Playing Hangman in Montreal

a review by David Warriner

Je me souviens. I remember. The official motto of Quebec is right there on every license plate in the province, and it’s carved in stone over the door to the Parliament Building in Quebec City. It’s also the title of Martin Michaud’s latest detective novel, his third, featuring Montreal Detective Sergeant Victor Lessard.

Je me souviens draws you in as soon as you read the back cover and the first few pages alone will send shivers down your spine.

Michaud weaves a clever – and thought-provoking – story from bare snippets of intrigue that appear unconnected. A man and a woman are found dead, their necks pierced by a medieval torture instrument. Before they die, they hear the voice of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of assassinating JFK. A homeless man and serial psychiatric patient, who claims to have been involved in the FLQ’s assassination of Pierre Laporte during the 1970 October Crisis, jumps to his death from the roof of a building in Old Montreal, leaving behind him two wallets that turn out to be the victims’.

Victor Lessard is a detective sergeant with the major crimes unit of the Montreal police force. He’s down-to-earth and fiercely loyal to his mentors and the adoptive parents who raised him as their own. Like all good crime fiction detectives, he has a keen nose for sniffing out anything fishy and follows his gut instinct, which never fails. He’s the archetype of the forty-something Quebecer on the verge of a mid-life crisis, a recovered alcoholic with two teenagers from a failed relationship and a sexy girlfriend who can’t get enough of him. And little does Lessard know, but his son is going off the rails and threatening his career in the process.

Lessard is a loveable rogue who’ll break the rules if he has to, but you know his heart is in the right place. He stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that it’s winter, donning his trusty Converse sneakers and beat-up leather jacket whether he’s slip-sliding his way to a snowy crime scene in his Crown Victoria, scrambling knee-deep through the snow on Mount Royal in pursuit of a suspect on cross-country skis, or passing brown envelopes through car windows to mysterious characters in a shady part of Chinatown.

Lessard and his partner Jacinthe Taillon, a no-nonsense, loose cannon of a woman with a tendency to jump to conclusions, make a colourful duo. More often than not they rub each other the wrong way, and their disagreements and skirmishes sure keep things lively at the station. But no matter what happens, you know she has his back, whether she likes it or not.

Je me souviens tells a tale set in francophone Montreal, spoken in true Quebec French but peppered with anglophone characters and the English expressions and swear words you hear across the city today.

Michaud paints such a vivid picture of Montreal in the winter, you feel like you’re walking through the streets of NDG, hopping onto the Metro or riding in the squad car right alongside Lessard and Taillon.

Michaud hits the nail on the head with this one. He captivates the reader right from the beginning, and slowly but surely unravels a mystery that touches on popular conspiracy theories and major historical events. This ingenious page-turner transcends the crime fiction genre and will appeal to a wider audience both within and outside Quebec. Je me souviens is a skilfully crafted novel that will transport you to la belle province and leave you thirsting for more. ≈



From Je me souviens

by Martin Michaud
≈ translated by David Warriner


MAY 20, 1980


I just watched René deliver his speech on TV, the ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth.

“If I understood you well, you are telling me: Next time.”

It made me smile to see him using my very own words. I won’t see him again. I imagine I should be feeling some kind of emotion to do with this whole situation or the outcome of the vote, but I feel nothing. What really matters?

What I am, or the impression I have of it?

What’s going on in my life, or how I see it?

I am but a void, an abstraction. I am nothing of what I believed I was.

I have no identity. Somewhat like Quebec today.

One day, perhaps, somebody will come along who can read between the lines and tell me who I am.

≈          ≈          ≈

Chapter 1: The Iron Collar

Thursday, December 15, 11:57 p.m.

Broken, emptied, reprogrammed, recovered.

The woman with frizzy grey hair knew everything there was to know about how the brain works, but never before had she treated any mind as twisted as this one.

The time of terror, screams, and tears had passed, and now she felt drugged by the pain.

The iron collar that had been placed around her neck was piercing her flesh, skewering the bones of her sternum and chin, forcing her to keep her head extended back fully.

She had been stripped of her clothes so she’d feel humiliated; she was barefoot, hands cuffed behind her back, legs immobilized so she couldn’t bend them.

Shining in through the window, the moon cast a rectangle onto the cement floor.

The woman knew she was being watched: she released her sphincter one last time and felt the satisfaction of the urine flowing down her thighs.

