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The Murdered House: A Mystery by Pierre Magnan
Cover Artist: David Baldeosingh Rotstein
Review by Don Metzler
Minotaur Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312367206
Date: 10 November 2009 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

The Alps of Upper Provence, a coaching inn, 28 September 1896, St. Michael’s Eve

Monge was on his guard. It was one of those nights when you know you have to be on the alert in these parts if you want to avoid unpleasant surprises. It was a night when you hold your breath, when anything can happen.

Seen from outside, shining in the moonlight and still wet with the recent rain, La Burliere was a house with few windows and straight walls built with pebbles from the Durance. The stables underneath extended further than the main building, out into the sulphurous zaffre rock from which they had been excavated. The horses inside were bathed in golden light from the oil lamps.

Three men crouched in the shadows between the harness shed and the carriage cemetery, with its broken shafts and rimless wheels. They had been huddled together there for quite a while.

“Do you think they’ll ever go to bed?”

“Yes, eventually.”

Then an amazing sound came through the roar of the Durance as it swept its gravel downstream. Piercing the storm that was wringing the branches of the pines and holly-oaks with its doleful moan, the bell in the priory high above on the Ganagobie plateau began to ring for matins. This simple ringing of a bell that could cut across the raging elements reminded the three men that they had no time to lose.

Pressed close against each other like one single body for mutual strength, the three of them rushed toward the house. In the moonlight, the blades of their cobblers’ knives seemed to be carried by a single arm.

1919 was a dismal year in France, and in particular for the region of Provence. Seraphin Monge has returned from the battlefields of the Great War, returned to a home that he had never known existed. Now twenty-three years old, Seraphin learns of the inheritance that has been held in trust for him since early childhood. It consists of a few hundred francs, and a stone house called La Burliere that had been abandoned in the 1890s.

Having been raised by nuns in an orphanage, and with no prior knowledge of where he actually came from, Seraphin is puzzled by the way that the local citizens seem to avoid him, and by their reluctance to talk to him. Then one day the truth is finally revealed to him by an old man named Burle.

Seraphin, as a weeks-old infant child, was the sole survivor of a gruesome murder that took place within the walls of La Burliere 23 years earlier. His father, mother, grandfather, and two older brothers were all found with their throats slit, their blood spattered across the mute stone walls. Only the child Seraphin, hungry and wailing in his cradle, was spared during this massacre. Three foreigners who had been working in the area were accused of the crime and guillotined. But as Seraphin learns more details of the event, it begins to seem likely that the wrong men may have been convicted.

Unable to deal with the massive emotional burden of having suddenly learned that he is the only surviving member of his family, a family that until now he never knew had existed, something snaps inside Seraphin. He goes out to the house at La Burliere and silently looks it over. Then all at once he understands what he must do to preserve his sanity. Stone by stone, he begins to tear the house down, his ultimate goal to completely obliterate this symbol of his murdered family. The progress is slow, because he can only work at it on Sundays, his day off from his job as a road mender. But Seraphin is doggedly determined. As the months go by, it becomes apparent that he will eventually achieve his wish of reducing the structure to its very foundation.

Several prominent local citizens begin to feel nervous about Seraphin and his demolition project, particularly the miller Didon Sepulcre, the baker Celestat Dormeur, and former blacksmith Gaspard Dupin, who by now has become one of the wealthiest men in the region. Why are these men nervous? Are they afraid that there may be secrets buried within the walls of the house at La Burliere? Secrets that Seraphin Monge may unwittingly uncover?

The Murdered House is another masterpiece of intrigue from the consummate storyteller, Pierre Magnan. Magnan’s narrative is rich with not only the flavor of the rural settings of Provence, but also with the brooding, fatalistic mood of post WWI France. The teenage daughters of Sepulcre and Dormeur enter into an intense competition for Seraphin’s attentions, because there are so few eligible young men who have returned safely from the trenches. Dupin’s son Patrice, who was hideously maimed during the war, also seeks out Seraphin’s friendship. He considers himself and Seraphin to be brothers under the skin; one is irreparably scarred on the outside, the other scarred on the inside.

The conclusion of The Murdered House is unexpectedly complex, ambiguous even, which is in perfect harmony with the frequently ambiguous thread of the story. The reader may want to peruse the last few pages two or three times before deciding how he or she wants to interpret the ending.

While Patricia Clancy’s translation from the French is very good, it is occasionally uneven, and slightly less lyrical than her translation of Magnan’s earlier novel, Death in the Truffle Wood. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that while Death in the Truffle Wood was the earlier book (1978, whereas The Murdered House originally appeared in 1984) this 1999 translation of The Murdered House was done several years prior to that of Death in the Truffle Wood.

But don’t let this very minor caveat stop you from picking up The Murdered House. It is an absorbing story with fascinating characters and vivid historical and regional backdrops, and enough twists of plot to keep the reader guessing all the way through.

Heartily recommended.

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