This is a Parisian police procedural, and is a refreshing change from our vast collection of home grown products, excellent though many of them are.
Commissaire Anne Capestan is an efficient and successful officer. She has many arrests to her credit. Brave and resourceful, she is also highly emotional and has one serious flaw – she needs very little encouragement to fire her police issue gun.
As the novel opens she is about to be reprimanded by her ultimate boss, Chief of Police Buron, at 36 Quai des Orfevres, HQ of the Police Judiciaire.
She is at first relieved to hear that she has been reinstated with no demotion and is to head a new department. But when Buron describes the new department she discovers that her team will consist of officers who have all blotted their copybooks in some way and are disliked by regular, respectable members of staff. They are to investigate cold cases and have been allocated a decrepit suite of rooms with no police car provided and requests for assistance will probably be ignored.
She is left to her own devices in her unwelcoming, barely furnished rooms. Her selected colleagues have been ordered to report to her. They seem almost entirely to be disregarding the order, but a few do drift in. The first is Lieutenant Torres, who is regarded as the bad luck of the entire force. He has been the unintentional cause of innumerable casualties. Not surprisingly he is permanently depressed. Capestan gives him the choice of any office in the building. He goes into one at the far back and shuts the door.
The second recruit couldn't be more of a contrast. She is not a young woman, but is sexy and lively, who left the police for a time to become a best-selling writer of crime fiction. Although extremely wealthy, she got bored and came back to the police force, while still continuing her literary career. She promises to furnish the offices comfortably as long as she can bring her poodle along.
Within a few days Capestan has a tough, resourceful little team which defies all convention and is united against the hierarchy. They are shown a basement full of boxes of cold case files. They select some at random and find two unsolved murders – a sea captain shot dead and thrown into the Seine in 1993 and an elderly woman strangled during a burglary seven years ago. They decide they will work on the two murders and visit the scene of the strangulation, which on the face of it appears to be a burglary gone wrong. They also visit the widow of the sea captain, Maelle Guenan, who although she was very young at the time of her husband's death, has never re-married. She is indignant that the murder remains unsolved. Not long after their interview with her, she is brutally murdered.
In the meantime the ranks of their squad are gradually swelling. They are still given every discouragement from the top brass; with Valincourt, Chief Buron's second-in-command, being particularly unhelpful.
The large array of characters become quite difficult to assimilate at times, but there isn't a dull moment in this novel with the eponymous Awkward Squad. Capestan'e crew positively sparkle with life, and it is full of very lively humour. Capestan gradually comes to realise that they are not being punished, but have been put there for a purpose. I am sure we have not seen the last of her or her squad. I can't help thinking that this novel would make a first-class BBC4 Saturday night serial – a lot more fun than some of them.