REVIEW by Crystal Jeans


The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge

by Patricia Duncker

The Judge is Dominique Carpentier, a super-cool control freak irresistible to most men. Though you wouldn’t know this by her description in this novel – a tiny woman, ‘lizard-smooth’, in thick, black-framed glasses. Dominique is a ‘chasseuse de sectes’ (a sect hunter) and she is good at what she does.

The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge begins in a forest in France at the eve of the new millennium. Sixteen bodies are found in the snow, some of them children. A mass suicide. It’s an atmospheric beginning – the snow-topped pines, the frozen corpses, the hovering mist. The Judge, cold as the weather, arrives to take control of the investigation, with the help of the commissaire, André Schweigen, who, we later learn, is a sometime lover and totally obsessed with her. The dead are members of The Faith, an ancient sect made up of the wealthy and successful – Europe’s super-rich. Dominique suspects its leader is Friedrich Grosz, a talented composer in his sixties with shocking white hair, intense, soulful eyes and a powerful personality. Her attempts to interrogate him reveal a prickly mutual chemistry and before you know it they are cuddling in front of a log fire.

I like the Judge. It takes a while to get into her head – initially there is a large distance between protagonist and reader, one which never fully closes. But I didn’t mind this. I enjoyed her constant cool, and in fact, was quite disappointed when she went all gooey over the composer, who, though complex and charismatic and strong in his own way, turns into a wet, histrionic bore as soon as love arrives. I didn’t quite buy this grand love story element. Or maybe I just didn’t like it.

Patricia Duncker’s writing is sometimes sharp, sometimes lovely, and happily free of cliché. It is also overly descriptive, and there were many times when my eyes merely scanned over the paragraphs of gothic architecture and rustic scenery – the ‘ripening green’ of the vineyards, the sky, ‘torpid and veiled in milky cloud’. Pretty, yes, but there is too much of it. Perhaps if this were pure literary fiction I wouldn’t mind pondering over the landscape. But it’s not just literary fiction – it’s a mystery/crime novel, and quite a compelling one, and therefore I don’t want to spend pages arsing about with verbose description.

I understand why Duncker chose to write the book in this way. She is trying to rise above the genre, to give it some literary clout, and she mostly succeeds in doing this. The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge, though flawed, is a complex novel with many levels. It manages to play around with astronomy, Greek mythology, physics, classical opera, poetry, spirituality and theology. It is a book that asks questions – ultimately, the final show down is not between the composer and his judge, but between reason and faith.


previous review: The Best British Poetry 2011
next review: The Beautiful Indifference


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