This is my review of Nympheas noirs by Michel Bussi.
This French detective thriller-cum psychological drama has the alluring setting of Giverny, the location of Monet’s famous garden and, as we are made to reflect, the tourist-ridden village which has become for some inhabitants a kind of prison, or framed picture from which they cannot escape.
The enigmatic opening chapter is from the viewpoint of the anonymous eighty-something widow, the “sorceress” who inhabits one of the real buildings mentioned in the tale, the timber-framed “moulin des Chennevières” which may be seen on “Street View” with its distinctive “donjon” tower. She introduces us in an intriguing prophecy to the three females round whom the story revolves: herself, the talented young eleven-year-old painter Fanette Morelle and the beautiful thirty-something teacher with an interest in art, Stéphanie Dupain.
Much of the tale is concerned with the murder of Jérome Môrval, a wealthy eye specialist, connoisseur of art and serial philanderer whose body is found on the edge of the millstream near the rows of poplars made famous by Monet. This is absorbing with some entertaining sparring between the detective duo of the intuitive, charismatic Laurenç Sérénac, and his painstaking sidekick Sylvio Bénavides, the fascinating nuggets of information about Monet, such as his order for a tree he had commenced painting in the winter to be denuded of leaves by hand so that he could finish the work in summer, and a skilful bamboozling of the reader right up to the final major and highly original twist, which I did not see coming. So, having thought at times that I was reading a kind of French “Midsomer Murders”, the denouement forced me into a radical reconsideration of all that had gone before.
For a non-French reader, this is accessible and enjoyable, with just the right level of idioms and unfamiliar words to give the sense of improving one’s skill in the process of reading a page turner. I trust that the English translation due in June 2016 will capture the features which set this novel apart.