It’s 1951 and Jean-Luc Guéry, a perpetual ne’er-do-well, has arrived in Saigon from his native Côte d’Azur to look into the as yet unsolved murder of his brother. Guéry, a hack reporter for the regional Journal d’Antibes, has a fondness for alcohol and a weakness for gambling. His brother, on the other hand, was running a respectable business importing agricultural machinery but was found floating face down in the Arroyo Chinois with a bullet in his head.
Too Far From Antibes also features a well-meaning police detective narrator, a local dance hall girl by the name of Weiling, various thugs, clues in the form of pages ripped from a pulp fiction novel, and regular rendez-vous in the bars and terraces of Saigon’s best-known hotels. Guéry is strongly advised on multiple occasions that he’d be safer back in Antibes, recommendations he steadfastly ignores.
Singapore-based author Bede Scott works into the book such historical personages as the immaculate military leader Jean de Lattre de Tassigny and founder of the Tour de France Henri Desgrange, as well as such obscure but accurate details as the “piastre trade” in which traders fake invoices and shipments to take advantage of the artificial exchange rate prevailing for the colonial currency in Vietnam and that the wresting by the Binh Xuyen of the Cholon gambling operations from the Macanese. Scott also tosses off French expressions like sentir le sapin, to smell the fir tree, an expression that means to intimate an upcoming death, a reference to the wood from French coffins have traditionally been constructed.
There’s a war going on, of course, but it’s all very distant. The cafés are all covered in anti-grenade netting, and yet
one could sit on the roof terrace of the Majestic and, while drinking a Pernod or a cognac, gaze out over the river and watch the graceful arcs of tracer fire illuminate the night sky.
The real danger is closer to home.
This might be the basis of a seriously noir crime thriller—and the author dedicates the book to the late Eric Ambler—but Scott is having too much fun. This is instead more of an homage to French writer Georges Simenon (he of Maigret fame) and Jean Bruce whose spy thriller Tu Parles d’une Ingénue is the book from which the torn title page is extracted. Scott is so taken with the latter that not only is the book and author name-checked, but an image of the cover is included along with the period map of Saigon.
Francophilic the novel most certainly is: Bede is an extraordinarily dab hand with French expressions and references, from inscriptions of gravestones (“priez pour lui”—pray for him) to song titles (“Les Feuilles mortes”) and lyrics. This is a joy to anyone with an affection for French and things French, even to the extent of looking them up to see if he’s got them right: he has.
And Scott’s prose had a definite cadence, one that suits his subject. Guéry, we are told, by the detective who recounts the tale, is
a dedicated drinker and an enthusiastic consumer of cigarettes—usually filterless Gauloises, but any would do, even the foul-tasting cigarettes de troupe. He would, I’m told, have his first cigarette before he got out of bed in the morning and would usually enjoy his first apéritif not long afterward. As a young man, he had harboured literary aspirations, but these had come to nothing …
But Scott has his (anglophone) tongue firmly if gently in his cheek. The fastidious Monsieur Bergerac with his oeuf colonial, a colonial egg of a belly, mineral powder on his face, and a tendency to perspire comes across as a tropical Hercule Poirot, at least as might be played by David Suchet on television. Guéry himself never leaves his room without another application of brilliantine and
had become, over the years, something of an authority on failure. As a young man, he had wanted nothing more than to play football for FC Antibes, but of course this had come to nothing. He had soon discovered that he lacked the physique, the mentality, and the aptitude for such things. He was, he eventually decided, destined to become an intellectual instead. So he turned his attention to literature and spent many an hour labouring over his old Imperial typewriter. But there too he had failed. The narratives he imagined, the intricate masterpieces he constructed in his head, simply refused to make their way into the world; and those that did emerge from his typewriter, derivative and laboured as they were, ultimately pleased no one. The editors of the popular literary magazines of the day (La Nouvelle Revue Française, Les Temps Modernes, etc.) were all equally unimpressed by his stories. And the long experimental novel he wrote, closely modelled on Gide’s Counterfeiters, was rejected by almost every publisher in France. In the end, utterly discouraged, he had given up on this particular ambition too and accepted that his destiny lay elsewhere. After failing to complete a degree at the University of Nice, he finally found a job working for Le Journal d’Antibes, and that was how he had made his living ever since: following the vicissitudes of local politics, interviewing the odd visiting dignitary, and reporting on the latest burglaries and traffic fatalities.
Atmosphere and delightful prose aside, Too Far From Antibes has a plot as well, quite a clever if almost entirely masculine one, filled with the expected wrong turns and culs-de-sac. It’s good, and undoubtedly better with a glass of Pastis in hand.