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Mystery author #23: Sebastien Japrisot

Title: A Very Long Engagement
Original French title: Un long diamanche de fiançailles
Year of publication: 1991 (original), 1993
Type of mystery: Missing person
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: France, 1917-1924, with flashbacks and flash-forwards
Number of corpses: Many
Some themes: Love, hate, perseverance, truth, war crimes

I had originally intended to review One Deadly Summer (L'été meurtrier) because I had seen and enjoyed the film, but I didn't like the first person narrative style of the book and gave up on it. I also suppose it was not that exciting for me to read because I already knew what the surprise twist was. When I came across this book I remembered that there had been a critically acclaimed film of the same title and a random reading of a few lines told me it was not written in the same narrative style as the other book, so I bought it.

Story: In the winter of 1917 five French soldiers who have been sentenced to death for cowardice are pushed out into no-man's land between the French and German fronts. The next day, five bodies are recovered and buried in a common grave. After the war, Mathilde, the fiancée of one of the men, sets out to discover what really happened that night. She has never really believed her Manech was dead. Her investigations take her all over France and her patient questioning and doggedness lead her on a convoluted trail of clues and red herrings before finally the terrible truth about that night in no-man's land is revealed.

Review: This is a literary mystery and as such can't really be tied down to a specific mystery sub-genre. It is also a thriller and a love story, and all of it is well done.

As usual when I review translated books, I don't think I can comment much on the style, as at best the style of a translated book belongs to both author and translator. I do think the translation is well rendered in the sense that it reads like a text written in English. Since my French is not good enough to evaluate the correctness or faithfulness of the translation I am not going to comment on how good a translation it is of the original.

The story is gripping from page one, but not in the sense of being "unputdownable", at least not for me. I was perfectly content to read a chapter now and a chapter later, simply because I felt I had to digest the contents of each chapter before going on. Also, to tell the truth, I didn't want it to end.
The story is simple: Mathilde searches for her fiancé, but in terms of plotting it is complex, like a deceptively simple jigsaw puzzle you think you can solve in an hour but nevertheless takes several days to complete.

While the story is emotional, Japrisot has managed to avoid melodrama, for which I am thankful because there are plenty of things in the story to get emotional about. The narrative, which, by the way, is supposed to be written by Mathilde (but in the third person), never gets bogged down in tear-jerking over-sentimentality. This is not to say that it can't or won't make you cry, but it makes it a lot harder. There is humour, not just in some of the events, but in the wording, like the narrator (Mathilde) is gently mocking herself and everyone around her. The letters from Mathilde's various correspondents are written in distinct voices, so that you never confuse the elderly Italian woman with her messed-up goddaughter, or the soldier with the private detective.

The story is as full of surprises as you would expect from a mystery, and at times you really don't know where the plot is taking you, something I always like about mysteries. All in all, it is one of the best mysteries I have read this year. I really must rent the DVD soon.

Rating: A very enjoyable romantic mystery-thriller. 5 stars.

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