When Commandant Michel de Palma follows an anonymous tip-off to a gated mansion by the coast, he finds a body whose face is obscured by a fearsome tribal mask, beneath it a mysterious wound that could not have been caused by a bullet. Surrounded by scores of masks and painted skulls, de Palma hears the haunting strains of a primal flute from the floors above. With few leads to go on, de Palma delves into an account of the murdered doctor’s voyage to Papua New Guinea seventy years earlier, accompanied by a fellow amasser of Oceanic art, Robert Ballancourt. As the doctor’s attractive but distant granddaughter offers de Palma further insights into her grandfather’s second life as an intrepid collector, he and his team stumble upon an art-smuggling ring working out of Marseilles’ dilapidated docks. But when his chief suspect is found dead, killed by the same method as Dr Delorme, even de Palma begins to wonder whether the bodies on his hands are the victims of spirits intent on revenge…
Opening with the steamy and luscious surrounds of 1930‘s Papua New Guinea in the company of artefact seekers and then transporting us to modern day Marseilles, Bonnot has constructed a thriller that is not only thoughtful and intelligent but demonstrates an exceptional attention to detail. The murders in the contemporary story are committed in the traditional style of the head-hunters of New Guinea which does make for interesting interludes for exploring the anthropological history and tribal ceremonies of this region with much pursuing of sacred skulls, and the tracking of a killer well-versed in these traditional hunting methods, as the sins of the past impact on the present.
The main plot is driven and shaped by the razor-sharp detection of the utterly charming Commandant Michel de Palma. De Palma is a detective fuelled by logic and rational reasoning but this leaves him open to try and conduct his personal affairs with the same thought processes instead of acting impetuously in his pursuit of the buxom beauty Eva from the bakery – but will his tentative approach eventually pay off? His police counterparts are also extremely well drawn and I particularly like the relationship between himself and Maistre who himself likes nothing better than donning his housewife’s apron and preparing (admittedly frozen) meals for his friend and boss even if de Palma does chide him for dressing up like his Nan to do this.
The only bone of contention with me was the sometimes clunky translation from the original French where very modern English colloquialisms sit uneasily beside translations like ‘Hop it’. I don’t think I have heard anyone say “Hop it” apart from Dixon of Dock Green and Stanley Holloway as a chirpy Cockney character in the 1950’s so these incidents of idiomatic irregularity were slightly irritating. However, this is not the only translated crime fiction where this is a problem and did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the book and the pleasure gained from the backdrop of history that Bonnot provides along with a fascinating and twisting murder plot peopled by some great characterisation.
(Thanks to MacLehose for the advance reading copy)