Du sang sur ses lèvres
Isabelle Gagnon, Héliotrope Noir, 2015
Patrice Lessard, Héliotrope Noir, 2015
When the critically acclaimed Montreal publisher Héliotrope launched a new imprint last year dedicated to some of the freshest crime-writing set in all four corners of Quebec—Héliotrope Noir—it didn’t escape our attention here at Québec Reads. We were fortunate enough to review two of the first three titles to appear in the imprint’s now five-strong catalogue.
Isabelle Gagnon’s Du sang sur ses lèvres—shortlisted for the coveted Tenebris prize at the Printemps meurtriers crime fiction festival—whisks us from a beach below the steep cliffs of the Normandy coast to a poacher’s cabin deep in the woods of Quebec’s Lower St. Lawrence region. Alix, a young Frenchwoman, sets out in search of her twin brother, Paul, sensing he may be in danger. No sooner has she stepped off the plane in Montreal than she rents a vehicle and heads south. Last she heard, he was in someplace called Pohénégamook. A name meaning “camping ground and resting place” in the language of the native Maliseet people, she learns, hoping that’s a good omen.
Alix switches off the radio. The wipers are on the highest setting, but they can’t keep up with the water flooding the windshield. The traffic is heavy, plenty of construction stemming its flow. Her impatience and irritation crank up a notch. With her right hand, she pulls a packet of Marlboro from her bag. She pretends not to see the “no smoking” sticker that’s clearly visible on the dash and lights a cigarette. The Jacques Cartier Bridge finally emerges. A thick fog envelops the steel giant painted green, under attack on all sides from the unrelenting winds. The SUV crosses the St. Lawrence, makes it onto the South Shore, and ventures into a maze of streets where cookie-cutter houses line up behind grassy parcels crisscrossed by wide paved driveways. Alix finds herself at the heart of a North American suburbia that oozes a certain social success, and she’s less than thrilled by it all.
A knock on a door is all it takes to remind us how easily shady characters can hide behind shiny facades, though, and Alix shows she’s tougher than she seems as ulterior motives come to light. She and her twin brother end up confronting ghosts from their past, and neither will escape without blood on their hands (or lips, as the title teases). That’s as much as I’m going to say to avoid any spoilers.
Isabelle Gagnon—who hails from the Lower St. Lawrence but now lives in Paris, where she manages the Librairie du Québec specialty bookstore—packs some remarkable suspense, twists, and turns between these few short pages. I found myself wanting to read more—much more.
From the wilds of rural Quebec, let’s turn to Patrice Lessard’s Excellence Poulet, transporting us to the back alley of a Montreal chicken rotisserie of the same name at the corner of Papineau and Saint-Zotique—west of Rosemont, east of Little Italy, certainly not the most well-heeled part of town.
Mélissa, who works at the daycare next door (in the same building as an erotic massage parlour, Salon Spa Afrodite, no less) steps out back for a smoke and is complaining to a restaurant employee she spots taking out the garbage about the stench of rancid chicken bones when they spot a human hand poking out from the food scraps. It isn’t long before the cops show up and it transpires why the daycare owner, Luc Touchette, has been conspicuously absent all morning.
Meanwhile, Gil Papillon, a former private detective now back in Montreal and working at a pawn shop around the corner after being forced to return from a twenty-year exile in Portugal, gets wind of things and smells something fishy about the way the police are handling the investigation. So he decides to do a little digging of his own.
Patrice Lessard paints a colourful picture of life in this working-class neighbourhood of Montreal and the stream-of-consciousness prose he weaves into the firsthand narrative accounts of events throughout the book lends a rich flavour to the rough and ready characters that are all part of the décor here. Excellence Poulet is one story that will stick with you, whether it’s the grit of the neighbourhood caught between your teeth or the taste of greasy roast chicken you just can’t get out of your mouth.
Review by David Warriner