We have encountered Inspector Gilles Sebag before on Crime Fiction Lover. He lives in Perpignan, on the south-western tip of France, right next to the Catalan border. It is a magical place in summer, full of hazy sunshine, contented tourists, delicious food and people enjoying their aperitifs in the late afternoon. We’ve already reviewed the first in this series, Summertime, All the Cats are Bored, where there was a light-infused, summery atmosphere. We missed out Autumn, All the Cats Return, which is set when the tourist season winds down and everyone goes back to their daily routine. Now, following the pattern, winter is here and the tone is considerably darker and more melancholic.
Winter in a seaside resort is often a desolate sight, with closed-down shops and cafés, the whipping tramontane wind and a general sense of emptiness. Depression sets in far too easily and there seems to be a bout of infidelity going on in Perpignan. A woman meeting her lover in a shabby hotel room is shot dead, apparently by her jealous husband. A man jumps to his death from a six-storey building when he discovers his wife was planning to leave him. Another man blockades himself in his house, taking his partner hostage, and threatening to blow up the whole place. Meanwhile, Gilles himself discovers that what he has feared for the past six months is true: his wife Claire is having an affair with a fellow teacher.
As he battles his own anger and jealousy, he has to keep a clear head to lead the investigation into this apparent epidemic of adultery and its violent consequences. Gilles catches out the murderous husband in a series of baffling lies, although he doesn’t deny shooting his wife. The suicide seems to have been deliberately provoked by someone else. Could all these outbursts of violence be linked?
We get to see his colleagues and their own different approaches to love and fidelity, but it is Gilles whom they all rely on. Yet he is not quite himself and occasionally plays truant. This tangle of messy affairs, betrayals and misery – could it really be simply a result of winter boredom and claustrophobia? A mere coincidence? Or is someone deliberately stirring up hidden emotions and punishing those whom they consider to be guilty through manipulation, intimidation or blackmail?
Above all, is Gilles too close to the subject matter to allow his legendary intuition free reign? If you don’t like knowing too much about a detective’s personal life, this book will seem too heavily weighted on the side of Gilles’ story arc. However, if you prefer character-driven crime novels and a slow build-up of tension, this is very much the type of story where the personal blends with the professional, providing a delicate balance of thought and feelings.
One of Philippe Georget’s strengths is the sense of place in his novels. In Crimes of Winter we have less of the tourist attraction description of Perpignan which Francophiles love. Yet it is just as vivid and atmospheric: that sense of out-of-season brooding, decay and claustrophobia, the spookily empty streets, the shades all drawn and secrets lurking behind the blank façades. The intensity of the sun has given way to shadows and, gradually, Gilles and the people around him learn to appreciate the nuances of the shade and rebuild their lives, step by step.
This is not just a whodunnit, but also an above-average dissection of relationships, the compromises we are prepared to endure and the ultimate unknowability of love in its many forms. A thoughtful, almost lyrical approach to crime fiction, which will appeal to anyone who also liked In Her Wake, The Dying Detective or The Bird Tribunal. Its seasonal themes are also reminiscent of Johan Theorin’s Oland quartet, set at a Swedish resort.