The Moment Before Drowning

Written by James Brydon
Review by Larry Zuckerman

When Captain Jacques le Garrec returns to his native Brittany in December 1959, his arrival creates a stir, as a former Resistance hero and police detective, a local boy who made good. But he’s been brought back to France to face accusations regarding his interrogations of suspected terrorists in the colonial war in Algeria. In the days preceding his legal hearing, an old friend, a teacher, has asked him to investigate the death and mutilation of a female student, which the police couldn’t solve.

Brydon handles the mystery cleverly, casting suspicion here, then there. But the greater pleasure of this fine debut novel derives from the parallel narratives of the torture cells in Algeria and the murder investigation, a juxtaposition that asks what purpose law and its enforcement actually serve. The local police inspector’s bilious contempt for the dead girl makes him sound much like le Garrec’s former superior in Algeria talking about Arabs; and, like him, the inspector wields violence as if it were a plaything. With his petty ego, barely repressed rage, and unsatisfied desire, the inspector is a good foil for le Garrec and would fit right in as a colonist.

The prose vividly re-creates the Breton coast as well as the torture chambers (be warned), though Brydon mostly lets social attitudes portray the era. Sometimes the characters expound rather than talk, especially at the beginning, which has “exposition” written all over it. More serious, I think, is how the author rushes through a few key emotional transitions, as if he were afraid to linger. Even so, these are faults of many first novels. I recommend The Moment Before Drowning, which should please readers of historical mysteries, especially those who like their stories character-driven.