Friday, February 26, 2016

Maintenon and the Golden Dragon.

(Sessue Hayakawa.)

Louis Shalako

They knew a little bit about him and he patiently told them some more. The gentleman was calm, cool and sophisticated. He was well-educated, and a man of the world.

Blaine Sauve was another columnist. His work appeared in a prominent Paris daily and was syndicated all over France. He wrote reviews on commission for various theatrical magazines all over the world, and was well-known in the industry. Half of what he said was pure promotional tour. The other half was pure bullshit.

He probably couldn’t help it, conceded Andre.

It was in the nature of the beast.

He was giving them more or less the same sort of runaround that Dax had. He was most definitely passing the buck, reluctant to cough up too many more names. He wasn’t disagreeing with the ones they already had. He specifically mentioned Banzini’s agent, more than once, just in passing…like yeah, talk to anyone but me. For one thing it was just gossip, for another, he didn’t have direct knowledge, and yet it was probably true. To know it was to accept some kind of responsibility or something.

No one likes to be the rat. The trouble was that he was dependent upon the industry he wrote about.

Dax was just starting out and arguably had a lot less to lose by being helpful.

Unlike Dax’s cubicle, Sauve worked from home. His office was large, airy and bright, looking out onto the rear garden of a tall, narrow house. Outside there was either a white-spotted black dog or a black-spotted white dog, roaming around. There was a gnarly old apple tree, looking bare and forlorn in the stark grey light of another overcast day, the ground around it littered with rotting, frozen red apples of large calibre. Judging by the surroundings, he and his stringy-looking wife seemed to be doing okay.

“I’m not saying there weren’t stories about Largo, who was a bit of a friend of mine—insofar as such things can go. We got along very well at parties and awards ceremonies and public appearances. He was the professional in that sense, and so am I. Largo was charming. He was a funny, witty man, a real entertainer in every sense of the world. So much of that was public performance. There’s always something of the real person inside, of course. No matter how talented, some people just can’t do it. But yes, rumours have gone around from time to time. Quite frankly, a professional friendship. It’s a hell of a lot better than feuding with your subjects…” He pulled the pipe out of his mouth and examined it intently as such men were wont to do when pressed for an original thought. “There was someone else. Yeah, that was kind of weird. An odd-ball fellow, claimed to be a police inspector from Hong Kong. He was asking a lot of questions about Banzini, and this was, ah, not too long before his rather unfortunate demise.”

“Oh, really. Got a name for us?”

If true, it had to be an unofficial visit, or they should have heard about it by now.

“Yes, he called me on the phone—for what that’s worth." The columnist sat back in his chair, having put his pipe down unlit.

He had taken up nibbling on the end of a yellow HB pencil. This was a bit of an odd note for an otherwise composed individual.

“So you have no idea what he looks like?”

Those eyes came up and locked on.

“That would appear to be the point…I think that is what you’re getting at.”

His hands seemed to be all over the place. It took him a while to find a pen. Andre wondered if he had the palsy or something, it was that bad.

“He said his name was Guan Fu. Apparently some sort of big-wig from the police out there.”

“Any idea of where he was staying?”

“Ah…not really. No.”

That would appear to be that.

(Detail. 1928 Citroen Six. Jean Marie Ribier, Wiki.)

Once the chill got into you, it was with you for the day.

It would take some time to really thaw out again.

“Lord, love a duck.” It was getting pretty damned dark outside, low clouds scudding past, and the snow was falling faster and faster, slanting past on a stiff northwest wind.

They sat in the warm vehicle, engine running. The heater fan was going full blast and the cop-radio was turned down to barely audible.

Levain, hand on the gear lever, foot on the brake, turned.

“I guess we should talk to Vice. Work up a list of high-class brothels—child and otherwise.”

Maintenon nodded absently. The classical theory was, that in the absence of any other clues, concentrate on the victim. Their habits, their likes and their dislikes, their relationships above all else.

There was barely enough time in the day to get going, and then it was over and it seemed like you hadn’t gotten anything done.

“We can check around all the hotels, looking for this Guan Fu boy.”

