Review – The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge

The author of this novel is Patricia Duncker.
This is a wild and wacky tale about an investigation into a suicide cult. At least, that’s the plot, and the novel does indeed use the investigation as a backdrop for the real story. However, there is no definite conclusion to the case; the final scene, with the judge back to ’normal’ doesn’t fully resolve matters. But who cares? The story is actually about how Dominique, the formidably intellectual Juge d’Instruction, a woman who uses her sexuality as much to control men as for pleasure, is opened up to an emotional world that she can no longer control.
The way she succumbs is plausible and moving. The insights into her character are mostly hinted at by her interactions with the other characters, especially the Composer; Inspector Andre Schweigen; Gaelle; her closest childhood friend; and the composer’s daughter. While not being drawn in great detail, all these characters are presented strongly and believably.
The novel is written from the universal point of view throughout. This is necessary, because the judge is the intense focus of interest and her emotional convulsion is a mystery to her. It would probably have been far less effective if the story had been written in the first person.
The prose is heavily grounded in the senses. The description of the time the judge takes off her dark glasses and looks directly into Schweiger’s eyes is quite shocking in its intensity. The author uses carefully chosen leitmotivs to enhance our recognition of the nature of the characters – for example, the judge’s red gloves. Even her name – Dominique – is intended to convey her nature. Hot and cold are often used as metaphors for the emotional temperature. A specific example is when the cool-as-a-cucumber judge suggests that Inspector Schweigen would be more comfortable without his woollen vest. Schweigen can barely control his lust for her, but she can control him easily.
It’s a different story with the composer, though. Dominique goes to a concert performance of Tristan and Isolde conducted by him, and is totally broken down by Isolde’s singing. She finds the music expresses the yearning for perfection and the naïve hope that it can be achieved by humans in the same way that the sect members went to their deaths in a joyful expectation of paradise – and she finds it utterly compelling. From that moment she is no longer a match for the composer, and she gradually becomes obsessed with him – as he is with her.

This is a cracking read. I started re-reading it as soon as I’d finished it!

Enjoyment score 8/10

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