Mystery writer #15: Pierre Magnan

Title: The Murdered House
Original French title: La Maison assassinée
Translator: Patricia Clancy
Year of publication: Translation: 1999; Original: 1984 (I think)
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: Rural France, 1910’s
Some themes: Love, hate, murder, revenge

Story: In 1896 three week old Séraphin Monge is the only member of his family left alive after a bloody mass murder takes place in the family house in Upper Provence. In 1919 the angelic-looking Séraphin returns to his birthplace to work as a road mender and lays eyes on his legacy: the murder house, which has, like murder houses often do, stood empty and unsellable because people believe it's haunted. In an attempt to eradicate the dreams and visions that begin to haunt him after he is told the story of what happened there, he begins to tear down the house, making everyone think he is mad. He is befriended by another war veteran, who is as scarred on the outside as Séraphin is on the inside, and three different women begin to show more than a little interest in him. When he finds something in one of the walls it causes him to suspect that three respectable citizens of the town were involved in the murders, and he begins to plot a blood revenge, stalking his intended victims in order to detect their weaknesses. But whenever he thinks he is ready to act, another hand acts for him, killing the people in gruesome and ingenious ways.

Review: Here is a really good, well written and intense mystery of the kind often referred to as literary because of the non-mystery themes it tackles and the high quality of the writing. Although some things about the mystery are obvious to an experienced mystery reader, there are still a couple of twists that really take you by surprise, unless you are a very, very careful analytical reader (the kind who writes down possible clues), because Magnan plays by the basic rule of mystery writing and gives the reader an opportunity to solve the crime through reasoning. He goes even further and gives the readers an edge over the characters by allowing them to see the events leading up to the murder of the Monge family. There are several important clues that don’t look like clues hidden in that chapter.

But this book is not just about a murder investigation. It is just as much about love, family and the lack thereof, revenge and healing, among other things. The translation is very good and the translator has allowed some local flavour to remain, I guess to remind the reader that this is a translation, by letting some French and Provencal dialect words stand untranslated in the text with parenthetical and in a couple of cases, footnote, explanations that don’t detract from the enjoyment of reading. I am already planning to try to get my hands on the sequel, Beyond the Grave and would in fact like to read even more of Magnan’s books. They are being translated into English one by one, but what I would really like to do is upgrade my French so I can read them in the original language (plus of course I could really savour Simenon’s writings).

There is a movie version as well, but I have little hope of seeing it unless I buy it on DVD.

Rating: A juicy literary murder mystery with a touch of the supernatural to sink one’s teeth into. 4+ stars.

Coming up: Boris Akunin (hopefully)


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