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Mystery set in France (“..fate hung in the balance”)

8th December 2015

After the Crash by Michel Bussi, mystery set in France

A novel with a potentially promising story at its heart….


It is interesting how events in the news can make the plot in a novel feel larger than life. I read this book in the latter part of 2015 and it is a sobering thought how pertinent the story is to events that unfolded over the course of the year – the crash of a Germanwings plane into the side of a mountain (in the book a plane crashes into Mount Terri); and terrible shootings and murder in Paris on the 13.11.15, where the hunt for the perpetrators focussed for a while around the St Denis area of Paris (in the book Marc and Lylie hang out in St Denis, and a concert poster for the Charlelie Couture at the Bataclan was highlighted in the narrative). On the one hand it made for a slightly unnerving read; on the other, it significantly added to the reading experience. The year in the book 1998.

A plane crashes into Mount Terri in 1980. All passengers are killed apart from one small baby, found beside the wreckage of the plane. Two families – the Vitrals and the de Carvilles step forward to claim the child as their own. DNA testing may well be ubiquitous now, but in 1980 it was still being refined. So, this is the story of one little girl, with two given names, one from each family – Lyse-Rose and Emilie (called Lylie) – who, for various reasons, is stationed with the Vitral family, and grows up in that family, together with the other child in the household, Marc, perhaps her brother. There is always some doubt hovering about her provenance, so these two young people are thrown together and almost have to dance around each other because they are not certain of the relationship – if they are true blood relatives, society dictates they must behave in a certain way; if they are not, then they would have more freedom to explore and develop a unique relationship. The uncertainty leaves them in limbo.

There has to be a definitive answer, believe the de Carvilles, who pay a handsome yearly retainer to PI Crédule Grand-Duc, “a patient, stubborn, meticulous man” to get to the bottom of the mystery. It is through his journal of the unfolding discoveries that we learn more of the background to the events – he is almost like an Alfred Hitchcock figure lurking in the wings, disseminating information for the benefit of all involved (including us, the readers). This gives the book a stagey set piece feel at times, which can feel a little constricting.

I began this review saying that this was a book with a potentially good story at its heart. Indeed, this is the case. But does the author fully develop the story? Sadly, to my mind, he does not. He relies on worn techniques to keep the suspense going – characters plough through their own sub-plots and play the waiting game (too obviously) wilfully guarding their pertinent revelations that could push the story forward at a potentially cracking pace; Marc waits a lengthy time in Paris to depart for Rouen (his wait goes on for many a page), and then the train journey itself is interminable. There are preposterous happenings, and the rich and poor families are caricatures of, well, rich and poor people. Each chapter is headed with a date and time – tick, tick – and these serve to underline the building tension (more like ennui), emphasising that time really isn’t passing that fast for the characters, let alone for the reader. Marc has to contact hospitals (there are a 100 or so) to discover information.. ennui; a blue envelope contains a message, but it’s not opened because the secret cannot yet be revealed .. ennui. And even Grand-Duc at one point says “I know you’ve had enough of me rambling on. You’re sick of my methods, the endless  descriptions of my moods, all these clues lead nowhere”. Well, yes, indeed, a pertinent observation.

Location, however, is good, the landscape from Paris, down through France to the Swiss/French border is well portrayed, the little villages, the characters – indeed, the book in its English translation, has a very French feel, all credit to Sam Taylor, the translator. Paris, with the Rue Jean-Marie-Jégo, the Butte-aux-Cailles ” a picture postcard little street“.. is attractively described and these are on my list to visit when I am next in Paris.

In conclusion, the story could have been so much more, there could have been deeper insight into the effect of the split identity had on the psychology of family members living with deep doubt for 18 years. But any subtle psychological exploration gets glossed over in the convoluted gun toting and chunks of diary gazing. Readable and, at times, gripping, but not unputdownable. Too much ennui at Mount Terri for my taste.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

You can follow author Michel Bussi via his website

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