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Tucson Weekly Lesser Evils

Think You Know Who the Bad Guys Are in World War II France? Think Again

By Emil Franzi

Stone Killer, by J. Robert Janes (Soho Press). Cloth, $22.

AUGUST 18, 1997:  THIS IS A strange, offbeat, yet compelling murder mystery-cop yarn. Janes is a Canadian author, and Stone Killer is the seventh novel in a series featuring the most unlikely partners--a German Gestapo agent and a Vichy French police officer working together in the unoccupied portion of France in 1942.

Kohler and St. Cyr, the two heroes, are trying to find the vicious killer of a middle-aged French woman whose mutilated body was found near a prehistoric cave she and her husband, missing in World War I, had discovered. Janes weaves a number of contemporary characters--both French and German--into the story, and describes what life was like in then-unoccupied France: Once wealthy Parisians writing their country relatives and asking them to send food; the bureaucratic authoritarianism that effected even the most mundane details of everyday life under the Nazis; and the Nazi's collaboration with a great number of the French citizenry are part of the fascinating framework of this unconventional crime story.

But the question Janes poses and answers is simple: How did normal policeman investigate and handle normal crimes and criminals during those otherwise abnormal times? Throw in some 1940s forensics, St. Cyr's interest in prehistory (obviously a subject of interest to the geologist author), and a major propaganda attempt by the fictitious Nazi hierarchy to use the cave in a movie, and you have a totally unique murder mystery.

Janes paints the German Gestapo agent Kohler as a sympathetic character simply trying to do his job in an environment he neither chose nor likes, a move which adds yet another layer to a reasonably complex tale. Janes also does a fine job of describing both the geography and lifestyle of provincial France--the Perigord region, home of Talleyrand--during this period. Interesting that he never mentions Talleyrand, probably the most important Frenchmen to come from this area.

Janes has some habits that are a bit annoying, like having both his detectives constantly hissing "merde"; and at times the story moves a bit too fast and becomes confusing. But its sheer originality of time, place, and character neutralize its weak points, and almost place it in a sub-genre by itself. The style is much more "European" than we're used to. In a way, it's reminiscent of Humberto Eco's medieval detective stories about murder in another time and place; but Janes' is shorter and far less convoluted. Fans of whodunits should give it a read.

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