Book review: Bed of Nails. I love France #123

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Bed of Nails

Bed of Nails
In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book for free in exchange
for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post
as a reviewer,
and the thoughts are my own.
Bed of Nails
Antonin Varenne
Translated by Sian Reynolds

Publisher: Quercus
US Pub. Date: November 4, 2014
Originally published in French in 2009

PagesHC, 244
Crime Fiction

Prix Michel-Lebrun,
Prix Sang d’encre 2009,
Prix du meilleur polar de Points 2010

Source: Received
from the publisher


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This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:

   books-on-france-14 my-kind-of-mystery-2014 New author challenge


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Quercus has graciously accepted to send me some of the books they publish translated from the French, and here is the first I am happy to present to you!
Bed of Nails is a great typical French crime fiction, in the sense that it would be tough to get it more black. Don’t expect to be uplifted by French contemporary crime fiction, but rather prepare for a rocky ride outside your comfort zone maybe. That’s when reading becomes a real adventure, isn’t it?
After some incidents in his career, police lieutenant Guérin ends up a specialist of suicide cases, and working a lot at the Paris suicide archives. The problem is, Guérin is not your typical police staff: hyper at all levels, looking totally nuts sometimes, he developed his Big Theory along the years and is obsessively convinced that there is a connection somewhere between everything and especially between all the suicide cases he has been in charge of.

Chapter Two leads the reader in a rural area of France, to John Nichols, an American from San Francisco, living off the grid in the middle of the woods. He was just summoned by the American Embassy to come in Paris and recognize the body of his friend Alan from Kansas, member of the gay community and doing with drugs. A former soldier fighting in Iraq, he suffered form PTSD and apparently committed suicide during one of his S&M shows in a cabaret.

And then you have lots of things going on among the police staff itself, with major jealousies and rivalries, and mysteries around a case  Guérin seems to have dealt with very badly in his former years.
Add to that totally insane painter and a shady character at the Embassy itself, and by chapter five, as a reader, you start panicking and wondering if by any chance you got yourself infected by Guérin’s disease and are in turn trying to figure out  connections between all these leads where maybe there is none.

So, is there a connection? If so, what is really going on here? I’m not going to give you any clue of course, I will just add a bit more of layers by saying that FBI and CIA are also part of the picture.

The ride is black, really black, but it is worth it. Beyond the sinister cases, there are interesting sociological facts on suicide.
To release the tension, the book is balanced with hilarious details and black humor.
And if your sympathy does not totally to Guérin, you cannot remain detached from some other  characters, for instance the American John Nichols, “baba cool, intello, perdu dans les bois” to use the author’s words in an interview.
I personally liked the old Bunker and his dog Mesrine. After many years in jail, Bunker lives in a shed in Paris famous Luxembourg Gardens. A special relationship develops between John and Bunker. There were wonderful lines about Bunker rediscovering what true freedom is.

VERDICT: Mix mental issues, social issues, drugs and corruption at all levels, and any human black trait you can think of, and you have Bed of Nails, a roller coaster ride into French crime fiction at its bleakest and most captivating.


Winner of the Prix Quai du Polar, Antoin Varenne is a rising star in the exciting new wave of French crime fiction.
Hard-boiled Paris police lieutenant Richard Guerin thought he knew the depths of human tragedy and perversion during his years investigating suicide cases–not to mention his childhood, raised by his prostitute mother (who left him nothing but her foul-mouthed parrot).

But when a slew of cases that are way too bizarre to be straightforward suicides end up on his desk, Guerin begins to suspect that he is up against a nihilistic evil beyond anything he’s encountered before.

First, there is Alan Musgrave, an American man who bleeds himself to death on stage during a sick S&M show in an underground Paris nightclub. Another runs naked into traffic with arms outstretched and is splattered to pulp by a heavy truck. Yet another hurls himself from a museum balcony to death by impalement on a whale skeleton.

Guerin’s corrupt police colleagues ridicule his determination to find the connections between these horrifying deaths. Yet he presses on, plunging into the seamy sadomasochistic underbelly of the City of Lights that most never see.

Unexpected help comes from a friend of Musgrave’s, an eccentric and resourceful rich American named John Nichols who has recently arrived in Paris toting a bow and arrows. The bloody trail leads them to the upper reaches of both the Parisian police force and the American embassy, while Guerin begins to suspect that the ultimate answer may lie somewhere in Nichols’s past.

In Bed of Nails, Varenne does for Paris what James Ellroy did for vintage Los Angeles: He expertly throws a bright light on a fashionable city’s hideous hidden face.

[provided by the publisher]

Bed of Nails

“A powerful and original debut crime story, definitely one for Vargas fans to try, and I very much hope that there is more Varenne crime fiction to come. I will be waiting, with bated breath, my hands over my eyes and peeking through my fingers, as I watch his next story unfold.”—Lynn Harvey, Euro Crime

“This book excels in its characterization and depiction of human relationships and it is worth reading for these elements alone.”—Crimepieces

“Superb… The novel has a strikingly original plot and characters, and its pessimism is balanced by Varenne’s inexhaustible human sympathy.”—Joan Smith, The Sunday Times

“Imaginative and disturbing”—Marcel Berlins, The Times

“Bed of Nails engages with the violence at the heart of society, and the darkest elements of human nature.”—Fantastic Fiction

“An excursion into Fred Vargas territory… an intriguing read, with a bold and surprisingly moving ending.”—Laura Wilson, The Guardian



Antonin_VarenneAntonin Varenne has traveled a great deal
and completed an MA in philosophy
before embarking on a career as a writer.
Bed of Nails is the first of a new series of crime novels set in the Paris underworld.

If you can read French, there is a very interesting interview with the author about this book.

More about him in French:
Né à Paris en 1973, Antonin Varenne n’y restera que quelques mois avant d’être enlevé par ses parents pour vivre aux quatre coins de France, puis sur un voilier. Il n’y reviendra qu’à vingt ans, pour poursuivre des études à Nanterre.

Après une maîtrise de philosophie (Machiavel et l’illusion politique), il quitte l’Université, devient alpiniste du bâtiment, vit à Toulouse, travaille en Islande, au Mexique et, en 2005, s’arrime au pied des montagnes Appalaches où il décide de mettre sur papier une première histoire. Revenu en France accompagné d’une femme américaine, d’un enfant bilingue et d’un chien mexicain, il s’installe dans la Creuse et consacre désormais son temps à l’écriture.

Sian Reynolds is the translator of Fernand Braudel,
and of CWA award-winning crime novels by Fred Vargas.

View other books published by Quercus.




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11 thoughts on “Book review: Bed of Nails. I love France #123

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  3. I was reading an interview with Varenne and it appears that some of his follow-up novels were too cross-genre even for the French publisher and were initially turned down. He is an interesting writer, for sure, who follows his own path and doesn’t care much what genre it might fall into.


    • Interesting. Even though there are lots of things in there, it is still for me clearly crime fiction. Not sure what cross-genre I could think of for this one. Would you still have the ref to this interview by any chance?


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  5. This sounds a bit dark to me, but I’m excited for you getting to read translated French fiction. I’ve loved almost all of the translated fiction I’ve read and always enjoy how different these books are from what I usually pick up.


    • yes, definitely dark, but it’s good to get acquainted to what’s trendy over there right now, even though of course it would be much better if I had access to it in French. Dreaming of the day international rights will open up for e-books…. sigh


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