The Cemetery of Swallows is a recent addition to Europa Editions’ excellent World Noir imprint, which, as you may guess from its name, features the best in international crime fiction. Its author, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, is not only an author, but also a painter, photographer, designer, inventor, artistic director, and composer and has, to the undoubted relief of his publishers, adopted the nom de plume of Mallock for his crime thrillers.
At the heart of The Cemetery of Swallows lies a seemingly motiveless murder, the kind of crime that often baffles detectives, both literary and real. A young French family man, Manuel Gemoni, sets off for the Dominican Republic, where he tracks down and murders a man whom he has only seen once, on a TV documentary. The only explanation he has for flying halfway across the world to kill a stranger is, “I killed him because he killed me.”
Although the motive, or lack thereof, may be perplexing, the evidence seems clear and so, after some nifty diplomatic footwork from the French ambassador, the Dominicans agree that Manuel can be brought back to Paris to stand trial. In a piece of luck for the accused, it is famous French detective, Amedée Mallock, who is sent to collect him and return him to France.
Luck? Well, Manuel’s sister, Julie, just happens to be an officer in the French police and one of Mallock’s right-hand people and she simply does not believe that the likable and mild-mannered Manuel could have killed anyone, persuading Mallock to agree to investigate the murder further.
Those of you paying attention will, no doubt, have noticed that Mallock (the author) has, confusingly, adopted the name of Mallock (the detective) as his nom de plume, suggesting that there must be more than a hint of identification with his protagonist. Which is fine as Amedée is a sympathetic, if slightly jaded and misanthropic character, described as a large man, resembling a cross between Gerard Depardieu and Nick Nolte. A man of taste in music, food and whiskey, as well as being a first class detective, both practical and resolutely logical, he is trying to come to terms with the deaths of both his son and his partner.
As Amedée investigates, however, his rationality soon starts to become a bit of a hindrance, as the facts of the case become ever more improbable. Manuel recounts how he had been given a video of a documentary on the Dominican Republic in which he had glimpsed his victim and had been overcome with such a violent hatred of him that he had dropped everything and flown to Central America to murder him without even knowing who he was. As well as deceit or insanity, Amedée is forced to consider a totally irrational, supernatural explanation for Manuel’s predicament.
The Cemetery of Swallows is one of those rare crime novels that rises above the genre in its intensity, range and quality. Mallock’s writing is rich in imagery and his descriptive language is dense, vivid and impressionistic. In the hands of a lesser author, this kind of language, paired with a heavy flirtation with the supernatural, could have broken the plot away from its moorings and sent in careening off into implausibility. Instead, Mallock’s focus on his detective, a detailed backstory and a convincing denouement gives the book weight and balance.
A huge amount of thought has clearly been given by Mallock to his central character and The Cemetery of Swallows is as much a character study of Amedée and his team as it is a detective story. It is almost impossible not to engage with them and to become concerned for their well-being and I hope that Europa brings more of Mallock’s novels to English-speaking audiences.
The Cemetery of Swallows is an intense, driven novel that pulls the reader in and doesn’t let go. It’s quirky, dense and complex, exploring themes such as reincarnation, hypnosis, the French justice system and weaving together storylines from the Second World War to the Trujillo years in the Dominican Republic to modern day France. As a piece of crime fiction, I think it backs up my contention that, currently, English language crime fiction is being left behind in the quality stakes by translated crime fiction. Moreover, it also stands up on its own merits as a piece of general fiction.
My personal test of crime fiction is whether it is gripping enough that I’m having to sneak off to the bathroom at work to read a few more pages because I just can’t put it down and The Cemetery of Swallows passes this test with (if you’ll pardon the pun) flying colours. Quite simply, if you are a lover of good crime fiction, you must read this or you will really be missing out on an excellent read.