Smoking Kills by Antoine Laurain translated by Louise Lalaurie Rogers
His first murder is an accident, born of self-defence, but when it returns his lost pleasures, he knows it won’t be his last. Although the subsequent three are intentional, creatively planned and lovingly executed, they’re all justified, at least in Fabrice’s mind.
I wasn’t sure I’d get round to reading this comic novel, as I consider the topic no laughing matter – and I don’t mean murder, but the harm tobacco brings. Then I wondered how far I’d get into this review before mentioning smoking, the supposed root of the narrator’s crimes. But I must have thawed by page 68 when his description of how he learned to inhale raised a smile and I came to appreciate the story more once he’d dispensed with his smoking history and moved on to his crimes.
Does it have a happy ending? (A question I’m often asked by potential purchasers of my second novel, Underneath, which also has a criminal narrator.) The ending of Smoking Kills is extremely satisfying. I just wish it wasn’t so much about smoking. Thanks to Gallic books for my advance proof copy.
An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans translated by David Colmer
When the man of the house turns up some time later and, shortly after that, his wife, the narrator is unwilling to give up his comfortable retreat. But in his manner of despatching the civilians, he’s already brought the war into the house. Nevertheless the fabric of the building remains sacrosanct, until the territory changes hands and the partisans bring further destruction inside.
First published in 1951 in the original Dutch and now appearing in English translation courtesy of Pushkin Press, An Untouched House is short even for a novella, but that doesn’t mean it’s not profound. Initially, it seemed to read like a fairytale, and I wondered if the narrator was actually dead or dreaming of such luxury. I changed my mind as he began to foul his refuge when it became an immorality tale – or perhaps an amorality tale – about the chaos and absurdity of war. Thanks to publishers for my advance proof copy.
The Forged Coupon by Leo Tolstoy translated by Hugh Alpin
In debt to his friends, and encouraged by an older boy, the schoolboy fraudulently adds an extra digit to the value of the coupon to get the ten extra roubles he needs. The myopic shopkeeper who receives it is castigated by her husband, although that doesn’t prevent him from passing on the forged coupon to a peddler of firewood.
And so it goes on, each betrayal leading to another, although the offending coupon itself is soon withdrawn from circulation. Beatings, unfair dismissal, theft and murder, all without much thought for the victims. Until the last words of a virtuous woman haunt her murderer, sending him temporarily insane. But that’s when he’s open to the message of the Christian gospels of forgiveness, generosity and treating others as one would wish to be treated oneself. And the road to redemption begins.
The story is simply told, without the lengthy digressions and descriptions one might expect from Tolstoy. But there’s no need for moralising paragraphs when the overall message is so clear. Bad deeds breed resentment and further misdemeanours, which have a negative effect on society as a whole. But the domino effect also works in the other direction, with acts of kindness and compassion generating more of the same.
With the wide cast of characters encompassing town and country, rich and poor, Tolstoy also warns against looking towards the establishment, both religious and secular, for guidance on how to live the moral life. As an introduction by translator Hugh Alpin, and endnotes from the publisher Alma books (who provided my review copy), make clear, this is consistent with the author’s own worldview, especially towards the end of his life.
Which of these accounts of murder within the context of both public and private morality most – or least – appeals to you?