Book Review: The Cemetery of Swallows
By Steve Donoghue
The author of the fantastic The Cemetery of Swallows, latest volume in Europa’s “World Noir” series, is an artist and murder mystery author named Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, who very understandably takes the handy pen-name of “Mallock.” And as readers of this new novel (which was first published in France in 2012) will immediately discover, the hero of The Cemetery of Swallows is also named Mallock – police superintendent Amedee Mallock, a prickly, brilliant investigator at 36, Quai des Orfevres with the French police who, as the book opens, is on a flight to the Dominican Republic in order to retrieve the Frenchman Manuel Gemoni, who’s been accused of killing an inhabitant of the island.
It’s an annoyingly distracting duplication, of course – is this a fictional character, or are we watching the author’s wish-fulfillment played out at positively Freudian lengths? If I wrote a 400-page erotic novel starring a debonair lothario named Steve Donoghue, had him successfully committing more seductions in a single chapter than all his flea-bitten Donegal ancestors managed in any given century, it would inevitably distract you from anything else going on in the book. At every turn, at every reminder that the book’s author gave the book’s main character his own name, the reader must perforce be yanked right out of the narrative.
Luckily, the narrative Mallock – the author, not the character – presents to his readers is such a strong one that it manages to carry things along for considerable stretches at a time. Mallock – the character, not the author – has been sent to the Dominican Republic because Manuel Gemoni has murdered a man he never met and offered no other explanation for it but the seemingly unhinged line, “I killed him because he had killed me.” This kind of thing – a crime without a motive – is always as tempting to mystery authors as it is maddening for their sleuths, and even after he’s seen the evidence, talked with Gemoni and his sweet sister Julie, and thought it over himself, Mallock – the character, not the author – has only a deep enigma before him:
Mallock was confronted by either a brilliant actor – a possibility that could never be excluded – or one of the annoying enigmas that life sought to put in his way.
A third possibility: Manuel was simply crazy. Schizophrenia could explain the twofold feeling he had with regard to this crime. For a moment he began to hope that the psychiatrist would confirm the young man’s insanity. Wasn’t that the best solution? They take him home and have him cared for. He’s put in a psychiatric hospital and the case is closed. Then he thought of Julie and was angry with himself.
Well then, since he cannot and must not be either mad or guilty, let’s go with the enigma, he said to himself.
That was the only choice left, and fortunately it fell within his competence.
And things hardly improve once Manuel is thrust into the French criminal justice theory and sparks a media frenzy. The whole resulting spectacle is disgusting to Mallock – the character, the author, both? – who holds out little hope that any kind of truth can be reached this way:
How had justice managed to become so vague? The lawyers, who were chiefly involved in clientelism, did not know their briefs, judges were subject to influences, and most of the judgments were stained by ideological subjectivity, money, and incompetence. Confusions of genres, confusions of punishments, confusions of minds. The commercial tribunals were a bad joke, and the criminal courts as well. If to that the frenzied influence of the media as added, one arrived at a game that should never be played!
For Mallock, the matter was settled.
But in addition to being disillusioned, Mallock – the character, not the author (we can only hope) – is also singularly haunted, and the many passages that evoke this side of him are often haltingly arresting:
Mallock is alone, stretched out under a row of coconut trees with manicured leaves. Their curved trunks rise up, as survivors, from a disturbing, almost excessively white sand. They reach for the sky to find the wind. Beyond the beach is the tropical ocean, and his son who is swimming in it. Since he died, he hasn’t grown anymore. He’s still five years old and has his father’s absinthe-colored eyes, his pupils match the waves of the sea. Here is Thomas, his little Tom, his little fellow, in the lukewarm waters of the Atlantic sheltered by the reef, that amniotic mother. Here is Thomas Mallock among the blue crabs that run sideways, the sea horses and microscopic, silvery jellyfish. Look at him! In that sea, that’s Thomas you see. He’s flying, my little angel, on the glassy, limped waves of the ocean.
The Cemetery of Swallows builds with steady confidence to a genuinely startling series of conclusions that will have readers clinging to and believing in Mallock – the character, and perhaps the author too – as his heroism becomes more and more embattled. At one point we’re told that our detective is “the king of the homebodies,” but we end this novel hoping he’ll keep going out of his way to confront the dark. Let’s just hope he doesn’t start writing mystery novels.