More Camus than Simenon, Philippe Claudel’s wrenching French mystery, By a Slow River, unfolds during and immediately after World War I, when a young girl is strangled and dumped in a rural canal. A village policeman recounts the bleak stories of everyone involved, looping back and forth through time to convey his Tragic View of Life. There’s the icy lawyer, doomed to solitude after his wife’s premature death; the corrupt and piggish judge, who gobbles boiled eggs while examining the corpse; the pretty schoolteacher, who unaccountably hangs herself. But the real subject, we gradually learn, is the narrator himself, whose perspective comes violently into question with the book’s grim final twists.

By a Slow River
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