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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Le Crime, by Peter Steiner (trade, $13.95) (apa A French Country Murder, c2003)

This is a magical book in which the main character, Louis Morgon, an American living in a small French village, circles and dances, both figuratively and physically, his way through the chaos of the universe toward the center of who he is.

If this sounds to you less like a mystery than a philosophical exploration, then you have it in one.

Louis has felt throughout most of his adult life that very little is within his control. In the 1960s, from the peak of an elite education, academic favor, and influential government posts, Louis is suddenly tossed aside, discredited, and alienated further from a family to which he's never felt connected.

As he bumbles around, trying to patch his life back together, he travels to France with the idea that he will make a pilgrimage from Paris to Spain. Walking directly from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, through little villages, and across streams and stopping at churches, not to pray but to wonder, Louis re-creates himself. He heads home to the U.S., jettisons his job, his wife, and his children and returns to the village of Saint Leon sur Dême.
"In his mind, time and space had merged. He walked across the changing face of France, as if his walking were the motion of time, as if time would stop if he were to stop. He was spinning out a silken cord as he walked further and further from equipoise. In his mind, this point of balance, this his own personal version of magnetic north, slowly consolidated and came to be located exactly on the square in the village of Saint Leon sur Dême on the night of the Festival of Music."
In a moment of perfect, inexplicable alignment of events, Louis finds joy at the Festival of Music, a night when cities, towns, and villages all over France dance the night away. With regret but without doubt, Louis leaves his past beind. In passages reminiscent of a travelogue, Louis's new life embraces good food, beautiful scenery, and an embracing albeit eccentric, community. He is living la bonne vie.

Until the dead body appears on his doorstep thirty years later.

Although it has been about thirty-five years since Louis worked for the CIA and had any contact with his former colleagues at the State Department, Louis is certain the body has something to do with his former life. In a leap of intuition that intentionally leaves the reader scratching la tête, Louis tells Renard, the local police officer and his friend, that the U.S. Secretary of State is out to get him. Then Louis proceeds to track down the proof. Renard (and we) think he is fou-fou. It isn't until much later that Louis himself questions his quest:
"And mightn't he be just as wrong? From the sparse facts of the matter – that a body had been left on his doorstop – he had spun out what must certainly appear to most rational minds to be a preposterous scenario …"
Louis had begun his self-exile in France because order could not be restored to the chaos his life had become in the U.S. Betrayed by someone in government and cuckolded by his wife, Louis can make no sense of his life and abandons all his responsibilities. In France, he learns how to paint and cook. He watches the seasons change from his patio.

Although his own life was in chaos, he suspects he was the victim of cosmic order and knew he must wait for cosmic chaos to free him. But in the meantime, in France, Louis hardly suffers from his existential dilemma. After he learns of yet another death, which he intuits is another piece in the puzzle, he must quietly persevere in the face of absurdity. The more absurd the answer to the murders, the more sense he makes of his past.

This book is not for everyone. Even though it is billed as a "thriller," it is not. But if you approach it with the right frame of mind – open – it is thoughtful and strange and quite beautiful.

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