Sunday, 1 September 2019

My Year in Books 2019: August

I have to be honest here, August was not a good month. Sadly, my father-in-law passed away at the beginning of the month, after a battle with cancer. It's been very tough, and I haven't been in the mood for discovering new books or experimenting with random charity shop purchases as usual. All I've really wanted was to read a bit of comfy (but good) escapism, something I know and love, something I know I'll enjoy. And so... I turned to a series I've read a couple of times already (or, at least, I've read most of them a couple of times). Weirdly, I finished the last book in the series today, so my August post is entirely focused on the one series. But it is a very good series.

(In case you're interested, here are my posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July)

And here are my reviews for August...

Extraordinary People by Peter May (2006)


August was a tough month, and I decided I wanted a bit of comfort reading, rather than to discover something new. So, I turned to Peter May’s Enzo Macleod series. I’ve read the first five books a couple of times (though I’ve only read Cast Iron once, when it came out), so I knew what I was getting with these ones! And, obviously, I really like them. Extraordinary People is the introduction to May’s larger-than-life amateur sleuth, Enzo Macleod. He’s a half-Scottish, half-Italian former forensic scientist, who now lives in France and works as a university lecturer. He’s also got Waardenburg syndrome (giving him a distinctive white stripe in his hair and odd-coloured eyes), two daughters (Kirsty, with his estranged ex-wife in Scotland, and Sophie, with his deceased French partner), a Citroen 2CV and a penchant for playing blues on the guitar. In so many ways, Enzo shouldn’t work as a character – he’s too self-consciously ‘cool’ (or, at least, what a middle-aged man might think is cool!), and he’s too good at everything (he spends most of his time embarrassing French police officers with his insights into cold cases) – but he does. I put that down to May’s excellent writing. It’s just weirdly easy to get hooked on Enzo and his rag-tag gang of assistants. Extraordinary People sees Enzo attempting to win a bet by solving one of France’s most notorious unsolved murders. It’s great cold case fun, complete with cryptic clues left with body parts and a high-octane finale.

The Critic by Peter May (2007)


Since I’m definitely going to be rereading the entire series of Enzo books, these reviews aren’t going to be as separate as usual… they’ll probably just flow into one long review in the end. Extraordinary People introduced Enzo Macleod and his quirky band of helpers: daughter Sophie and her muscle-bound (but surprisingly knowledgeable) boyfriend Bertrand, student Nicole (who is, apparently, a whizz on computers, though really this just means she’s better on c.2007 Google than her professor), impossibly-French journalist Roger Raffin, who isn’t really a ‘helper’ but rather the author of the book of famous unsolved cases that has sparked Enzo’s quest, and psychologist Charlotte, Raffin’s ex and Enzo’s sort-of current squeeze. The Critic sees the gang investigating the murder of famous wine critic Gil Petty, whose body was grotesquely displayed in a vineyard in Gaillac, after having apparently been pickled in wine for a year. There’s a lot to like about this one, not least the very informative descriptions of wine production and tasting. May strikes a good (and very entertaining balance) between developing the ongoing saga of the main characters’ private lives – will Enzo and Charlotte make a proper go of it? will Enzo reconcile with Kirsty? will poor Nicole be able to continue at university? is there any limit to Bertrand’s hidden depths? – with puzzling, and rather old-school, mysteries to be solved. While there’s plenty of angst in the characters’ lives, there are also a healthy number of clues to the murder for the reader to ponder.

Blacklight Blue by Peter May (2008)


Blacklight Blue sees Enzo tackling the third of Raffin’s famous unsolved murders… though he doesn’t actually know he is until part way through the story. The book begins with some pretty dramatic stuff… Kirsty’s best friend is killed in an explosion, and it looks like Kirsty herself was the target. Bertrand’s gym is burnt to the ground, and all the signs suggest arson. And Enzo gets a diagnosis of terminal leukaemia. Is this the end for Enzo and the gang? Well… obviously not, but it is a sign that someone is trying to do them some serious damage. And when Enzo is framed for murder, he gets a clue that suggests who might be behind the attacks. Blacklight Blue has an interesting narrative technique in that the story of the investigation is intercut with flashback chapters told from (we presume) the killer’s perspective, so that the reader is acquainted with some information ahead of the main characters. May handles this well, as although we get the information, it’s not always immediately possible to fit it all together, so there’s still a puzzle to be solved. The series has hit its stride now, so there are some series-long strands that are picked up, but not resolved, in this one. As well as the individual cases from Raffin’s book, it seems that Enzo is facing a bigger challenge that lingers in the background. I’m really enjoying rereading these ones – they’re really fun ensemble stories with cerebral mysteries and puzzles to be solved.

