French author Pennac's fourth foray into Paris's Belleville quarter (The Fairy Gunmother, etc.) falls short of his usual high standard, though it exudes plenty of Gallic charm. Narrator and series hero Benjamin Malaussène, having left his job at Vendetta Press, spends his time trying to comprehend how his sister Thérèse, one of his ever-growing "tribe" of half-siblings and Belleville's notoriously accurate fortuneteller, could fall for straight-arrow government councillor Marie-Colbert de Roberval and vice versa. While Thérèse prepares for her impending nuptials, Malaussène becomes convinced that Marie-Colbert will end up murdered. Unfortunately, the buildup to Marie-Colbert's foreordained death takes too long, while the allure of the large cast of characters, many fleetingly reintroduced from the author's earlier novels, will escape those readers unfamiliar with them. Although crime solving has never played the lead role in Pennac's books, here he relegates it to a bit part. When Marie-Colbert's body finally turns up, the day after Thérèse abandons their honeymoon, the crime is solved so rapidly there's little enjoyment in its unraveling. Moreover, the answer to the question that has plagued Malaussène—why Marie-Colbert wanted to marry Thérèse—is so slapdash that it seems almost an afterthought. Nonetheless, Pennac's distinctive wit more than compensates for the novel's weaknesses as a mystery. (Oct.)
Forecast:Unlike the previous three Pennac novels published in the U.S., Harvill has opted to release this one in trade paper, presumably to entice new readers. As self-referential as this book is, only established fans are likely to bite.