The wife of an American expatriate is killed under mysterious circumstances. Is revenge in order? That’s the question posed by Just (An Unfinished Season, 2005, etc.) in his thought-provoking novel.
An injured Frenchwoman is being carried down the Pyrenees by four stretcher-bearers. Florette has spent all her 54 years in the village below, but the men are not locals. Smugglers? Refugees? They’re on a mission and Florette, met by chance, is a distraction. They cut her throat and abandon her. She will be found by her husband, Thomas Railles, an older American, a portrait painter, and his lifelong friends Bernhard and Russ, CIA field operatives who have used Thomas to do small jobs, nothing violent. Good detective work and Franco-American cooperation lead to the arrest of the four in Le Havre. They are Islamists and mercenaries. Thomas reluctantly watches their interrogation through a two-way mirror. Their leader, Yussef, is Moroccan. A younger guy (his son?) is beaten bloody with bastinados. Thomas spends time alone with Yussef and is tempted, momentarily, to use the bastinado himself. These 40 pages are the heart of the novel, and they’re superb—as suspense, as theater, as psychological warfare. Thomas concludes that seeing his wife’s killers has not helped him. The story winds down with Thomas living alone in Maine. The author is as seductive a raconteur as ever: companionable and worldly in an unaffected way. Many elements are familiar from his past work: the American painter living in France (Ambition and Love, 1994), the spies and secrets (take your pick). The big secrets here involve Thomas’s neighbor, an ancient Englishman who was a WWI deserter, and a Spanish communist probably killed on Bernhard’s orders (Thomas feels complicit). What’s new is a sharper tone regarding the US, which Bernhard sees as “spoiled, peevish.” A blind 9/11 casualty is also a loudmouth and bully, starting a fight in the village café; the Englishman’s great-niece is a hard, flag-waving American matron.
A novella enlarged beyond its natural length, but still vintage Just.