In 1917 absolute evil comes to the little village of P. and a ten year old girl is murdered. The murder shocks the village, although it was not the first tragedy they had. World War I leaves its marks and a couple of months before the murder a young schoolteacher hanged herself.
Still the murder of a child is even worse, especially since this child, Belle was so loved by everyone. Her nickname was Belle de Jour, beauty of the day, after the little flowers that were just as lovely as she was.
A policeman tells us what happened years later and describes how it affected all the people that were involved.
The prosecutor that always followed the law like a machine and demanded deathpenalties like it did not matter, but who is also the last man who talked to the girl.
The judge who has no empathy at all and who blames a couple of deserters from the front who fall into his hands. It ties the case up neatly and he does not have to bother with it anymore. That he has to break one of the man to get a confession is of no importance to him.
And the policeman himself, who experiences a personal tragedy during the case.
The story goes forwards and backwards in time and slowly it reveals more of what happened. Bitterness, loss and grief all play their parts in how people react and act in this case.
It becomes clear the policeman is not happy with the role he played himself or how the case ended. He is bitter and angry about the way the rich people get what they want and the poor just have to accept that.
But perhaps it is not so clear after all and when you reach the end of the story, everything you thought you knew about good and evil is turned upside down.
The bad people were perhaps not as bad and the good may not have been that good.
Philippe Claudel manages very cleverly to lead us on the wrong path and at the end of the book the question of good and bad and their implications stays in your head for a long time.
The way the story is built, the beautiful language and the way the characters appear in all their greyness (neither black nor white), shows Philippe Claudel is a great writer. Perhaps one of the greatest.
Original French title: Les âmes grises
Published in 2003
Also published in English as: By a slow river