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Cold cases and basket cases

Cover of The Awkward Squad
A review of The Awkward Squad by Sophie Henaff

Anne Capestan knew she’d be punished for her itchy trigger finger, but the sentence is like no other she’d ever heard of. After firing one too many bullets, the Parisian police commissaire was lucky to still have her job, but is stunned when she learns that she is to lead a new police squad in charge of cold cases. But Capestan’s squad consists entirely of the police officers that have run afoul of the police judiciare, and since they cannot be fired, they can at least be relegated to some brigade, starved of funds and support until they quit in frustration. Among the decades old cases dumped on Capestan’s desk are a couple of unsolved murders that seem unrelated at first, but eventually lead back to a fateful voyage in the Florida Keys. Could solving the cases mean redemption for Capestan and her band of disgraced cops? Or is someone playing puppet master behind the scenes?

Getting to know the members of The Awkward Squad is the greatest pull for Sophie Hénaff’s debut mystery. There’s capitaine Eva Rosière, whose bestselling crime thrillers and screenplays have earned her millions and the ire of central command; the grieving and haunted commandant Lebreton, banished by the bosses from his negotiator position, and the aptly named capitaine Merlot, who is just a bit too fond of a drink. Most troubling is lieutenant Torrez, the infamous Malchance, who has seen multiple partners killed and is well aware of the suspicion that his fellow officers hold against him. But these and others have their own special skills, and Hénaff takes delight in depicting the camaraderie between her exiles. It sometimes comes at the expense of plot, at least at the start. Flipping between so many characters and time frames requires a bit of patience from readers until Hénaff can establish momentum. Once the crimes start unraveling, astute readers will likely guess the direction Hénaff is going and while the final reveal feels a little contrived, the sheer panache of the characters’ methodology makes it forgivable. And while Hénaff keeps things mostly light here, small reveals of Capestan’s and Lebreton’s backstories suggest that Hénaff might go to darker places with them in the future. 

Originally published as Poulets grilles, The Awkward Squad earned top honors in French crime fiction. Hénaff has already penned another installment (Rester groupés), soon to be translated for an American audience. Translator Sam Gordon does a fine job rendering the original into comprehensible English while maintaining a Gallic tone. Readers who like their police procedurals with memorable characters and a dash of humor will want to take note of The Awkward Squad, and although Hénaff has a lighter touch, fans of Georges Simenon and Cara Black may appreciate the Parisian atmosphere. 

May 9, 2018