“Fu… fuck you!” she spluttered, forcing herself to swallow.

A thought brought a bizarre rictus of a smile to her face: those multi-coloured plastic numbers…

The woman reached over the red line and grabbed the key, roaring with laughter.

The laugh of a crazy woman.

Then, after struggling for a long time to slip it into the lock, she turned the key. For a fraction of a second, she thought the impossible had happened, that she had managed to free her wrists.

Then the spike whistled through the air, pierced the back of her neck and emerged from her throat.

The blood bubbled as it spurted out of the wound, spraying out between her teeth.

≈          ≈          ≈

Chapter 2: Snowstorm

Earlier in the day, Thursday, December 15

The weather girl leaned her head to one side, touching two fingers to her ear, looking morose. Then when the voice in her earpiece crackled through that she was on air, her face came to life and she began speaking her prophecy with assurance:

“Snowstorm. Thirty centimetres expected. Blowing snow. Strong winds.”

The woman stood up and turned off the television; an impetuous, almost wild, smile crossed her wrinkled face. She rinsed out the bowl that had held her cereal in the sink and put it on the counter.

The liquid crystals on the stove indicated 6:00 a.m.

There was no better time to take a stroll than in a morning blizzard. Time was suspended and, under the milky dome that purified it of its soiling, the city would catch its breath.

The woman always walked the same way.

Bundled up in a down jacket, she left the building where she lived, on Sherbrooke Street, right by the Museum of Fine Arts, and walked down Crescent. Where on summer nights the bling-bling, look-at-me crowd would be spilling out of the bars, she now saw only her reflection in the windows. She then walked up De Maisonneuve, passing in front of Wanda’s strip club.

At Peel, the woman crossed the street at the light, her gaze following with amusement as a car slipped and skidded its way around the corner.

The snow was already piling up on the sidewalks. The wind whistled around her ears, snowflakes whirling around in the air.

She had already stopped on the esplanade in front of 1981 McGill College Avenue; adorned with lights, the trees lining the road were battling against the gusts.

She was admiring the sculpture, La Foule illuminée, when a hand on her shoulder made her jump. Fleece jacket, combat pants tucked into fourteen-hole Doc Martens, piercings galore, eyes made-up in black, dreadlocks spilling out from under a skull-and-crossbones toque—the young punk girl looked like she had come right out of a Sex Pistols show.

Afraid, the woman recoiled when, hands cupping her black lips like a loudspeaker, the angel of darkness came closer and spoke into her ear:

“I didn’t shoot anybody, no sir!”

Wondering whether she had heard properly, the woman wanted the vampire to repeat what she had said, but before she could react, she turned on her heels, straddled her bicycle, and was swallowed up into the storm. Wide-eyed, the woman stood rooted to the spot for a moment, scanning the street, her body buffeted by the squall.

The woman arrived home at 11:22 a.m.

She hurriedly kicked her boots off on the entryway carpet, sent her toque and mittens flying across the couch, and let her coat tumble to the tiles on the bathroom floor.

She relieved herself in darkness, letting out a long sigh.

Pressing the switch, she looked at the reflection of her face in the mirror, which had broken out into a broad grin, lips blue from the cold.

From downtown, she had walked up to Mount Royal, where she had spent hours winding her way through the paths, admiring the conifers bowing under the weight of the snow, and observing the city in transparency below.

Humming to herself, she went into the kitchen to make some tea.

The kettle was whistling when she felt that something wasn’t right. Something was out of place. She scanned her eyes first across the cluttered counter, over the sink, then along the cupboards.

Seeing the date on the refrigerator, she gasped.

When she had taken the milk out five minutes ago, the magnetic, multi-coloured plastic numbers had not been there on the door to the freezer compartment.

She had not given a second thought to the incident that morning. But right now, her whole body, shaking, was sounding the alarm.

From behind her came a voice that froze her to the spot, making her hair stand on end.

“I didn’t shoot anybody, no sir!”

She turned around and let out a sharp cry at the menacing sight of the pistol before her.

The darts crazed through the air, piercing her skin. The jolt of the Taser shot through her like lightning.

As she crumpled to the ground and her body shook with convulsions, she could not help but feel haunted by that voice, which she had recognized without difficulty.

The delicate voice of President Kennedy’s assassin.

The voice of Lee Harvey Oswald. ≈



Je me souviens

Martin Michaud

Les Éditions Goélette, 2012