“I only believe in what I see. You pursue naked truth; I prefer artful beauty.”
Wasp-Waisted by David Barrie is a noir crime fiction thriller from the UK-based publisher John Law Media. A Franck Guerin novel, the Parisian detective must infiltrate the highest circles of society to find a killer both talented and deadly. The novel is staking out a new edge of the genre, and calling itself “noir chic”: to steal a quote, think “hard-boiled characters in haute couture.” The result is titillating.
Franck Guerin is a recently wounded and somewhat disgraced member of an elite espionage branch of the French Government known as the DST. When his commanding officer reassigns him to a less demanding detail to be forgotten, fortune finds him hunting a killer across the front page headlines. A local news publication, Exposé, receives a breathtaking photo of a young beauty clad in exquisite lingerie, but she’s dead. The photo is of such depth and quality that it stirs the public into a frenzy and begs the questions, “what kind of murderer could have produced such a masterpiece?” and “will he kill again?”
“We have never been so assailed by images, captain. We hold onto very few of them, otherwise we probably could not continue to function. This photo would have to be something rare indeed were it to grant Rachida a form of immortality.”
David Barrie’s prose is an alloy comprised of two-parts Stieg Larsson and one-part Dan Brown. As I read, I felt keen mental reflections that drew me back to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Divinci Code; the former for its languid and methodical delivery and the latter for its attention to detail. His vocabulary is engaging without challenging, and I was tickled to read an author who obviously understands the euphoria of fastening a perfect word to a description. The research required to pen a work like Wasp-Waisted is respectable, and the resulting settings gave the impression of intimate or first-hand knowledge. All said, the delicate weave created by loose strands of plot are each pleasingly tied by the final page.
Here’s the noir definition rundown:
1) The Seedy Underworld
Wasp-Waisted refuses to languish in anything considered ‘seedy.’ Five-star hotels, luscious private dwellings, high-profile offices, and decadent art galleries serve as the backdrop of the book. Although all is not clean and bright, the novel does occasionally dip it’s toe in the stagnant pools of pornographers and strip clubs.
There is a lot of almost transparent fabric, like mist blown across her skin, mist suffused by patches of colour. If the light was more kind and the contrast more pronounced, you would have the impression that her body had been painted.
2) The Anti-Hero
Franck Guerin is more of a ‘hero’ and less of an ‘anti’. He’s burdened by an undetailed incident at his former post and the remaining wounds, but he’s level-headed and thorough. Franck demonstrates uncanny interrogation skills and a relentless nose for conspiracy and evidence. Sadly, his only weakness appears to be his lack of hygiene. I felt his character would have been better served had he shown some sort of change instead of the static ‘same at the end’ ‘come full circle’ approach.
3) The Femme Fatale
Who is the femme fatale in Wasp-Waisted? The better question would be ‘Who isn’t?’ Barrie’s best characters are the cunning beauties that inhabit the posh pages of this book. The most refreshing aspect of their design is their empowered nature, few are male-defined regurgitations of standard noir fare.
You would think that a novel that has so much to do with lingerie would be more misogynistic, but there is a surprising lack. Instead, we’re greeted by women arming themselves with the remnants of a male-dominated culture and seizing power with seductive ease. Although the victims are found exposed, poised on a lover’s altar in barely-there negligee, they are immortalized as un-violated and un-tasted goddesses of youth. The only misogyny burns in the breast of a scumbag pornographer, an isolated character like a pimple on an otherwise clean complexion.
That’s where the overwhelming sense of power comes from. Here you have two women apparently slumbering, two Sleeping Beauties dressed to entice and snare. It is the helplessness, the seeming passivity, that renders them irresistible – you cannot help but look; you cannot help but desire. The onlooker – traditionally the one with all the power, with the divine right to look anywhere and everywhere – is transformed, deprived of his capacity to choose. When he looks at these, his reaction may be one of admiration, reverence or lust, but it cannot be indifference. So what we have here, paradoxically, are photos of tyrants at the height of their powers.” “That’s a strange way to describe a pair of murder victims,” objected Franck. “The murder is not in the photo,” insisted Anne. “The murder is the context you supply when you tell me who it is and how she was found.”
Redemption seems to be the last thing on Guerin’s mind, which is shocking, considering the shameful and controversial origins of his demotion. Perhaps this is an arc that Barrie explores in a subsequent Franck Guerin novel? It’s hard to imagine a noir crime fiction without a redemption theme, but apparently it’s possible.
The noir theme of eroticism is portrayed in Wasp-Waisted beautifully. It’s possibly the most central theme of the book, that, or the nature of desire and beauty. One scene in particular comes to mind, when Franck must be ‘educated’ by a lingerie expert. As he’s invited to a private dinner in her residence, his lesson is far more intimate than he could have anticipated.
“A young woman in full possession of her body, of her beauty, of her sensuality, prepared to offer herself up, lending her being to the spectator. It was too …too … not too painful to behold, but too intimate to behold.”
7) Loss of Innocence
Each victim represents a spectacular loss of innocence, not only in their own lives, but in the lives of those that witness the photos. The film is so arresting that it forces you out of Eden and places your foot unwillingly in the grave.
8 ) Racism
Surprisingly little. The best descriptions of cigarette smoke revolve around Franck’s old boss in the DST. She’s a chain-smoking bulldog. Franck, on the other hand, prefers coffee.
Franck seems to be very secure in his masculinity. This simultaneously helps and hinders his character because it frees him from the irrationality that accompanies the fear of emasculation and plagues him with the apathy that’s found in its place. Even though he seems to lack the fear of emasculation, he is a frequent victim of it throughout the book. With so many powerful females this seems an inevitable eventuality.
It’s fair to admit that I enjoyed this novel. I can definitely see myself reading more of Barrie’s work in the future.
As for the qualifying statement: “hard-boiled characters in haute couture,” while the fashion may have been present, I felt that Franck was decidedly ‘soft-boiled.’ In my view, ‘hard-boiled’ characters are defined by narrow escapes, insurmountable pressure, and self-destructive behaviors; Guerin doesn’t foot the bill (at least in Wasp-Waisted). Additionally, I’m not certain that this book necessitates the creation of the new genre moniker, ‘noir chic,’ but I like the idea. Perhaps if I delve into more of Barrie’s work I’ll find that the genre-vision becomes more of a reality and less of a sentiment.
“I saved them all. I captured their essence in photos that will be admired for as long as we continue to hold beauty a special form of truth. At the same time I ensured the immortality of those images by saving their subjects from their own errors of judgement and the ravages of time.”
The greatest shame of all is that David Barrie doesn’t have an American Publisher. You won’t be able to find his books on the shelves of your local store (unless your local store is in the UK or Europe), but his noir crime fiction is worth reading. Head over the Amazon.com and show him some support.