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by Xavier-Marie Bonnot and Ian Monk, trans.
Quercus, May 2008
341 pages
16.99 GBP
ISBN: 1847243525

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This is the first book in a series featuring Marseilles detective, Commandant Michel de Palma.

De Palma, fast approaching retirement, is an old-style policeman who thinks nothing of scandalizing younger officers by beating up suspects, and he also quite happily ignores the dictates of his superiors on the subject of which cases he should be pursuing.

Bonnot skillfully weaves the strands of prehistory through the book as de Palma struggles to make the connection between a series of brutal, ritualistic murders linked by a print of a three-fingered hand, in ochre, left by the bodies, and the nearby Le Guen's Cave. The cave contains many prehistoric paintings, and can now only be approached underwater due to rising sea levels. It has also seen the deaths of three divers during the initial investigations following its discovery.

De Palma attempts to find a link between the death of Christine Autran, a prehistorian obsessed with Le Guen's Cave, and that of an open-water diver with links to Marseilles's other underworld, this time in the criminal sense. The book is complex and at times its twist and turns became somewhat confusing. The denouement, when it arrived, made me go back to earlier chapters to see if I had missed some clues en route.

The author's note at the beginning of the books states that some sections will probably bring a smile to the lips of specialists in prehistory or members of the Marseilles murder squad and he wasn't wrong. Whilst I lay no claim to knowledge of the works of the latter, I do have some experience of the former, and I noticed two simple errors of fact very early on in the book, one of which can probably be laid at the door of the translator. For the record, prehistoric man did not live in the caves that they spent so much time decorating. In addition the correct translation of the word 'pingouin' is actually auk, not penguin. They are different types of bird entirely, although the mistake can probably be laid at the door of the same mistranslation which appeared in early reports of the discovery of Cosquer Cave, on which the fictional Le Guen's Cave is based. This mistranslation still causes confusion, even now.

Leaving such details aside, this is a complex and interesting book, which held my attention. It won't cause too many howls of outrage from cavers or prehistorians, although I can't speak for the reaction of any Marseilles detectives who make its acquaintance. De Palma is the usual flawed personality, but he never descends too far into stereotype and, on the showing of this book, I will be quite happy to seek out his further adventures.

Reviewed by Linda Wilson, January 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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