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le chant du bouc

5 june 2019

Le chant du bouc means "goat-song," and as a character points out to police inspector Maurice Laice, "goat song" is the etymology of the word "tragedy."

Maurice Laice is feeling like a worn-out goat these days. His father has just died. He is middle-aged, single, depressed, alcoholic, chain-smoking. He has just "caught" a particularly dispiriting murder case: a Moulin Rouge dancer found slaughtered in the arms of his equally-slaughtered dresser.

Like any good detective at the end of his tether, Maurice Laice falls half in love with one of the murder victims, an ambitious Corsican girl out to conquer the Paris showbiz and fashion worlds. He falls 3/4 in love with the dresser's best friend, and entirely in love with the dancer's mother, a Beauvais glassblower with a sideline in fantastic massages. Meanwhile his case goes nowhere. Is it linked to the savage killing of a drug runner in a Montmartre slumlord's digs? The thought just gets more depressing. Meanwhile, everybody in the inspector's circle of friends seems to have a "chant du bouc" hanging over them from their past: the death of a child, the slaughter of a family, exile from Algeria, financial ruin, drugs, despair.

There are light elements to Chantal Pelletier's polar. Maurice Laice works for a sexually athletic commissaire named Aline Lefèvre who directs a string of entertaining verbal abuse at her inspector while failing to get his best work out of him. Lefèvre's husband is a commissaire in Corsica (she has left him for a Parisian girlfriend), and "Lefèvre-homme," as Maurice Laice thinks of him, keeps up a counterpoint of verbal abuse over the phone from the Mediterranean as he investigates things at his end. But the story mostly follows its thoughtful, verbally inventive detective protagonist from bad to worse: though he does solve the mystery, in a way that makes strong sense but that I, for one, did not see coming.

Pelletier has credentials as a crime-fiction writer and as a cabaret singer, so her evocation of Montmartre rings true, or at least has significant ethos behind it. The Montmartre nightclub scene has become increasingly sanitized and performative since its grungy heyday (a century and more ago). At almost any point in its progress toward tourist trap, one can hear older denizens of the place muse regretfully about how Montmartre ain't what it used to be. Maurice Laice, a citizen of the "Butte" at heart, is one of them, c2000 here. One hates to think of what he thinks of his old neighborhood today.

Pelletier, Chantal. Le chant du bouc. 2000. Paris: Gallimard, 2002.