“Yes, yes, whatever.”

This was no random killing.

To kill Banzini like that, with all the attendant publicity, meant something. It meant a lot—to the killer.

“Someone else has been asking about Largo Banzini.” Hmn.

In the absence of any real direction from Gilles, Andre let out the clutch.

They might as well head back to the Quai, if not, surely Gilles would say something…

Sooner rather than later.

“There will be a million reports to read, and someone has to have an overview of the case.” 

Levain was quoting the book.

Gilles nodded. It sure beat directing traffic all day long. 

Which both of them had done.

“Hmn. I would like to know who this Guan Fu is.” The Inspector chewed on his lip. “Other than the actual killing, it’s the most interesting thing we’ve seen so far.”

The snow hitting the vehicle at fifty or sixty kilometres an hour was a bit like someone dropping sand from the sky.

It was abrasive, and yet at the same time, kind of soothing.


Rather than devote another half-dozen men and women to the phones, Levain used a few of those alleged little grey cells of his—pulp novels being a bit of a thing with him. He sat there and tried to put his mind into the head of a visiting, senior police official from another country.

An Asian gentleman in Paris, asking about Banzini.

If the department was paying, he’d be on a pretty tight daily allowance. Hong Kong was a long ways away and this would have cost them something already. If he was traveling privately, the real question was why. A police inspector’s salary wasn’t that great—genteel middle-class poverty was one good way of describing it, and so one must wonder where such a person might be staying. Compared to France and a few other places—(police salaries in the U.S. were outrageous), the pay in Hong Kong would be somewhat lower. Andre didn’t know that for a fact, but it was a pretty good guess.

“You know, Gilles, there are a few places in town run by Chinese people.” The same might be said of any number of other nationalities. “Shit. I’m wondering if he’s rented a flat. In which case we might never find him. We could check and see if he’s got a driver’s license. We’ll check on that passport.”

“Yes, yes, do all that. But this is grunt work, Andre. Let somebody who really needs the experience do it.”

Andre grimaced on hearing that one.

“I suppose you’re right.”

Greeks, Russians, Lebanese, Chinese, Algerians, Dutch, Poles, Americans, it was a big city and there were all kinds of people trying to make a living.

Some of them must own hotels.

Gilles was smoking, skimming through file after file.

“I’ve got a better idea. Lunch—down at Kwok’s Grille.”

Levain tilted his head and raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah.” He hadn’t thought of that, but they could always ask Burt.

He’d been helpful more than once.

Gilles looked at the clock.

“Before we go. Call the motor vehicle people about that driver’s license. The odds are he doesn’t, though.”


Kwok’s was a tiny place, barely six or seven metres of frontage on a street that was narrow, cobbled and winding. If you weren’t careful, the food, based on the cuisine of Funnan province, would take the top of your head off with its heavy reliance on chilis.

He did a mean beef soup, no doubt about it.

Nearby tables were occupied, which was a consideration and a bar to communication. It was the usual long, skinny space, a row of ceiling fans turning slowly, dimly lit and going back from a narrow storefront.

“Hey, Burt. What’s the special?”

“Okay, boys. We gonna start you off fairly conservatively with home-made, juicy, deeply-flavoured steamed prawn dumplings. Then we got the most original mushroom and pine-nut dumplings, and then some Chinese ravioli filled with morsels of grilled chicken.”

“There’s more, right.” The special would have soup, noodles, rice…a little bit of everything.

“Oh, yeah, there’s a lot more.” The meal came with egg-drop soup, rolls and butter, and a salad with dressing. “You can have tossed salad, coleslaw, cheeses. You like very much.”

Gilles looked at Andre.

“What do you think?”

“Shit, let’s do it. And Burt—”

“Yes, Andre?”

“Beer. Lots and lots of beer—”

Burt grinned, picking up the menus from the table which had never even been opened, as they so rarely were in this particular establishment.

“Oh, yeah, okay, I know you guys very well by now. I think we can handle that.”

Levain waited until Burt had turned and made it back to the kitchen. He’d only be there a minute to give the order. On the front side of the kitchen wall was Burt’s small bar, and in front of that the boss’s table.

