Party, railing against the actions of the EEC.
While the family vineyard appears to be doing alright there is a simmering resentment in the region to the influx of cheap Spanish wine. The EEC rules allowing products to move easily across national boundaries are threatening the smaller grape growers and vineyards. There is a history of violent protest going back a century against imports of low cost wine.
Yet what reason was there to kill Guatto. He had no influence. He could damage no one’s interests. His ineffectual political campaign produced scorn rather than anger in his opponents.
As Nouvelle pursues her investigation she is drawn to Stephanie McLeod, an Enarque who had studied at the elite L’École de Administration in Paris. McLeod had returned home to care for her dying mother. She has stayed after her mother’s death working as a waitress in a rural bistro with owner Chef, Avi Roig, an Israeli exile. More importantly, she was deputy (campaign adviser) and lover to Guatto but she had little use for Guatto by the end of the election.
Her background is also intriguing to the police. Her parents had fled Canada and changed their names. Her father had sabotaged some international economic interests. Her mother was a member of the FLQ, the separatist terrorist organization that created havoc in Quebec in the early 1970’s.
McLeod’s is of even greater interest to the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST) the internal French Secret Service. Led by Agent Margot Tessier the DST aggressively questions McLeod.
While Tessier imperiously denies Nouvelle information it is clear that modern anarchists are being pursued.
Nouvelle learns that McLeod has/is also the lover of “Prince”, the leader of the anarchist group. McLeod is clearly at the centre of some complex relationships.
Yet how would the conservative Guatto be connected to anarchists? Their political goals are vastly different.
In a well constructed police procedural, Nouvelle carefully seeks out information on the murder while continually butting up against the DST.
It is a very good book. Nouvelle is a clever woman determined to do her job well but not with the obsessive compulsion of many contemporary North American fictional police to investigate 24 hours a day. She has time for good meals, for a new love interest and for reading – mysteries being her favourite.
I am going to search out earlier books in the series.

— Bill Selnes Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan

Walls of a Mind

Clashing Women in Authority

Chief Inspector Aliette Nouvelle as lead police officer and Margot Tessier as lead agent for the DST were pivotal characters in Walls of a Mind by John Brooke. My last post was a review of the book.

It was the first book I can remember reading where it was a woman who was in charge of the investigation at competing law enforcement agencies.
It is not a surprise to have women in charge. We are a generation away from the pioneering days of Helen Mirren as the commanding officer in the T.V. series, Prime Suspect. It is not uncommon in real life for women to lead police services. I have met woman sergeants administering rural Saskatchewan RCMP detachments.
What struck me in the book was that there was none of the male resentment of the officers serving under Mirren. Nouvelle and Tessier are accepted as in charge. Their subordinates may have issues with their superior but it is not because they are women. They give orders to their male and female team members and their instructions are carried out.
I certainly acknowledge prejudice towards women in authority continues to exist but not in this book.
What was fascinating to me was the relationship Brooke set out between Nouvelle and Tessier when they butt up against each other in the investigation.
There was no gender solidarity in that each was a woman and that they should share information as women trying to make their way in leadership positions in what is a man’s world.
Their attitudes as they confront each other are different from what I would expect from men in the same situation. For men there is bound to be a macho component. It would be almost inevitable to have physical aggressiveness and, possibly even a fight. Nouvelle and Tessier wage a subtler war of words and attitudes.
Nouvelle challenges Tessier’s right and need for secrecy as Nouvelle investigates a murder. Tessier is instragient dismissing the requests for information as contrary to national security.
Nouvelle persists threatening Tessier with legal and political consequences rather than physical violence. Tessier is unmoved and projects her position through her attitude. She is secure in her knowledge of DST priority in the conflict over information. She disdainfully rejects Nouvelle.
Nouvelle is upset about the patronizing attitude of the older Tessier.
At the same time Nouvelle projects a moral superiority. She is solving a murder of an actual French citizen. She is not taking advantage of authority to abuse citizens for the sake of a potential anarchist risk.
Nouvelle is reluctant to carry her gun unless there is a clear need. Her policy causes her problems. Tessier is always well armed and ready for action.
Nouvelle and Tessier carry on their conflict in frosty exchanges through the book. There are many barbed comments especially by Tessier.
The test of wills between the women may not be as overt as male battles but it is as real and as fierce.
Having women in authority has not reduced the level of conflict between competing government police agencies. I wonder how future crime fiction will deal with woman versus woman in law enforcement.
Almost two years ago I wrote a post titled Being Affected by a Male Author Creating a Female Sleuth as I discussed New Zealand author writing under the name of Alix Bosco. I found myself distracted on whether McGee had created a “convincing” female sleuth.

At the end of the post I spoke about focusing on the book and quoted from a comment from the late Maxine Clarke, who I miss dearly:
Going forward I am going to do my best to just concentrate on the book. As blogger, Maxine Clarke, from the excellent Petrona blog said in a comment on my review of Slaughter Falls:
To me, the gender of the author is irrelevant. I have a review going up tomorrow of Mildred Pierce by James M Cain, which is such an accurate, and wonderful, portrait of a woman on all kind of levels. Amazing that it was written by a man? No. Just someone with talent.

I consider Brooke as someone with talent. I found that he created not only two convincing female characters he had insight into their minds and how women interact with each other. I shall be interested in hearing from female readers if they thought Brooke can write well of the female psyche. 

— Bill Selnes Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan

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