"Brydon's provocative and unsettling first novel...is a remarkably assured debut by a gifted new writer."
--Publishers Weekly, STARRED review, Pick of the Week
"James Brydon's brilliant The Moment Before Drowning isn't an easy read. Not because of its style, which is sensuous and elegant, but because of its subject matter: the brutality behind war's front lines...After reading The Moment Before Drowning, dedicated readers might want to watch the award-winning docudrama The Battle of Algiers, which covers much of the same territory as Brydon's heart-wrenching novel."
--Mystery Scene Magazine
"An exploration of political oppression wrapped in a carefully constructed mystery. In Brydon's auspicious debut...the characters are alive and the mystery is mostly satisfying. An erudite and entertaining addition to the shelf."
"Brydon's The Moment Before Drowning is one of the season's most remarkable debuts and the launch of a complex and truly memorable protagonist, Captain Jacques le Garrec, a lion of the French Resistance, now disgraced by his intelligence service in Algeria and returned to his hometown in Brittany, where he's promptly charged with investigating a cold case murder. Le Garrec has stepped directly out of a Jean-Pierre Melville film and into a seaside murder mystery, a noir and ambiguous figure setting out to right wrongs in a world ever more unknowable."
--CrimeReads, included in 10 Debut Crime Novels to Read This July
"The Moment Before Drowning is a highly lyrical novel. Brydon's prose is exquisite, and he certainly knows how to set a scene."
--New York Journal of Books
Included in CBC Radio's The Homestretch's Fall 2019 Mystery Selections
"A stunning and intelligent debut novel; powerful, intense and raw."
"A skillfully constructed and absolutely riveting thriller of a novel by a genuine master of character and narrative driven storytelling, James Brydon's The Moment Before Drowning is an especially recommended addition to community library collections."
--Midwest Book Review
"Brydon packs in so much emotion, suspense, tension, and heartbreak. This story literally took my breath away...This author is one to be reckoned with and I hope his next literary work will be published soon. Most highly recommended."
--Marjorie's World of Books (blog)
"The ending, whilst not the one that might have been expected, is one that has occurred many times in literature of all kinds but it doesn't seem in any way hackneyed. This is because the author has taken the trouble to detail the psychology involved in the murder and convinces us that what happened was a consequence of an aspect of human nature that never changes."
--Crime Review (UK)
December 1959: A furious anticolonial war rages in Algeria. Captain Jacques le Garrec, a former detective and French Resistance hero, returns to France in disgrace. Traumatized after two years of working in the army intelligence services, he's now accused of a brutal crime.
As le Garrec awaits trial in the tiny Breton town where he grew up, he is asked to look into a disturbing and unsolved murder committed the previous winter. A local teenage girl was killed and her bizarrely mutilated body was left displayed on the heathland in a way that no one could understand.
Le Garrec's investigations draw him into the dark past of the town, still haunted by memories of the German occupation. As he tries to reconstruct the events of the murder, the violence of this crime and his recollections of Algeria intertwine, threatening to submerge him.
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About the Author
James Brydon grew up in North Shropshire, England, and studied English at Oxford. For over a decade, he has worked as a cryptic crossword setter. Under the name Picaroon, he sets two puzzles a month in the Guardian, and he compiles for the Spectator, the Times of London, and the fiendish Listener puzzle, drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as the films of Akira Kurosawa and the six-fold symmetry of snowflakes. He is fluent in French and Serbian, is currently polishing his German, and can hold a conversation in passable Chinese. He lives in St. Albans, England, with his wife and daughter. The Moment Before Drowning is his debut novel.
Read an Excerpt
December 12, 1959
I have been back in Sainte-Élisabeth only a few hours when Erwann arrives and batters on my door, his hands oblivious to the splinters, his memory haunted by a girl whose martyred body he cannot leave to the earth. It seems strange to be back in the town of my childhood among the gray stone houses that squat in the gloom beneath their slate roofs. Dominating everything around it, the church spire points up into the louring, falling night. Under a sky hanging pregnant with damp, I feel the trickle of the past seeping back into my mind.
Only two days earlier I had been flown back from Algeria to Paris on a military plane. I stood on the tarmac shivering in the weak sun, staring down at my dust-covered boots and watching twitches and spasms run across my hands. I tried to focus on the washed-out sky, the glitter of North African daylight, waiting for the rough hands of the soldiers who were escorting me to bundle me up the steps and push me through the plane door.
