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Review by Martin J Frankson
Crime writing is like the contents of a wine cellar. Some bottles are best saved for cleaning the bicycle chain. And then there are bottles like Chateau Lafite which are so exquisite that within a few sips, one is torn between devouring the bottle whole or putting it in a handcrafted leather carafe and sitting back and admiring it. The Dying Minutes by Martin O’Brien is a Chateau Lafite novel: this is high-end, literary crime.
Set in Marseille, our hero is Inspector Daniel Jacquot. Imagine Morse but sullied with one too many walks on the wild side, with a whiff of musk-infused danger, and in a relationship. The overall story is a race against time between Jacquot, helped by his sometime friend and head of homicide Isabelle, versus two of Marseille’s longstanding crime families to find long-lost gold bullion that was siphoned off during a heist in 1972. There are deadly consequences of course, and some old graves are dug up.
A dying crime lord, Jean Lombard once knew Jacquot’s long dead colleague and friend Barsin, but what was the nature of their relationship? Allusions are made to Jacquot’s past when he and Barsin took risks and crossed the line. It’s hard to discern where the dividing lines are to be drawn between Lombard and Barsin, if any. There is obviously a history between the two, and this adds to the darker hues that are painted across Jacquot’s portrait, casting long but intriguing shadows for the entire length of the book.
The scenes are filmic and diversions from the main storyline are at the right narrative junctures to give the reader a welcome break from proceedings; whilst at the same time, these diversions are germane to the plot itself.
The writing is rich, luscious even. It’s generously peppered with French phrases which are charming but can annoy after a while. Whilst it can be argued there is no direct translation for notaire, others such as c’est certain and c’est tout feel completely unnecessary. Set in France, with a wonderful evocation of place and atmosphere throughout, it’s not necessaire for such bilingualisms to exist to the degree that they do.
At 473 pages, The Dying Minutes is quite a commitment and it will have you bathing in the textural languidness of language. This race against time for bullion, with a few bodies thrown in, rests on the politer side of crime fiction when compared with Val MacDermid or John Connolly. But on its own merits, The Dying Minutes perfectly fits the market for the very literary, well-crafted and beautifully written novel.