What do you do when you’ve already ripped off the Louvre?
That’s the question that starts Olympia, a delightful new caper from collaborators Jérôme Mulot & Florent Ruppert, in cahoots with the superb Bastien Vivès. In classic caper fashion, they’ve joined forces, bringing us another adventure of the trio of art thieves who robbed the most famous museum in France in Olympia’s predecessor, The Grande Odalisque. It’s a classic scenario: you can never go out on top. The call to get the team together for just one last job isn’t just a temptation; it’s an addiction, and Alex and Sam–joined unexpectedly by Carole, the last member of the gang, who was presumed dead after the Louvre job–can’t resist it.
Getting to know these characters, regardless of whether you’ve read The Grande Odalisque, is a real pleasure. Sam, the muscle of the group, is determined, quiet, and deadly, while Alex is frivolous, playful, and disarming. Carole appears at a crucial moment, just after the other two–somewhat adrift since her disappearance and wasting their time on poorly-planned jobs–find themselves under the guns of a connected Mafia family. Her thoughtful, careful nature places her as a mother figure not just to her unborn child, but to the members of her gang as well.
Crime fiction at its best presents illicit activity as a job like any other, with its highs and lows, its frustrations and rewards, and its long stretches of boredom tied together with moments of almost intolerable danger. The people who choose the profession do so, for the most part, because they’re ill-suited for any other kind of work, and that definitely applies to the Olympia crew. The difference between them and anyone else doing a risky job is that the risk is so great, the margin of error so slender, and the consequences of failure so enormous.
Danger is everywhere in Olympia, but this is definitely a caper, not a heist. The distinction may seem paper-thin to those not immersed in the idiom, but while they are essentially identical in form (a disparate crew of expert criminals is assembled to pull off a seemingly impossible job with tremendous risk and a dazzling pay-off), capers tend to be a little less fraught, a little more charming, and a lot funnier. This is a balance Vivès, Ruppert and Mulot pull off almost perfectly; there are a few comical set-ups with big payoffs (one of the best involving a three-barreled pistol), but much of the effect comes from the relationship between the three thieves, their handler Durieux, and Antonio, the mob assassin assigned to make sure they complete their assignment.
Olympia is tremendously cinematic - not in the big-screen, noisy fashion of so many contemporary action comics, but in the precise, rhythmic manner of the best caper movies. Long moments of silent set-up and planning, establishing shots of some of the most beautiful locations in Paris, bursts of unexpected violence, and the naturalistic but sparkling dialogue that characterizes the best crime fiction are doled out one after the other, with nearly perfect pace and timing.
The book’s gorgeous cover sets the tone for what you find inside. The art style is interesting blend of cartoonish facial drawings, carefully described linework, and rough but recognizable backgrounds that deliver memorable scene-setting without getting bogged down into fussiness. It doesn’t always work, but when it’s combined with a terrific story, excellent characterization, and a strikingly good color palette–teals, soft reds, brick and twilight–it comes together with unexpected elegance and grace.
The plot itself, like with most good capers, is simultaneously grandiose and absurd. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, nor should it; the creators are wise to gloss over it with a few largely dialogue-free scenes of preparation, giving the reader only as much detail as necessary to set up its well-timed story beats. How the three get into the Petit Palais to pull off the theft of three classic paintings is far less important than what happens when they get there, and the complications (including an absurd, hilarious celebrity guest appearance) that ensue once they do. It’s a shockingly efficient story, not letting a single element go to waste, and using every part of the plot to carry the characters somewhere.
None of it would work at all without the sparks that fly between the three criminals. It’s good that we don’t know that much about Sam, Alex and Carole; these are not people for which we need a lot of lore, baggage or background. Their highly enjoyable dialogue gives us everything we need to understand the depths of their friendships, the intensity of their relationships, and the drive they have to keep doing this kind of high-wire criminal derring-do. The rhythms and patterns of their characters are established so quickly that every scene seems both surprising and inevitable. While Durieux is largely an enigma, the arrival of Antonio provides comic relief, flirtatiousness, and a perilous tension that isn’t resolved until the exact right moment - all in just a few words. Again, like the best films, Olympia manages to do an awful lot with just a handful of characters by making all of them engaging and none of them superfluous.
Taken either on its own or as a sequel to The Grand Odalisque (it’s not necessary to read the first book to understand the second, and both work perfectly well on their own, but experiencing them together adds a frisson of enjoyment that shouldn’t be missed), Olympia is one of the best crime comics of any kind, and the best to come out of Europe in particular, in years. From its peaceful but foreboding beginning to the stunner of a set-piece during the big job to the twist ending that puts it even more in the grand tradition of unforgettable capers, it satisfies every step of the way. It’s a little gem of crime fiction, and, like a criminal who applies a spectacular talent that has no place in decent society, it delivers on the hallmarks of the genre that no other can match.