They didn't handcuff me but sat across from me warily, not knowing how to react. Some stared at me with suspicion in their eyes, others jostled and shoved me and spoke loudly of the fellagha they had shot and burned. The plane reeked of sweat and oil. One young soldier, a jagged scar running across his neck, looked for a long moment into the depths of my eyes. Then he leaned over and, without taking his gaze off me, slowly released a thread of saliva which spun down and landed on my boots. He spoke in a voice entirely calm, yet imbued with fury.
"It's people like you who are stopping us from ever winning this war. For every one of them we kill, we poison one hundred against us."
Then he turned away and began to write in his journal again, stopping briefly to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. He didn't even glance up as the plane rattled along the runway and lurched into the air. From the small oval window behind me, I peered down for the last time on the gorges of the Algérois hinterland, great ragged clefts ripped out of the rocks and plunging into realms of shadow between the majesty of the cliffs.
When we landed in Paris the sky was a dull pewter and rain drummed on the tarmac and bounced off the windows. The soldier whose spit had dried in a smear on my boots grabbed hold of my shoulder and forced me out of the plane and onto the soil of my homeland. He stared straight past me and into the mist. There wasn't a flicker of emotion in his face.
"I helped build a primary school out in Kabylia. Kids used to walk for miles to come and learn how to read and write French. Even the kids of the fellagha came running down from the mountains to sit in our classroom. We taught them to read La Fontaine and to sing the Marseillaise. I hope they crucify you."
For two days I sat in isolation in a military prison in Paris. I watched the sky lighten and darken in bruised patterns through the reinforced glass window. I watched the same tic pulse across my hands. I stared at the dust of Algeria that lay faintly on my boots. Sleep came only in brief moments and each time I woke I was soaked in sweat, my chest airless and heaving. I couldn't drag myself up from my bunk. I had seen enough prisoners to know the terror of captivity, the walls of the cell looming in front of you wherever you turn. The feeling of being buried. I wondered if I would panic, but I felt only a weird calm. There was nowhere I wanted to go, no life of my own from which I was suddenly severed. Even getting up and walking over to the cell door seemed to require an effort far beyond my strength.
Eventually I was brought into the dark, book-lined office of the examining magistrate. I looked up at him while he spoke but when I left the room five minutes later I couldn't remember his face at all. I just heard the clear tones of his voice resounding with a surprising gentleness in the quiet. He said that the preliminary hearing would take place next Friday, but that I was not required to spend the intervening time in detention.
"Where is your home, Capitaine le Garrec?"
Home? I had stopped renting my apartment in Paris over two years ago. There was only the old house that I grew up in, and which I had not even seen for years.
"Then you may return there, although I would ask you not to leave the town and must remind you that, should you fail to present yourself for the preliminary hearing, this may entail further criminal charges."
I nodded and that same afternoon found myself huddled in my army greatcoat at the Gare du Nord, clutching a tiny cloth bag which contained the few rags I had salvaged from Algeria and waiting for a train to take me into the wind-raked fields of Brittany. As the bus from Saint-Malo wound between the hedgerows, I stared through rain-spattered windows at miles of dead heather turning brown beneath the frost.
Sainte-Élisabeth is what I called home in the dim, forgotten days of my childhood, before disease and old age ate away at my parents while I was too far away to help or even watch. As I walk from the bus stop along familiar, deserted streets the sky seems enormous, bloated, and infinite, billowing over everything. I lose myself in swirls of gray; great, bulbous streaks of darkness; every possible permutation of impending rain. After two years in Algeria I can feel the Breton damp seeping into my body, chilling me, and the ice carried on the wind settling in my blood. Out by the sea, which I can perceive only as a howl frustrated by the rocks, the beam of the lighthouse flashes its warning into the encroaching dark: a fragile blade of light that swings away and is lost, only to return each time and abide in the blindness of the night.
The little house I grew up in gleams white, a miracle of human endeavor dwarfed by the leaden air all around. It seems strange to find it still standing after so many years. It should have been destroyed, broken down, and swallowed up like the past itself, to which it is an eerie monument. The time I lived here no longer exists. It disintegrated in the interrogation chambers of the service de renseignements in Algeria. The things I can remember about Sainte-Élisabeth seem alien, as if they had happened to someone else. Fragments of memory embedded in my brain like shrapnel from a bomb.
