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Georges Bernanos: Un Crime (US: A Crime: UK: The Crime)

To please his publisher and to make some money – he was perpetually broke – Bernanos set out to write a detective novel. He sort of succeeded but this novel, while it has murder (four dead, two definitely murdered and two either suicides or murder with a fifth just about to occur as the novel ends) and while it has a detective (or, to be specific, a juge d’instruction, the judicial authority that conducts a pre-trial investigation in France), it is much more than a straight murder story. Indeed, depending on how you look at it, it can be seen as a tragedy, a family dispute gone drastically wrong or even a spiritual quest.

The story starts with the arrival of a new priest to the village of Mégère, his predecessor having died. He arrives late at night, by a roundabout way, having had transport problems, as he explains to his servant, Céleste. After chatting a bit with Céleste, he goes to bed. However, he wakes her up in the night, saying that he had heard a shot and some screams. She had heard nothing. However, he persuades her to sound the alarm and the mayor and some other local men, reluctantly, go looking. They soon find a body of a well-dressed but barefoot young man. (It turns out that he is not dead but he does later die without fully recovering consciousness.) He has been shot in the chest. The body is found on the grounds of the local château and the mayor goes to warn Madame Beauchamp, the owner of the château. He finds that she is also dead, having been hit over the head. Her papers are scattered around the room. Her servants had heard nothing.

At this point the juge d’instruction, Mr. Frescheville but constantly referred to as the little judge, takes over. He has the roads watched and checks to see if any strangers have been seen. The local drunk thinks he might have seen a woman from a distance but he is not sure and his testimony is discounted (wrongly, of course). No other stranger has been seen. The next of kin is the great-niece of Madame Beauchamp but she has never met Madame Beauchamp (who did not get on with the great-niece’s father) and lives with a female companion, spending her time on good works. Meanwhile the juge d’instruction is coming down with flu. (Bernanos uses this so that the judge can discuss the case with the doctor.) The priest suddenly disappears as does his choirboy assistant. It soon becomes clear, of course, that things are not as they seem, that there is some messy family history involving Madame Beauchamp and her relatives and that the priest is somehow involved. It all ends rather tragically but the flu-ridden, somewhat matter-of-fact judge, the typical ignorant country cop, the guilt-ridden choirboy and, above all, the priest who struggles with his conscience make for a very fine story indeed and one that is very well told by Bernanos.

Publishing history

First published 1935 by Plon
First published in English 1936 by E P Dutton