“The Awkard Squad” by Sophie Hénaff

Entertaining, original, humorous, well-plotted story of a new squad of outcasts in the Paris Police coming together to solve two murders.

“The Awkward Squad” is the English translation of “Poulet Grillés”, (literally ‘grilled chickens’ – although poulet is also used a term for prostitutes) which has a slightly more pejorative feel to it than the English title suggests. The Awkward Squad sounds defiant in a bloody-minded other-ranks-insolence kind of way whereas Poultries Grille suggests people who have burned their careers.

The book has a premise that I think is a peculiarly French mix of the logical, the absurd and unacknowledgeable but well-understood reality. The Paris police have set up a new Squad, led by a previously promising but now disgraced Commisar, into which they’ve dumped forty or so failed but unsackable police officers and a collection of unsolved cases. There’s no expectation that the squad members will turn up never mind solve a case. The declared purpose of the Squad is to make the stats of the other Squads better by concentrating all the failure in one place.

This is a great set up or dry humour, eccentric characters and a bit of suspense. To my surprise, it also turned out to include complex investigations into a couple of murders.

What makes “The Awkward Squad” different from Anglo versions of the same kind of story of outcasts working cold cases is the stoicism of the officers who have been branded as not wanted. They don’t throw angry tantrums. They accept where they are and hope that things might get better. They discover that by learning to trust and support each other, they can win back their self-respect.

Their leader, Comisionaire Anne Capestan, a woman whose anger and loss of control has cost her her marriage and her career, declines despair, opting instead for cautious optimism and patience. She doesn’t use her authority in traditional ways, nor does she allow her boundaries to be set by her bosses. Instead, she prods and encourages and cajoles the misfits into taking on challenging cases, even though they have no resources and almost no authority.

The members of the Squad are well-drawn individuals rather than stereotypes. They each have problems but they also have something to offer. The English phrase for them is probably a motley crew

I’d expected the investigations to be little more than a vehicle for humour and character development but Sophie Hénaff delivers a well-paced, complex investigation that goes to some unexpected places and changes the overall perception of what the Squad is for.

“The Awkward Squad” was a book that I read with a smile on my face, not so much because it was funny, although it often was, but because this book manages to be hopeful without getting mushy or sentimental. It was a book I enjoyed reading and looked forward to getting back to. That’s quite rare.

Sophie Hénaff is a French journalist who writes humorous columns Cosmopolitan. “The Awkward Squad” was her first novel. It won the 2015 Polar Series Prize, the Arsène-Lupin Prize and the 2016 prix des Lecteurs du Livre de poche (Paperback Readers Award). The series currently stands at three books, the first two of which have been translated into English. I already have the next one, “Stick Together” in my TBR pile.

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