The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

The Belly of Paris cover

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola was first published in 1873. I’ve only read two of his books prior to this one and of those Germinal was my favourite, but this one is running it close.

It’s the story of Florent, a young man who had been caught up in the Paris street riots of 1853 and although he was innocent of any wrong-doing he ended up being transported to Devil’s Island, just because he had got blood on his hands. After years of starvation and bad treatment on the prison island he managed to escape and travel back to Paris and that is when the book begins, with a half-dead Florent entering Paris which he doesn’t recognise as there have been so many changes since he has been away.

A huge market place has been built near the area where he had previously lived, Les Halles as the market is called provides what amounts to a feast for all the senses as Zola describes everything he sees there. This is not always good, you definitely won’t be keen on reading this book if you are a vegan or even a vegetarian, the descriptions of the fish market and meat and poultry was sometimes a bit too over-powering. The fruit and flower markets feature too, easier on the mind’s eye as you might imagine, but the cheese market was definitely more than a bit whiffy!

Most of the market workers are women and very strong willed and Les Halles is full of gossip, mainly completely made up, people like to think the worst of their neighbours.

Florent ends up working as a fish market inspector which pushes him into close proximity to the women who scare him. He had intended to go back to his old work – teaching, but he couldn’t get a job. Lisa his very business minded sister-in-law persuaded him to take the market job, which is really like working for the government, something which he swore he wouldn’t do. Florent ends up getting mixed up in politics, which you know is only going to end in tears.

This book is about the people of Paris, most of whom seem to be doing very nicely in the stable atmosphere of the Second Empire, and they have no wish to rock the boat. They are the fat people, only concerned with business and the getting of money. Florent is on the other side, the thin people who are more interested in building a fair society. Guess who wins in the end?!

Apparently Zola spent a lot of time in the area of Les Halles to capture the atmosphere of the place and the people, his decriptions of the area have been of use to historians as Les Halles were demolished and it’s only from Zola’s desciptions of the buildings that people know how they looked.

I read this book as part of my Classics Club challenge.

The Belly of Paris is one of the 20 books which make up Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series.

Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes

I decided to choose a Michael Innes book to review as he was Scottish, as I am, so it’s a bit of flag waving.

I read everything that he wrote, including those under the name of J.I.M. Stewart, when I first started working in my local library – a long time ago. So I’ve started again with the very first book which he had published in 1936.

We are introduced to his detective, Inspector John Appleby of Scotland Yard, who arrives in a splendid yellow Bentley, he has been called in to investigate the death of Dr. Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Anthony’s College which is part of a fictitious university along the lines of Oxford and Cambridge and 20 miles or so from London.

Inspector Dodd of the local constabulary gives Appleby the details of the case, describing the crime scene as a ‘submarine’ within a submarine as the whole area had been sealed off with only a few college lecturers holding keys to the area.

The staff all surreptiously begin pointing fingers at each other and Appleby discovers that Dr. Umpleby enjoyed stirring up trouble amongst the university fellows and had the nasty habit of stealing his colleagues’ research and claiming the kudos for himself. So everybody is a suspect.

I wouldn’t say that this is light reading because, compared with most vintage crime you really have to concentrate on it and can’t skim. The storyline is very convoluted.

I don’t think that this book was my favourite of his, I did enjoy it but I think Michael Innes improved along the years. He did have a long writing career. There are no female characters at all, just passing references to a wife, cook or cleaner. But to be fair that is exactly how an elite university in 1936 would have been peopled.

As Michael Innes was a university lecturer, I’ve been wondering how his writing was received by his colleagues. I found it particularly amusing that he had more or less written himself in as a character. There is a lecturer who is a well known writer of detective fiction and just to stir things up even more Innes gave him the name of Gott and described him as being:

Quite beautiful. When he moved, he was graceful, when he spoke, he was charming; when he spoke for long, he was interesting. Above all he was disarming. “Plainly, -he seemed to say- “I am a creature whose life is more fortunate, more elevated, more effortlessly athletic and accomplished than yours, but observe! – you are not in the least irritated as a result; in fact, you are quite delighted.”

I can just imagine Innes’s real colleagues spluttering over that one, that is if they could bring themselves to read his book.

Although I enjoyed this book, my favourite crime writer is still Dorothy L. Sayers – or Agatha Christie for lighter reading. You don’t really get the vintage atmosphere somehow from this Innes book. It might sound daft but I think this is because of the lack of trains. A steam train immediately gives you all that 1930s ambience – the noise, smell and the style, even in third class. I’m not quite old enough to remember the age of steam but I’ve been on a few tourist steam railways.

Then there is the lack of female characters. No women means no elegance, no posh frocks, jewels, amber beads, silk shawls, harlequin costumes and the like. I love all that detail.

Apart from the yellow Bentley, which I could imagine, the only other vehicle which I remember being mentioned was a De Dion car belonging to some undergraduates. That meant nothing to me but presumably to contemporary readers it did.

Anyway, I’m glad that I re-read this book and I think that anyone who likes vintage crime would enjoy it.

I also read this book as part of the Flashback Challenge.