I open the door and step inside. The air is damp and frozen, but there is order here. Madame Gallier has performed her duties conscientiously. The floors are swept and clean. The grate sparkles. Books stand in order upon the shelves, seemingly untouched. Pots, pans, and plates sit frozen in kitchen cupboards. The circular oak table, around which we ate while the night came ever closer outside, remains where it always was by the kitchen door. There are no cobwebs. There is no soot or dirt. Robert has kept his promise and mowed the lawn and kept the hedges trimmed. There is an imitation of normality here. They have maintained a place where I should be able to live.
I leave the lights off and sit down on the sofa. The faint whiff of mildew floats up from the cushions beneath. I can't remember when I last ate, but I don't have the energy to look for food. I just let the chill breath of the air enfold me and watch the squares of the windows blackening as the daylight evaporates.
It is almost fully dark by the time the thud of blows on my door pulls me shivering out of my torpor. One of those intense nights that seem to flood in off the sea and drown the land is setting in. The sharp cracks of flesh and bone jarring on frozen wood seem amplified in the house's emptiness. For a second, the person staring at me as I open the door is unknown: dark curls of hair framing a tanned face, the chin held at a gently aristocratic angle, expressing the vaguest hint of superiority; a V-necked jumper sitting smartly beneath a tweed jacket; delicate, cultured fingers ending in long nails, like the hands of a guitarist. Then I reconstruct the face as I knew it fifteen years ago: Erwann Ollivier. For a moment he seems lost too. He gazes at me out of the darkness and searches for words. His chest heaves for breath and I realize later that he must have hastened and stumbled across the heather to get here as soon as he found out I had arrived. He must have felt the dead gorse scratch his legs and remembered how, months earlier, those same twigs and thorns had clutched the corpse of a girl murdered and dumped there on a winter's night like this one.
As soon as the recognition flashes in my eyes, he smiles and grips my arm warmly. I turn the lights on in the house. Groping for something familiar, I try to return his smile. Inside, he paces silently, seemingly incapable of giving voice to whatever thoughts had thrust him out into the hostile, wind-lashed evening and driven his legs over the wastes of the heathland to my door.
He has aged. My brain struggles for a second to translate the youthful, unlined face I remember into the care-worn, middle-aged man pacing restlessly before me. His jet-black curls are flecked with gray at the temples. The glasses are a little thicker, their glitter hiding the greenish glint of his eyes. The skin of his face seems pulled a little tighter, stretched taut as if it were shrinking. He always appeared weighed down by intellectual preoccupations. Now something heavier is lodged inside him. Something more burdensome and unsettling that exhausts his mind.
I find an old bottle of Calvados in one of the cupboards and give him a couple of shots. Blood rushes to his cheeks and his mouth finds words.
"Jacques ... I hope you don't mind me intruding like this. I heard you were coming. It was quite a story. Everybody heard ... I mean, you were always a story here in sleepy Sainte-Élisabeth, even twenty years ago. I remember you being spoken of as a hero. The finest flower of the Resistance! And then you went off to join the police force in Paris. A glorious figure, untainted by the sins of the past, setting out to forge a new dawn! And how did they bring you back? Skulking through the night, practically in chains. What happened in Algeria? I can't believe the things they're saying about you could be true. Whatever did they do to you out there?" There is a softness, a flutter of sorrow in his voice. I don't know what to tell him. The silence stretches out between us.
"It doesn't matter," he says finally. "I came about something else. There's something I need you to do. Because you're the only person who can do it. Everyone else has forgotten." He stops pacing and sits down in front of me. I have the sense that he has rehearsed these words many times in his own mind before uttering them. "But you're going to be here for a while, at least for a few days, and while you are, I want you to investigate a crime for me. It happened last winter, last February, while you were out in Algeria. A girl named Anne-Lise Aurigny. Did you read anything about it?"
I shake my head. Algeria was a vacuum. Nothing in, nothing out. My life was squeezed within the horizons of the hinterland around Algiers: dust scratching my skin and throat; every tree and patch of shade twisting, metamorphosing in front of my eyes to become cover for guerrilla katibas. In the basement rooms of al-Mazra'a where the service de renseignements did its work, no sound traveled in or out. The detainees' world shrank to the same four walls. Undimmed, lurid lightbulbs and cracked plaster. The screams stayed muffled in the earth. It was part of the technique of interrogation: a suspect must lose, as quickly as possible, whatever links attached him to his own life. In that realm — of family, comrades, home — his struggle made sense. Resistance was meaningful. It shaped his existence. Al-Mazra'a was an exercise in intensive forgetting. Blotting out all connection to the world of memory. Time seemed to distort. A detainee had no sense of how long he had been kept underground. Minutes swelled and stretched. Hours passed like days. There was nothing more for him than the few square meters of his cell, the interrogators, and the infinite recesses of his pain.
