Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Police work sometimes involves a lot more than just getting information from forensics reports, physical evidence and the like. It also involves digging into the past to find out what motivates a murder. That’s the sort of story Anna Jaquiery’s The Lying Down Room is, so let’s turn today’s spotlight on that novel.
The real action in the story begins when Commandant Serge Morel of the Paris Police is called to the scene of a murder. Isabelle Dufour has been found dead in her bed, wearing a red wig and extra makeup. A post-mortem examination soon shows that she was drowned before being placed in her bed. As the police begin the process of interviewing potential witnesses, they learn that the victim wasn’t particularly close to her family. So, although there could be a motive there, it doesn’t seem likely.
Then they learn something else. Not long before her death, Mme. Dufour had lodged a complaint at her local police station about two evangelists who had come to her home to leave pamphlets. When the police begin to follow this lead, they discover that three other women, Elisabeth Guillou, Marie Latour and Irina Volkoff, have made similar complaints. So one avenue for exploration is the set of local churches and religious groups. Even if whoever left the pamphlets is not the killer, he (or they) may have seen something.
Then, Elisabeth Guillou is found dead, killed in the same way as the first victim. Now the search for the two evangelists, a grown man and his teenaged son, intensifies. There doesn’t seem to be a motive for either of the two murders, particularly if they were committed by the same person. The two victims didn’t know each other – didn’t even live near one another. But Morel is convinced that the evangelists are key to the case.
And so they prove to be. Slowly, and after a public appeal for information, Morel and the team learn who these evangelists are. Now they have to learn where they are, and that takes time. As they get closer to finding them, the members of team discover that this story really began a couple of decades earlier, and included a fateful trip to Russia. In the end, we learn what’s behind these deaths, and who is responsible for them.
This is a police procedural. So readers follow along as the police go to crime scenes, talk with witnesses and family members, and so on. Morel depends heavily on his team, which includes Lila Markov, Jean Char, Marco Lancel, and later, Akil Abdelkader. Readers who like ‘ensemble’ stories, where different members of the police team make contributions, will appreciate this. For the most part, the team works well together, and there’s not much of the infighting that police procedurals sometimes include. In fact, the members of the team really do care about each other. Morel’s boss, Commissioner Olivier Perrin, is eager for a quick solution to the case, mostly so that he’ll look good to the media. But at the same time, he’s not the stereotypical horrible boss who sabotages everything for the hardworking team.
The story is told from several points of view, including Morel’s, Lila’s, the evangelists’, and those of a few other characters. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this. It’s also worth noting that both past and present tense are used in the novel. Again, readers who prefer one or the other will notice this.
The plot is moved along as various incidents from the past are first implied, then revealed. They are sometimes told in flashback form, so readers who prefer a strictly chronological retelling of events will notice. And some of those events are truly traumatic. That said, though, there’s not a lot of ‘on stage’ violence. Rather, the trauma is psychological. And the impact of what happens, even years later, is an important element in this novel. Without spoiling the story, I can say that that impact extends to more than just those directly involved, too.
Morel is the main police protagonist, so we learn quite a bit about him. He is single, and lives with his ageing father Philippe, a former diplomat. On the one hand, the two sometimes irritate one another, as you can imagine. On the other, they also have a bond, and Morel really does care about his father. It can be a strain, though, since his father has occasional memory lapses and other sometimes-troubling signs of age. And Morel doesn’t exactly keep regular hours.
The story takes place mostly in Paris, although there is also a portion that takes place in Moscow. In both cases, the physical setting is depicted clearly. Also depicted are local cultures, daily life, and so on. Interestingly, there’s also some discussion of the way Paris has changed in the last few decades. Those two contexts form an important aspect of the novel.
The events at the core of the story – the ones that started it all, as the saying goes – are terribly sad. And it’s worth noting that in both cases, children are involved. Readers who prefer stories where children are not in harm’s way will want to know that. At the same time, this isn’t a physically gruesome story. Still, it isn’t one of those ‘happy ending’ stories where things will be all right again. There is a hint that things may work out for some of the characters, but it’s not a happy tale.
The Lying Down Room is the story of the impact of psychological trauma, even years later. It takes place in a distinctive Paris (and Moscow) setting, and features a close-knit team of investigators. But what’s your view? Have you read The Lying Down Room? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 29 February/Tuesday 2 March – The Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty
Monday 8 March/Tuesday 9 March – A Perfect Match – Jill McGown
Monday 15 March/Tuesday 16 March – Dissolution – C.J. Sansom