cover image The Fairy Gunmother

The Fairy Gunmother

Daniel Pennac. Harvill Press, $26 (256pp) ISBN 978-1-86046-325-9

French novelist Pennac arrives in America with his stylish second crime novel (published in France as La Fee carabine, in 1987) featuring mild-mannered publishing peon Benjamin Malaussene. In the ethnic Parisian neighborhood of Belleville, a sinister plot emerges to get old people hooked on drugs, steal their apartments and, sometimes, kill them in the process. The case befuddles the Paris police force, especially when the ""wrinklies,"" as they are lovingly called, train themselves to shoot back at their tormentors. The detectives on the case are young, effete Pastor, who wrings confessions by being nice, and half-Vietnamese Van Thian, who operates undercover as the aged Widow Ho Chi Minh. Meanwhile, narrator Malaussene staves off threats of dismissal from his ogre employer and (out of his love for a curvaceous journalist) takes several of the wayward ""granddads"" into his already overflowing family of dotty siblings and their ever-prolific mother. Pennac's slang-smart police procedural is a terrifically energetic effort, with a memorable roster of distinct characters (especially the granddads). Translator Monk has tackled many of Georges Perec's works. Still, the novel is a bit of a throwback: while Pennac does take pains to be politically correct, his stereotyped women are as out-of-date as their typewriters. (Jan.)