by Richard Ste-Marie
There can be so much grit between the detectives’ teeth in the crime fiction coming out of Quebec these days, it’s quite refreshing when an investigator with a touch of class comes along. Enter Detective Sergeant Francis Pagliaro of the Sûreté du Québec, a well-spoken, cultured cop with an eye for fine art. How many detectives’ first thought on laying eyes on a crime scene would be a line from Baudelaire recalling a key work by Matisse?—“There all is order and beauty. Luxury, peace, and pleasure.” Through Pagliaro, author Richard Ste-Marie shows us not all detectives in La Belle Province need be pure-laine francophones; a cop with Italian lineage is just as at home in Montreal as any other.
Pagliaro and his colleagues at the SQ are called in to investigate the murder of gallery owner Fabien Lessard in Old Montreal when a senior cop on the local force, Lieutenant Frédéric Fortier, is also found dead and there are links to Lessard’s case. As Pagliaro digs beneath the surface, he uncovers layer upon layer of dodgy dealings and the list of potential enemies gets longer and longer.
There’s something about the art show Lessard was hosting—Repentirs, meaning repentance but also hinting at the uncovering of an original element in a painting covered up by the artist in later brush strokes—that strikes a chord with Pagliaro. He indulges in late-night visits to the gallery to contemplate the paintings and reflect on the investigation. He’s sure there’s more to the canvases than meet the eye, but tracking down the artist, Andrew Garrison, proves to be no mean feat. Could the artist himself, in fact, have sufficient motive for murder? Deep down, Pagliaro has his suspicions. “These paintings tell a story, the calm after the storm,” he thinks.
As he investigates, Pagliaro stumbles upon an elaborate art forgery operation he suspects may hold the key to the murders. Meanwhile, a parallel narrative set in rural Quebec gives the reader insight into acts of incest, animal cruelty, and a stabbing death that took place decades ago and transpire to be linked to events today. As with any self-respecting detective novel, there are red herrings and twists along the way, and Ste-Marie keeps the reader guessing almost until the bitter end.
Ste-Marie has a strong background in fine arts, and he weaves his experience masterfully into the fabric of this novel. He opens a door for the reader to the inner sanctum of the art world—dusty studios, antique tubes of oil paint, forgers, fraudsters, and all. Through Pagliaro, he offers a window into a more discerning kind of detective, one who lives in a tonier part of town than many of his stablemates’ protagonists, appreciates a fine brush stroke, and revels in the opportunity to slip a CD of Portuguese piano music into the sound system of an unmarked police car when he takes to the road.
For every bit of expert insight into the art world Repentir(s) offers the reader, there is just as much of a sense of place, and it’s just as easy to feel charmed by the descriptions of Old Montreal and its upscale art galleries and cobblestone streets as it is to get a sense of riding shotgun with Pagliaro as he takes the Atwater exit from the highway down toward the seedier part of town in Saint-Henri.
Fans of Quebec crime fiction, you’re in for a treat with this one. Repentir(s) is the third of Richard Ste-Marie’s novels to feature DS Francis Pagliaro. And I’ve just added the first two to my reading list.
Review by David Warriner