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A darker purpose

Gloomy thriller marks change of pace for ambitious Albertan

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Be warned. This sophisticated literary thriller opens with the death of a four-year-old girl -- and gets gloomier from there.

It also includes a couple of gruesome torture scenes that would fit nicely into a Quentin Tarantino movie, except they are not played for comedy at all.

Come Barbarians marks a change of pace for its ambitious author, Albertan Todd Babiak, a former Edmonton Journal arts columnist who has leaned toward light-hearted social satire in such novels as Toby: A Man, The Book of Stanley and The Garneau Block.

In his new outing, he wields the same clean prose and displays the same understated technical mastery. But his purposes are much darker and, thanks to the clockwork contraption of his plot, more commercial.

The setting is France in the early 1990s. Babiak's protagonist, Christopher Kruze, a security agent in his early 30s, has left Toronto with his wife, a political strategist hired to advise an extreme-right-wing politician.

In the opening pages, Kruze is trying to come to grips with the collapse of his world. His daughter, Lily, has just been run over by his wife's employer, who had been driving drunk.

The politician and his wife have been murdered, and Kruze's wife, who has disappeared, is the prime suspect. Kruze must find her before she is captured by the French police or tracked down by brutal gangsters connected to the upper reaches of French society.

Babiak has imagined Kruze as an amalgam of modern existential anti-heroes, from Le Carr©'s George Smiley and Camus' Meursault to Eastwood's Dirty Harry and Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies.

CanLit fans may hear echoes of Winnipeg's own David Bergen, both in the leanness of Babiak's sentences and in the depiction of Kruze as the son of pacifist Mennonites who has rejected his parents theology.

Kruze is the novel's only character given more than one dimension. Babiak seems more concerned with the momentum of his plot and his broodingly bleak tone, which calls to mind such acclaimed cable TV series as The Killing and The Fall.

Meanwhile, placing the action 20 years in the past seems to allow the bad guys a plausible connection to France's Second World War Vichy regime.

We're natural collaborators," a cynical detective tells Kruze. "We follow the leader. If you tell us to do something, and you are more powerful than we are, we'll do it."

France, needless to say, does not come off well. Babiak portrays the land of "bicycles, baguettes and berets" as a place of labour strife, self-satisfied snobbery and casual fascism. (Clearly it's a stand-in for the newspaper business, which Babiak left in the wake of the impending bankruptcy of the Journal's former owners, Canwest Global.)

Like a Graham Greene novel about a foreigner abroad, Come Barbarians has a self-conscious literary quality. Motifs come in pairs, and symbols of disfigurement abound. Kruze carries a scar on his face to mirror his youthful trauma.

Lily was born with a cleft palate (which Kruze interprets as retribution for his past sins) and one villain has no nose (thanks to being disciplined by his gangster father). The two torture scenes, one in which a character is flayed alive, hum with controlled intensity.

A minor complaint: Babiak is done no service by his publisher or editors when they ignore a rule of English grammar by dropping the comma in the title's direct address.

"Come, barbarians" is meant as irony. The self-satisfied French see their immigrant class as lesser citizens, but it is they, in Babiak's view, who exhibit barbarity. Editors, learn thy basics.

Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A1

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