I love reading mysteries written by authors from other countries. It’s an interesting form of armchair travel that has made me a forever-addict to the Akashic Noir series. I have an enduring love Fred Vargas whose procedural mysteries are infused with a deep compassion and humanity. Excited at the possibility of a new French mystery writer, I was eager to read The Madonna of Notre Dame by Alexis Ragougneau, which was translated into English by Katherine Gregor.
The story opens with the murder of a beautiful woman dressed all in white at the famed Cathedral of Notre Dame, a site visited by 50,000 tourists every day. But don’t think that means there are lots of witnesses. She was murdered during the night, placed so she looked like she was praying and not discovered until someone sat next to her.
Father Bern was one of the people who discovered the body and he begins to investigate because he is certain of the innocence of the obvious suspect, a mentally ill young man who had attacked the woman the day before during a procession. He investigates, as does a police detective who is also troubled by the easy, and obvious solution that makes everyone else happy.
I was disappointed in this novel, though if Regougneau writes a second, I will give it a chance and read it because I think he has the makings of a good mystery novelist. I do not read French, so I cannot know for certain if the tone that put me off comes from the translator or the author. There was a prurience that made me uncomfortable. I know that when women are murdered, there are often details of the murder that implicate sexual fetishes and psychoses, but when they are lingered over with too much loving detail, I am turned off. There is a scene in the apartment of the obvious suspect that I thought was gross and unnecessary in its details and narrative excess. It turned me off so much I considered not finishing the book, but I was interested in the humane Father Bern and wanted to see where the author took him.
I also did not like the mysterious disease that afflicts Father Bern. Give him rheumatoid arthritis or chronic fatigue or anything but some mysterious recurring and debilitating disease that makes no sense, that seems more like an affliction induced psychosomatically or by a punishing god. I want it to go away forever. There is a hallucinatory scene with the priest that again makes little sense and makes this humane, kindly and intelligent priest seem too naive and unaware to ever be the same person who earlier in that same day made the logical leap that brought him to that neighborhood at that time.
The biggest flaw, though, is that this is not truly a fair mystery. Readers are provided the clues that make the detective and the priest doubt the official police narrative, but the evidence that narrows the field from a set of suspects toward a narrower group is absent. Well, it’s there, the priest sees it plain as day in a video and the detective is told exactly who the murderer is by a witness, but that is “off-screen” so to speak. It would be too revealing to give the specifics, but there should be some other clues that narrow the field somehow.
We are also give the “mind of the murder” narrative, my personal pet peeve, a flashback to the past when the fatal flaw was introduced into the killer’s psyche. It was unnecessary and psychologically unpersuasive.
But, despite all those flaws, I do look forward to reading another by Ragougneau for the following reasons. He writes complex and intriguing characters. He creates a strong sense of place and mood. While I thought that hallucinatory scene with the priest was unlikely, it was truly hallucinatory. As a reader, the whole spinning, out-of-control, why-am-I-here, how-can-this-be unreality of it was magnificent. Ragougneau can write! I just want a stronger plot.
- The Madonna of Notre Dame at New Vessel Press.