This book was recommended to me by author Elizabeth Speller during a Twitter conversation about WW1 books. I have to confess I had previously not heard of either the novel or the author. By a Slow River – original title Les àmes grises – translated from French by Hoyt Rogers was the winner of the Prix Renaudot and a bestseller in France. It is the compelling and atmospheric story of three mysterious deaths in an isolated French village during World War one.
The story is narrated by a policeman who looks back on what is known locally as The Case from a distance of twenty years, when he returns to wind up his father’s affairs after many years absence. In December 1917 with the sound of the artillery bombardment rumbling not too far away, death of a different kind comes to this small village. Belle the ten-year old daughter of the Rѐbillon café owner Bourrache; known to all as Morning Glory is found strangled. This shocking death is the second to bring tragedy to a small town where many men are in reserved occupations, a place oddly removed from the war. A couple of years earlier, a replacement schoolmistress whose beauty, cheerful demeanour and gracefulness had turned the heads of many of the local men, and stolen a few hearts, committed suicide. As The Case gets underway, with a desperate search through that freezing December for a murderer, a young woman dies in childbirth while her husband is out searching for a killer.
“When we ran into Pierre-Ange Destinat on the street, the rest of us called him Mr.Prosecutor. Men raised their caps to him, and women of the humbler sort curtsied. Fine ladies of his own social class would incline their heads ever so slightly, like little birds when they drank from gutters. Whatever the greeter or greeting, it seemed no matter. He didn’t answer – or did it so faintly you would’ve needed four well-polished opera glasses to see his lips move. But it wasn’t disdain, as most believed; I think it was simply detachment.”
Prosecutor Pierre-Ange Destinat living alone in his Chateau with his two servants Barbe and Solemn still grieves for his long dead wife. Destinat who has a regular table reserved for him and dines occasionally at Rebillon has earned the enmity of the sinister Judge Mierck; a dark presence in the town, and another regular at Rebillon. It was in a small house in the grounds of the Prosecutor’s chateau that the schoolmistress had lived, and it is just outside the walls that Morning Glory is found dead. Mierck an unpleasant, malevolent character, chillingly drawn by Claudel, is quickly called to the gruesome scene outside the chateau, and directs the start of the investigation.
“Before that moment we had all accepted Judge Mierck for what he was. He had his place and he held it, not liked much, but respected. But on that first Monday of December, by the mortal remains of this little girl, his words, and even more how matter-of-factly he said them, almost cheerfully, with a gleam in his eyes at having a murder case at last, a real one, for it was murder, no doubt about it! – in this time of war, when all the killers had forsaken civil life so they could ply their aggression more violently in uniform – after that day, people in our region never thought of him without disgust.”
Judge Mierck and his friend a rather mysterious Colonel tie up The Case quickly– declaring it closed, but the memory of these events will stay in the minds of many.
Twenty years later the Policeman is still struggling to make sense of the tragedies, continually haunted as he is, by the ghosts of the past. Now temporarily back in the village he uses the small amount of information he has to wheedle out the secrets of the village. Gradually as the story of what happened during those years of the war is revealed, the story of an entire town is brought to light.
By a Slow River – (which I think is the US title, the UK title is Grey Souls) is a sadly, beautiful novel, enormously evocative with a strong sense of place. Within the non-linear structure of this novel, Dadais – Claudel’s policeman narrator in recalling the most terrible events of his life, creates a very intimate relationship with the reader. I don’t read many modern crime novels, – although this is very much a literary crime novel, with character and place really at the centre – but I am very glad I read this one. Claudel is an author I will have to investigate further.