The Cemetery of Swallows by Mallock

2 Mins read

Translated by Steven Rendall — Don’t you just love novels which begin with a nearly impossible set-up… and somehow find a way of resolving it? Set-ups don’t get much more implausible than this. Manuel Gemoni, a fairly well-adjusted young Frenchman with a charming wife and baby, suddenly sets off for the Dominican Republic. While there, he stalks and shoots an old man whom he hates with all his heart. The only problem is he doesn’t know why he does it. Under police questioning all he can say is: ‘I killed him because he had killed me.’

Superintendant Mallock has been assigned to bring back Gemoni back to France to stand trial after negotiating the tricky waters of extradition. However, he has a secondary agenda too. The young man is the brother of Captain Julie Gemoni, one of his most reliable team members, and Manuel had no previous record of violence. On the contrary, he was a model of balance and moderation. Mallock is determined to prove his innocence and find out just what really happened in the lead-up to the killing.

Yet the eminently practical, logical and every so slightly misanthropic detective discovers that European logic and a love of rational explanations are not going to be enough to solve the mystery. He uncovers a complex history going back to the Dominican dictator Trujillo and his team of professional torturers, as well as links to the SS in Nazi Germany. Given the old man’s age, could he possibly have been involved in both? But, in that case, what would link Gemoni to attrocities that happened before he was even born? It is hugely to the author’s credit that, although there are plenty of supernatural elements to the story including hints about reincarnation, he comes up with a solution that will satisfy even the most demanding crime fiction fan.

The first half of the book takes place in the stifling heat and chaos of the jungles in the Dominican Republic, while the second half returns to the worst snowstorm in Paris in decades. The author Mallock is also an artist, designer and photographer, and this shows in his extremely evocative descriptions of the contrasting settings. This book is all about gut reaction and emotions, rather than conveying a socio-political message, but as we unravel this multi-layered story, we also come across an interesting array of characters. Amédée Mallock has surrounded himself with a very capable team in his Fort Mallock headquarters at 36, Quai des Orfevres (the Parisian equivalent of Scotland Yard), a team he compares to the fingers of his hand. Yet he himself remains somewhat enigmatic and aloof. He’s a grumpy bear of a man, very hard-working and demanding professionally, yet still very vulnerable emotionally after the death of his son and partner.

You may have noticed that the main character and the author have an identical name, which is confusing, but fear not! The author is actually called Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol and he originally conceived of Mallock as a completely contrasting alter-ego and secondary character in one of his works dating from 2000. However, both he and his readers became rather attached to this character, so he became the hero of the crime novels and, for the sake of simplicity, it seemed easier to just use the same name as a pseudonym.

Though Nazi war horrors aren’t fresh territory by any means, and Mallock’s spiritual quest in the jungle adds little to the story, The Cemetery of Swallows is a captivating and unusual read. If you love the quirkiness of Fred Vargas or the supernatural tinge to John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series, you will be entertained by this crime novel, the first by this author to be translated into English.

World Noir

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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