"I can't investigate any crimes. I'm not a detective anymore. I don't have any authority, and I'm under orders to remain in Sainte-Élisabeth until the tribunal. I'm afraid I can't help."
"Jacques, listen ..."
"I could even be arrested and returned to military prison in Paris."
Erwann smiles and the weariness seeps away from his face. This is how I remember him from when we were students in Paris: vigorous, intense, but with the weightless intensity of the intellectual whose dramas play out in some abstract realm within his own mind.
"I don't think that you, of all people, can possibly be afraid of getting arrested. The Gestapo didn't stop you joining the Resistance; I can't believe that our bureaucratic and humane police force could stop you from investigating this case. And I need you to find out what happened to Anne-Lise. Why something like that happened to her. Not only that: I think you need it too." He gestures around at the cold, immaculate house, at the dead fireplace and the books standing in their useless rows. "What are you going to do in here for the next days, or weeks, or however long it is, while you wait for the French judiciary to prepare its vengeance on you? Work on the technicalities of your defense? Lose yourself in some of the great literary and philosophical classics you admired in your youth? Meditate? Explore the possibilities of individual spirituality? Or just remember the past? Endlessly?"
I can hear the truth in what Erwann says. Everywhere I look, I see the same shadows. The air seems swollen with reproach. It was easier to stare at the walls of my cell. They were closer, blanker. A real prison. One which looks the same to everyone, not one that only I can see.
I want to be able to perceive the Sainte-Élisabeth of my childhood again, the pretty town made to seem tiny by the vast cradle of sea and sky. Yet nothing is innocent anymore. Wherever my gaze rests, the stain of memory falls across it. One moment the world looks pallid and distant, the next it looms in front of me with unbearable intensity.
I know this from Algeria: time seems infinite when you have only the same eternally resurrected memories to accompany you. A few days can stretch out limitlessly. Each hour is a wasteland.
Hours seeming like days. A bare lightbulb glaring at bare walls. Bloodstains only half scrubbed off the plaster. The smell: everything that oozes out of human bodies when they are broken and rotting. There are moments when the screaming that fills the rooms becomes something concrete. Something you can feel. A liquid. It drips into your throat and your chest bulges and heaves. It trickles into your body like poison. You could close your eyes and stop your ears but the cries have already leached into your brain and there they remain, corrosive and eternal, and your dreams are steeped in them.
"Okay. Tell me about Anne-Lise. Who was she?"
"Prosaically: she was a pupil of mine. I taught her philosophy. But that alone doesn't tell you what you need to know, what you'll need to understand to really see what was so uniquely horrible about her death. No, Anne-Lise was, or she seemed to be, something wonderfully pure. I know, I know: it sounds idiotically sentimental. But there was something almost otherworldly about her. Just being in the same room as her was, well ... She had an angelic quality. Ethereal. A kind of strange, luminous perfection that was ... I don't know. You'll see photographs of her. You can decide for yourself. I'm sure it sounds very farfetched: the way we transform people through the prism of absence and regret. But she was brilliant. No one could deny her that. One of the most gifted students to come through the lycée Jacques Cartier. She was going to prepare the entrance exams for the École normale. Following in our footsteps. Do you remember, Jacques? All those years ago? Some part of it must still live on in your mind, that first excitement upon contemplating the nature of being. Anne-Lise thought so beautifully. So clearly ..."
"Somebody killed her. Beat her. Stripped her and strangled her. Then laid her body down on the heather, out on the coast between Sainte-Élisabeth and le Boiledou. That was last winter, just as the snows were leaving."
"Didn't the police investigate?"
"Of course. Capitaine Lafourgue — you've heard of him?"
I nod. Like me, he'd been part of the maquis in the war and had joined the force during the purge. A new, clean generation of police was to be born in order to efface the shame of the past.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Moment Before Drowning"
Copyright © 2018 James Brydon.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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