Engrossing but gory whodunnit

2008-05-21 00:00

“Michael Gregorio” is actually a husband-and-wife team, and this is their second novel. In genre, it is a whodunnit, but a rather special one. The story is set in Prussia in 1807, soon after the battle of Jena and with Prussia under occupation by Napoleon’s armies; and this gives the book much historical interest.

The author(s) has painted a detailed and fascinating portrait of that society at that particular time, focussing especially on the tricky relationships between the occupying power and the locals, notably local dignitaries like the narrator, Hanno Stiffeniis, who is the magistrate in Lotingen and must unavoidably interact with the French officers in the town. There is also a vivid backdrop of icy windswept landscape which adds to the bone-chilling Gothic atmosphere of the story. Some of it is set in the fortress of Kamenetz on the Russian border — an isolated military outpost which feels like the vestibule of a wintry hell. It is also a fitting locale for one of the five ghastly murders around which the story revolves.

The main characters are a colourful array: the two men primarily involved in the murder-investigation, the rigid and pedantic Stiffeniis and the sardonic and sophisticated Frenchman Lavedrine, are almost polar opposites; Stiffeniis’ beloved wife Helena becomes increasingly a figure of ambivalence, even suspicion; and there is the Jew, Aaron Jacob, whose grisly quasi-scientific activities serve to introduce an examination of the serious anti-Semitism of the time.

The springboard for the whole story is the discovery of three murdered children in a lonely cottage. The children have been both murdered and sexually mutilated, and features of the blood stains in the room suggest dynamics other than “mere” violence. Soon the children’s father is found to have been viciously murdered; and then the smashed and grotesquely flattened corpse of a woman who may be the missing mother is discovered. A tone of gory, perverted horror prevails from the start, and works in startling contrast to the elaborate and formal style of the prose (partly indicative of the period and partly of the personality of the narrator Stiffeniis), with a steady unveiling of dark facts and a cranking-up of tension.

A totally engrossing and satisfying read from every angle; but the reader needs to have a strong stomach.

David Pike

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