Crime writers working in a series format must navigate a fine line between making each novel unique and accessible to new readers, and ensuring enough continuity and development to satisfy long-time series devotees. This line grows ever more perilous with each new instalment, especially if the series enjoys an increasing popularity.
This high-wire act is apparent in Never Forget, from Montreal writer Martin Michaud. While Never Forget is the first English-language appearance of police detective Victor Lessard, it’s actually the third novel in the series, which has become an institution in French Canada, where Michaud has been referred to as the “master of the Quebec thriller.” There are several other volumes in the series (plans are in place to publish English versions of the first two books in the next two years), and they have been adapted for television; Lessard is simultaneously a new kid on the block and an established presence.
Never Forget provides a good entry point to Lessard and his world. The book begins with the murder of a nameless woman, the delivery of a cryptic and threatening note to a powerful lawyer, and the suicide of a homeless man, who has in his possession two wallets, one of which belongs to the threatened lawyer.
When we first meet Lessard, he is vomiting outside a crime scene, where the body of a woman has been found in an industrial warehouse. He’s recently back to work, following an encounter with a criminal referred to as the King of Files, which has left him with a limp, though the incident seems to have claimed the life of other police officers. The hints of the past are woven smoothly and unobtrusively through the narrative, just enough to pique the interest of new readers and to establish a sense of backstory, without distracting from the propulsive events of the contemporary narrative.
Though one must use the word “contemporary” advisedly: while the murders and investigation unfold in the present, the crimes quickly appear to have their roots decades earlier, in the shadows of the 1960s and with a conspiracy that may cross borders (the last words of Lee Harvey Oswald, for example, come into play in the first couple of chapters, and the book nicely unpacks a historical scandal that will be vaguely familiar to most Canadian readers).
Never Forget is a crackerjack read. Michaud artfully constructs the world of the Montreal police and a broad cast of characters (Lessard’s partner, Jacinthe Taillon, is especially delightful, shifting from caricature to fully rendered personage with a deceptive ease) while keeping his eye steady on ways to ratchet up the tension at every turn. Certainly, there are elements that border on the ridiculous (there’s a deliberately baroque execution machine, and a surprising use of bows and arrows for a modern thriller), but that’s all part of the charm. Coupled with very real consequences to the characters – which will, no doubt, be explored in later volumes – there is much in Never Forget to recommend, even to the casual mystery reader.
If a first meeting with Lessard is an opportunity for English-language readers to enter an entirely new fictional world, an encounter with Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks is akin to a warm comforter. Many Rivers to Cross, the 26th entry in the Banks series, begins with the discovery of a young murder victim, concealed inside a garbage bin. Within pages, the familiar series cast assembles, including Banks himself – now a detective superintendent – his former partner Annie Cabbot, and the enigmatic Zelda, a sex-trafficking survivor who now freelances with the police in pursuit of perpetrators. The relationships and their complexities are skilfully crafted, and a new reader will have no issues finding their footing in this world.
The novel itself starts off with a not-quite-chance meeting giving Banks a direction in which to focus the investigation. For a while, the proceedings are almost too warm, a bit too easy. Soon enough, though, things turn colder, and ultimately chilling, as the narrative develops in ways neither the reader nor the characters could fully anticipate. Robinson keeps things tense and up-to-date, from relationships between criminal organizations, money laundering through real estate scams, and new techniques for drug sales to the impact of Brexit, the refugee crisis, and an uncomfortable reckoning with #MeToo.
Banks himself continues to change and develop, questioning the next few years of his life, his solitude, even his living arrangements. (One key thing that hasn’t changed, of course, is the character’s love of, and immersion in, music: it’s tempting to turn on Spotify to brood along with Banks.) In Many Rivers to Cross, as in most of the Banks novels, Robinson manages to eat his cake and have it, too, delivering solid, comfortable reads rooted in a familiar but developing world, while keeping each instalment fresh. Twenty-six books in, it’s clear he’s doing a lot of things right.