The Moment Before Drowning has everything I love in a mystery, a strong sense of place, a historical connection in time and place, rich language and description, intrigue, moral equivocation, a complex and flawed main character, and literature and philosophy are woven into the thoughts and conversations of the main characters. Add to that, it takes place in the same setting as Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police series, and I was eager to read.
In The Moment Before Drowning, Jacques le Gerrac has come back to France to be tried for the murder of an Algerian woman. While waiting for trial and at loose ends, he goes to his hometown where he is immediately asked to investigate an unsolved murder. A young girl, Anne-Lise, was murdered and mutilated and her body was staged. The local police officer is more thug than thinker. Unable to wrest confessions after “interrogation” the case has stalled.
Gerrac interviews friends, family, and possible lovers building a picture of Anne-Lise However, his investigation and his conception of Anne-Lise are continually interrupted by his memory of Amira, the Algerian woman he is accused of murdering and his observation and participation in the torture interrogations of the FLN, the Algerian resistance. From history, we know there were many atrocities and Gerrac is revealed to be a reluctant participant, persuaded to serve out of the idea that if people of good will were perpetrating the ill-conceived war and repression, it would be somehow better. This is a good example of how good people do evil. If I didn’t do it, someone who enjoyed it would do it.
Despite everything going for it, I was disappointed in The Moment Before Drowning. There are several reasons, but they are all related to how didactic it is. Mostly it’s a failure to let ideas develop naturally, but delivering them instead as something Gerrac reads, questions answered in class, speechifying by characters, and courtroom testimony. It’s not natural, not conversational. It sticks out like the sore thumb it is, shoved into an intriguing story, distorting the narrative. The primary purpose of a story is the story. When that is displaced by a desire to indict the past, the story fails. It’s even more frustrating when I agree with the moral lesson, but find it intrusive.
As a mystery, it is only fair if you take the time to put the German and French quotations into Google translate or are familiar with Rilke and Baudelaire. When the primary clues are untranslated, it’s annoying to have to look them up. Still, it’s technically fair, but why leave the French poetry untranslated when after all, the entire story is about this French man in France. It would not be in a foreign language to him as he reads it so it should not be for us. It seemed like needless pedantry.
However, the book is not terrible. There is a real mystery and Gerrac is an interesting and compelling character. I can imagine that sequels may be more intriguing and more compelling now the author does not have to show off how smart he is anymore.
The Moment Before Drowning will be published on July 3rd. I received a copy from Akashic Books through LibraryThing and Edelweiss
- The Moment Before Drowning at Akashic Books
- James Brydon author profile as crossword setter at The Guardian