Death on Bastille Day by Pierre Siniac, translated by John Pugmire
Originally published in 1981 as Un assassin, ça va, ça vient
English translation first published in 2022
It is the night of July 14th—Bastille Day—and in a house in Esbly, sixty kilometres from Paris, owned by Camille Feuillard, his ex-mistress is heard screaming his name as three bullets are fired into her skull at midnight, her body is seen being hoisted onto a hook in the ceiling, and her photograph flung to the ground and smashed.
Meanwhile, in Place de la Bastille in Paris, Camille is seen by reliable witnesses dancing with a redhead non-stop for an hour and a half, starting well before midnight.
Under intense questioning, Feuillard proclaims his innocence and cites his cast iron alibi. However, when drunk or injected with a truth serum, he describes murdering his ex-mistress, down to the last detail.
What is the truth? Is he schizophrenic? How can he have been in two places at once? Was he framed? If so, how and by whom?
I read Pierre Siniac’s Death on Bastille Day a couple of weeks ago, neglecting to make any notes as I read with the intention that I would post my thoughts pretty soon thereafter. Inevitably the demands of real life got in the way of those plans, keeping me from getting around to it until now, several books later and with the memory already fading a little (this is not a reflection of the quality of the book but rather how busy I have been). In normal circumstances I’d probably skip doing a write-up at all but as there do not seem to be any English language reviews of this title to date, I felt I ought to post something to get the conversation started and at least make readers aware that this book is out there.
The novella, a translation of Pierre Siniac’s Un assassin, ça va, ça vient, introduces us to Camille Feuillard who runs the Paris Porno theater where he stages elaborate erotic tableaux. These, it should be stressed, are referenced but not described and so his profession is used to illustrate his character rather than for the titillation of the reader.
Feuillard is something of an aging playboy, having had a string of mistresses over the years. He has recently become smitten with a seventeen year old and has ended things on rather bad terms with his previous mistress, Lise. The latter is convinced that Feuillard intends to kill her to ensure a completely clean break and talks with a friend about her desire to take action before he does to prevent it.
As it happens Lise is fated to die, being found brutally murdered in one of Camille’s houses in the French countryside some sixty miles outside of Paris. Camille would be the obvious suspect having been identified both by a witness and also by the deceased woman in her dying cries yet he happens to have an unbreakable alibi: at the time of the murder he was seen by multiple witnesses dancing in the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris. Both witnesses were close enough to see him clearly and knew him well enough to be certain of their identification.
Complicating matters, it seems that when Camille is drunk and later, when submitted to a truth serum, he will describe the murder in vivid and accurate detail. Under these influence he will admit to committing the crime but cannot explain how he could have managed to appear to be in two places at once and then, when sober, he reiterates his clear alibi.
At this point I will say that had this novella simply relied on the initial problem I am not sure that I would have found the case that intriguing. After all, it is quite easy to think that such a case could well boil down to the simple explanation that someone lied or was mistaken, though Siniac does at least provide multiple witnesses to make that less likely. It is the additional complication of the admissions of guilt that adds interest to the case, making it a little more complex while really driving home that there is something more to the problem than a bit of dodgy testimony.
The other thing that I think helps sell this problem is that later in the novella Siniac allows us to follow the two witnesses as they make serious and apparently sincere efforts to prove their claims. If we accept that they are acting in good faith and that there will be some complex explanation for the affair, the situation becomes significantly more interesting. For the most part I think Siniac delivers on that promise here.
I think Siniac also does a solid job of creating a cast of pretty credible characters for his story. Camille is certainly a vibrant character with a striking (if not particularly pleasant) personality and I really liked the pair of young witnesses and enjoyed how they come together to try to prove his innocence. A few of the other important characters do not stand out quite so much but I think the author does a good job of efficiently conveying their backgrounds, personalities and relationships to the other characters.
I was less enamored however of the more characters who are tasked with investigating the crime. That is not a reflection of their personalities which are similarly colorful, particularly the former private investigator who is desperate to get his license back, but that I feel that they are used in an overly functional way. On a few occasions, I felt that their choices were not grounded in their personalities but rather the needs of the story, particularly in the passages that give us that additional complication of the confession.
The other issue I have with in connection with that behavior is that I find the truth serum element of the plot a little hard to take with the seriousness I believe Siniac means us to. Leaving aside the question of whether such an action would be ethical (for the record: it’s not), my problem here is that I don’t believe such methods actually work to create the sort of credible, indisputable testimony needed to sell the impossibility. Clearly from the context of this story, Siniac believes that we should treat it as such but to me it feels a little ridiculous and pulpy and any time characters reference it I find myself taking them that little bit less seriously.
Thankfully such moments are infrequent and I was able to concentrate on the more general ideas being presented which struck me as being pretty clever. The explanation the author concocts for the business is certainly quite neat and is clued well, doing a good job of fitting the facts we have been given. Only one element of the solution felt a little underhand at first reading but even there, when I reread some key passages I found Siniac had set things up carefully, playing fair. I ultimately came away from this feeling that I could and should have reasoned through what had happened before the truth is revealed, making the moment of realization a pretty satisfying one for me. Those who are primarily focused on the idea of the puzzle should find plenty to like here.
The Verdict: An intriguing puzzle mystery with a rather clever solution.