Andre headed to the restrooms, which were on the right side of the hallway leading to the kitchen and the emergency exit at the back of the building. He’s always loved the d├ęcor in these places, the sheer Oriental decadence of it. It was all deep red rugs, black-painted walls, red and gold trim and little signs in two languages, those crazy alien characters in gold lettering with black drop-shadows…

They said the food was sort of tuned to western tastes and appetites, and that the food back home would be completely different. They really didn’t get much meat over there, not the poor folks anyways.

In which case, more power to them, and he was looking forward to that beer. They hadn’t done this in far too long—responsible police officers that they undoubtedly were much of the time.

By the time he was done taking a leak, Burt would be ensconced at his usual table, by the server’s station. His table would have its scattering of French, English and Chinese newspapers, the day’s receipts and the horoscope on the table top. Maintenon would have a cold beer to keep him company.

At this time of day, there were only a handful of other tables being served. In general, people in this part of town minded their own business. Especially when the police were concerned.

It was funny how you always knew—

Hey, everybody, them’s the cops…


After shaking it off and washing his hands, Andre stepped out. He casually dropped into the red leather seat of the booth, right beside Burt.

“Ah, so.”


They sat silently for a moment.

“So. What you guys want?”

Under the table, Andre slipped him a hundred-franc note.


Here’s a link to another book in the series, Speak Softly My Love.

Thank you for reading.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

On Writing Historical Fiction, Strong Emotions.

Louis Shalako

One of the neat things about writing the Inspector Gilles Maintenon Mystery Series is that the author can do anything.

One of Gilles Maintenon’s habits is developing new talent.

Right now he’s got some young gendarme, dragged into the case from what would normally be traffic duties. Due to the nature of crime and investigation, a scene sometimes has to be secured, and with a murder at the Palais Garnier, it’s a big building. Bedard spent his shift guarding a side door. Constable Bedard has some seniority. He’s eligible to write the sergeant’s exam, with a pretty good chance of a posting if he passes. It’s a big department, and if he played his cards right, he could end up anywhere he really wanted. People are saying he has a brain in his head and he’s obviously destined for better things.

Maintenon is having a look at the man, giving him a bit of rope and responsibility. Let’s be honest. Everyone wants to work homicide. This is the top of the heap in policing.

There are times, when what is noir fiction has a bit of warmth. Cops are human beings after all, and Gilles has no children of his own. His wife died not that long ago. The times, the man being what they were, he has no real way to express his love. His only outlet is his work, the job and the people around him.

Maintenon lived through the Great War, which bled France. He was at Verdun, a Holocaust of artillery, machine-gun fire and frontal infantry attacks. That was the whole purpose of some battles—to bleed the enemy until he had no more men to put in front of the guns…

Writing historical fiction can produce some strong emotions, and I like that very much. It keeps it interesting, to read as well as to write. My point is that Maintenon saw all too many kids like Bedard die. He was right beside them when it happened.

That’s just the way it was.

Some people hate cops, and certainly criminals have much to fear from them.

It’s a tough job and you need to be doing it for the right reasons. There’s not a lot of macho bullshit in a Maintenon mystery. Corny as it sounds, the best possible reason to become a cop would be service to one’s fellow man. That’s the sort of thing that a guy like Inspector Gilles Maintenon would take pretty damned seriously. Cops need honour or they become very dangerous.

No one needs that.

To Maintenon, who’s been around the block once or twice, good cops are worth their weight in diamonds. And no one likes to work with the real assholes anyways, as they inevitably drag down to their own level all around them.

So far, Constable Bedard’s been doing all right, to the extent that they’ve got him in plainclothes, he’s driving the boss around and making all kinds of sensible contributions.

The young fellow is learning a lot and getting some experience.

I have every confidence that the team will solve the mystery, the murder of opera singer Largo Banzini, by blowgun-dart, in front of two thousand witnesses at the premier performance of The Golden Dragon. If you’ve been following along, that opera was written by the (fictional) French composer Fosse.

Here’s a link to another book in the series, Speak Softly My Love.

Thank you for reading.