Dial M for Merde

Fishing for Trouble in the South of France

January 13, 2009By Heidi EllisonBooks

Paris-based British writer Stephen Clarke has made the word “merde” something of a trademark – well, whatever works for you. And this franchise apparently works well for Clarke, since he has just published the fourth in a series of novels using the magical word in the title.
The first three – A Year in the Merde (published under the pseudonym Paul West, the name of the novel’s narrator), Merde Actually and Merde Happens – followed West’s adventures in France.

I admit that I never read the earlier books, imagining from their titles and the reviews in English papers of Clarke’s nonfiction book Talk to the Snail (a humorous guide to life in France) that they wouldn’t amount to much more than the French-bashing so popular with British writers, so it was a pleasant surprise to find on reading the latest, Dial M for Merde, that it is actually a lighthearted spoof of a thriller set in the South of France. And, while it pokes fun at French foibles, it also presents a surprisingly accurate and affectionate view of the natives of Clarke’s adopted country.

The somewhat farfetched plotline follows West, a Paris-based British caterer, to the South of France, where he plans to enjoy a romantic idyll with a voluptuous blond who calls herself “M” (get it? – James Bond reference to go with the title). M, a scientist, is supposedly on a mission to save endangered caviar-producing sturgeon, but Paul, who is miffed about her regular disappearances and obsession with her work, soon learns from the police that there is something fishy about his new girlfriend.

In the meantime, a former fling, Elodie, turns up and needs Paul’s help convincing her future in-laws that she is worthy of their son and organizing her wedding banquet in a hurry so that the couple will not miss a deadline for an inheritance. This gives Paul his own mission, which becomes entangled with M’s.

As noted, the plot of this playful romp through James Bond territory (without the gadgets), is highly improbable, but who really cares in this kind of novel? West has a sense of humor, and his take on the French characters is spot on. He even manages to avoid clichés about the country: my highly tuned factual-error radar did not pick up any faux pas.

This guy knows France well, obviously likes living here (West’s profession gives Clarke an excuse to write lovingly about food) and writes light, entertaining books that are full of wit, not merde.


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