The victims identity is soon discovered to be that of an inmate at the prison, though he hasn’t been reported missing from there and he is also the father of Clotilde-ma-Fleur, the French wife of the American writer Shem Rosenkrantz who has come to the village to write in peace and quiet. It is only after moving to Verargent that Clotilde discovers that her father, who she has not seen since she was a little girl, is housed at Malniveau. When Clotilde disappears and the bodies of other inmates float out of the ground in a farmer's field during the continuing deluge of rain, Pelleter must solve the murder and try and find out who is behind the killings of other inmates.
Winter has managed to capture the style of the prolific Simenon in using many of what were to become standard tools of the trade in crime fiction. Pelleter doggedly follows the clues using a mix of scientific and police procedure (door to door canvassing, questioning of witnesses, the tedious examination of records and files), as well as intuition, logic, and the process of elimination. In addition he gets inside the heads of the characters to ascertain their motives, including those of the author, Rosenkrantz, singularly self absorbed, but madly (perhaps too madly) in love with and protective of his new bride; the killer Mahossier, with his psychotic crimes; the local police; and business people. He follows many dead ends and pursues red herrings--the disappearance of a group of young boys, the possibility of Rosenkrantz involvement in the disappearance of his wife and how that could tie into the stabbed inmates--and meets many physical and mental challenges, seemingly from both good guys and bad guys, until he is finally able to solve a puzzling case.
This first ‘book’ of the trio is totally satisfying and stands on its own two feet. It captures the voice of Simenon perfectly and if left unsigned and stashed in Simenon’s notes could easily have passed as his own work. Indeed, Winter could have stopped here and spent the next decade or two writing Pelleter novels to the utter delight of crime fiction fans everywhere. The plot is masterfully drawn and the sense of place as well as place in time, are wonderful. The characters, both in the French villagers and , the American Rosenkrantz and the melodramatic Clotilde are an achievement. Having succeeded so far, Winter then turns his hand to Raymond Chandler.
To be sure, Raymond Chandler is probably the most important and most copied writer in crime fiction. Many worthy writers have tried to capture that same style--the use of language, his sharp lyrical similes, and some of the finest dialog ever written in any genre. Most have failed. Most end up with parody and pastiche or at best works that are successful but pale in comparrison. Chandler (in his own words) took “a cheap, shoddy, and utterly lost kind of writing, and made of it something that intellectuals claw each other about.” Winter will have Chandler fans giggling with glee and those same scholars tearing their hair out. His detective, Dennis Foster could be a drinking buddy of Phillip Marlowe’s. It’s not hard to picture them playing chess, chasing the same women. They are both loners, both ex-cops. Both oh so quotable.