The initial crime scene of Anna Jaquiery’s debut novel The Lying-Down Room presents an eerie and grotesque picture of an elderly Parisian woman, dead, securely tucked into bed wearing a chaste night gown, a garish red wig, and a ton of clownish make-up: “The closed lids caked in blue eye shadow. Her lipstick overlapped the shape of her lips, making them look like they had been surgically enhanced. Her cheeks wore bright circles of pink and the foundation across her face was thickly applied, spread unevenly across the wrinkly, parchment-like skin.”
Commandant Serge Morel and his team are called to the scene of the crime, and enter the world of a psychological maze, where the two key suspects – an unknown man and a boy with a particularly strange religious fervour – remain elusive and enigmatic right until the final chapters of the novel. As Morel’s hunt for the two suspects expands, the narrative takes us from hot, dusty Paris to the small-town French sea side, and across the continent to Russia, in the search for a past which could explain the motif and plausibility of the suspected killers.
The Lying-Down Room is Anna Jaquiery’s first novel, and she sure packs in a lot of detail, characters and sub-plots. The description of urban Paris and provincial Russia – although subtly conveyed – deliver an insidious sense of place, where the reader can virtually feel the close, baking heat of a Paris summer, or the claustrophobic winter interior of a Russian apartment.
As a new addition to the plethora of serial crime-fighting protagonists, Commandant Serge Morel is an interesting character – less interesting in some ways when the narrative describes his own thoughts, than when you see him through the eyes of the other characters. He nevertheless displays some of the trademarks of the solid, crime-fighting hero, who has just enough of his own personal problems to confront alongside the crime investigation. However, the characterisations that really stand out in The Lying-Down Room are those of the “man and the boy”, Armand and César, whose story is told with compassion and a constant and escalating sense of foreboding.
There is a lot to like about The Lying-Down Room. The pace of the book picks up from about half way through, when the switching between the different narratives and characters simply makes for compulsive reading, right until the end, which – without giving anything away – presents a unique and thought-provoking conclusion, avoiding predictability or neatly tied-up assumptions. Anna Jaquiery and the Commandant Morel series are definitely on the list of bright, new things to watch out for in crime writing.