Freeze Frame by Peter May (2010)


Freeze Frame breaks out of the mould of the rest of the series, which is fair enough (nice to have a bit of variety). However, I think it’s probably my least favourite as a result. The big change is that, for the most part, Enzo is flying solo in this one. Aside from a short visit from Charlotte, the rest of the gang are absent throughout Freeze Frame, which is a shame. Enzo travels to Brittany to investigate the murder of Adam Killian, the next case from Raffin’s book. Before he died, Killian asked his daughter-in-law Jane to ensure that no one touched his study until his son Peter had a chance to find the message he’d left. Unfortunately, Peter died before he could get to the study, and so Jane has simply preserved the room, hoping that one day someone will be able to find and decipher whatever it is Killian has left behind. Like Blacklight Blue, Freeze Frame includes chapters (at the beginning this time) from the perspective of other characters. Unlike the previous book, these go into quite some detail about the events leading up to the murder. This is also slightly disappointing, as I feel it gives just that little bit too much away, and the puzzle is somewhat less cryptic as a result. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun read. Charlotte’s appearance is a little ominous – she has unsettling news for Enzo and behaves in quite an unfriendly (and unfair) way. Their story’s not over yet…

Blowback by Peter May (2011)


Blowback begins in a similar way to Freeze Frame – Enzo’s on his own for this case. He’s investigating Raffin’s fifth case, the murder of 3* Michelin chef Marc Fraysse seven years earlier. The Critic gave May chance to indulge in some meticulous descriptions of wine; Blowback sees the same treatment dished out (no pun intended) to haute cuisine (although, to be fair, this is often paired with descriptions of the wine that accompanies it). Enzo travels to the victim’s famous restaurant in Puy-de-Dôme to reopen the case, which originally had precisely zero suspects. As I say, he’s initially flying solo, but he soon makes friends with the (unusually) helpful local gendarme, Dominique. I’m not going to give any spoilers, but some other members of the gang do make an appearance. Blowback is notable, perhaps, for having the strongest identification of Enzo with a victim. He really feels a connection with this one, for reasons that become clear in the first half of the book (readers may be surprised). Interestingly, May decides to drop the technique of interspersing chapter from the killer’s POV (which were used in the last two books), in favour of a glimpse into the mind of the victim. I like this – it lends the book a slightly different feel to the others. Enzo is still too cool for school in this one – and continues to be (slightly bafflingly) irresistible to women – but a bit of unexpected backstory gives some depth to this. On to the last one…

Cast Iron by Peter May (2017)


There was a bit of a wait for the last Enzo book – it was published six years after the fifth one – and I (like a lot of fans) was initially disappointed to find that the series would end after six, not seven, books. After all, Enzo is supposed to be investigating the seven notorious cases in Raffin’s book. I first read Cast Iron shortly after it was published, and I remembered it being a pretty decent finale to the series. Now that I’ve reread it, I take that assessment back: Cast Iron is an excellent finale to the series! Enzo’s taking on the sixth case – the murder of a young woman from Bordeaux called Lucie Martin – and the gang’s properly back together. Not only that, but a character who hasn’t been seen since The Critic also has a part to play. Cast Iron draws together loose ends dangling from the other books – especially Blacklight Blue (which ended with a pretty hefty unanswered question) – but also turns the individual cases into a series proper with some big reveals. Yes, there’s a little bit of a cheat with the introduction of a previously unmentioned plot point (no spoilers!), but I’m inclined to let it off with this. There’s some genuine (and upsetting) peril for a couple of characters, a rather cinematic climax, and some personal revelations for Enzo. All in all, a great way to wrap up the Enzo Files. I’m just a bit sad the series is finished, to be honest.

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