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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Awkward Squad

Sophie Hénaff

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To purchase The Awkward Squad

Title: The Awkward Squad
Author: Sophie Hénaff
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 362 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Awkward Squad - UK
Poulets grillés - Canada
The Awkward Squad - India
Poulets grillés - France
Kommando Abstellgleis - Deutschland
La brigata dei reietti - Italia
La brigada de Anne Capestan - España
  • French title: Poulets grillés
  • Translated by Sam Gordon

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable enough light series-introducer

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Although she's apparently been hailed as the "star of her generation", the thirty-seven-year-old Commissaire Anne Capestan's career went off track when the Olympic silver medalist (25-metre pistol, Sydney, 2000 [a medal actually won by China's Tao Luna]) had: "fired one bullet too many". It was in self-defence, she claimed, but the suspect was only armed with a pen and she had shot him three times in the heart -- and in France, unlike in the US, where the police are apparently pretty much excused for any kind of shooting, firing one's gun and killing someone is still frowned upon: not a good career-move. Capestan has been suspended for six months and now fears the worst -- the end of her career -- when she's called in again to the (in)famous address, 36, quai des Orfèvres -- police headquarters. But instead of being fired she's given command of her own squad.
       It's not quite the glorious return she might have hoped for. No, this squad is one that seems, almost by definition, set up for failure: basically, she gets all the people that can't be fired -- "The drunkards, the thugs, the depressives, the layabouts and everyone in-between" -- and then inherits: "all the unsolved cases from every single squad and commissariat in the region" (plus some closed ones). Expectations aren't high: the un/official line and idea is to pad the statistics of the "frontline services":

     The headline is that Île-de-France police force's record for solving cases stands at 100 per cent, and yours will be 0 per cent.
       It's the ultimate cold case squad -- and one that can look forward to minimal official support, as it's seen as: "a dead-end, not a development scheme".
       Needless to say, its ranks are filled by a bunch of misfits. Officially, she's been assigned some forty people -- but no worries:
Capestan, most of them have been off the grid for years. There's no chance you'll even see them, let alone get them to do any work. As far as the police is concerned, they no longer exist: they're just names, that's it. If any of them do turn up, it will be to nick the stationery.
       But, of course, she does find herself leading a motley crew who don't fit in elsewhere, including an alcoholic, a gambling addict, and a homosexual (the French police apparently not being quite so progressive in certain regards). Hénaff tries to add some more off-beat color, too: there's also José Torrez, "Better known as Malchance: the unlucky charm, the black cat you would never want to cross your path", around whom things apparently invariably go wrong. And then there's Eva Rosière, who had worked at headquarters for years -- and then used all the accumulated inside knowledge to become first a bestselling crime writer and then creator of the internationally successful TV show, Laura Flames: Detective (Capestan is -- to Rosière's surprise -- a fan). After an extended sabbatical she had tried to return to her job at HQ, but they packed her off to join Capestan's squad.
       The squad does get its own separate offices -- but they're rundown. Fortunately, Rosière likes to both live and work in style, and she sees to spiffing the place up some (yes, even with a chandelier, as well as an Empire desk for herself). Still, as far as most things go, they have to rely on the last hand-me-downs -- an antiquated vehicle (and then a souped-up alternative no one would have thought of), no siren of their own. And Capestan isn't even allowed to carry a gun any longer. (As noted: they take a different approach to gun use and violence in France than they do in the US .....)
       As it turns out, those who do come to work at the squad -- most of the forty on the official list are indeed no-shows -- are actually pretty competent. They have their problem areas -- that gambling itch, that alcoholic thirst, etc. -- but on the whole it's a pretty competent group. Which maybe was the idea after all ?
       They get to work, digging through the cast-off files they've been given. Among them are only two murder cases -- apparently murder cases don't go unsolved, or cast-off by the French police ? -- and naturally those are the two that they dig into first and most enthusiastically. One is from twenty years earlier, one from eight years ago. And, when there's a third murder the final pieces drop into place: there's a connection.
       Brief chapters, set in Florida in 1991 -- two years before the first murder -- suggest some background to the connections, but of course it all only comes together in the end. Along the way, there are a variety of clues pointing in different directions, odd circumstances to be explained, and both quirky and well-connected suspects. Police procedural 101-type stuff, all reasonably well done.
       The Awkward Squad is, of course, the first in a planned series -- the follow-up already out in French -- and it does all feel a bit planned: the assemblage of oddballs, the super-competent but flawed leader, Capestan, haunted by her one terrible misstep (not that she's sorry about it ...). But at least Hénaff doesn't make it entirely just a comedy-troupe: there's more to the squad than initially meets the eye -- both officially, as it turns out, and fictionally. Though of course that also makes for a difficult balance for Hénaff to strike, between the comic and the serious.
       The Awkward Squad is fine. There's a lot of explaining to do, with the introduction of the colorful cast of characters and the premise, and heaping on flashbacks to Florida 1991 may be a little more than the novel can (or at least needs to) bear, but Hénaff gets through this reasonably well. The stabs at seriousness are a harder sell, but she manages well enough.
       There's certainly series-potential ahead here, and it's an entertaining enough light procedural read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 April 2017

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The Awkward Squad: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Sophie Hénaff was born in 1972.

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© 2017 the complete review

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