One of thing that made Thomas Harris’ The Silence Of The Lambs so intriguing was that a criminal helped catch another criminal. But in his new noir crime novel The Moment Before Drowning (hardcover, Kindle), writer James Brydon puts his own spin on this predicament by having a man accused of a crime tasked with solving a murder while awaiting his own trial.
Photo Credit: Danica Minic
To start, what is The Moment Before Drowning about?
It’sabout a former detective, Captain Jacques le Garrec, who returns home traumatized after working in the army intelligence services in Algeria, where an anticolonial war is raging. He is repatriated to France after being accused of a horrific crime, for which he is awaiting trial. After returning to his small, Breton hometown, he is asked to look into the bizarre and unsolved murder of a teenage girl from the previous winter. His investigations pull him into the dark past of the town, still haunted by memories of the German occupation. In investigating the killing, he is forced to confront his memories of the violence of Algeria, and the army’s brutal information-gathering methods. As the novel progresses, the two narratives intertwine as le Garrec battles to establish some truth and justice in both crimes: the one he is accused of and the one he is investigating.
Where did the idea for The Moment Before Drowning come from, and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
I think the original idea was of a detective accusedof one murder whilst investigating another. He has to probe his own motivations and actions, which means grappling with personal trauma as well as the repression which exists around discussing colonial atrocities. At the same time, he obsessively excavates the circumstances of the girl’s murder, a crime that has slipped into forgetfulness.
The finished version didn’t change much from the original because the structure needed careful planning. Revelations of the two crimes emerge in parallel, as le Garrec becomes immersed in his investigations and the narrative builds towards its harrowing conclusion.
The Moment Before Drowning takes place in 1959. Why did you decide to set the story then as opposed to in 1939 or 1979 or 2019?
I’d spent a few years doing postgrad work on France between the outbreak of World War II and May ’68. It’s a fascinating period, comprising the German occupation and the civil war between the Resistance and the collaborators, the post-war economic boom, profoundly taboo anticolonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, and the revolutionary spirit of the sixties. The Algerian war is interesting because it shows how countries like Britain and France suppress uncomfortable and guilt-ridden memories of our colonial past.
The Moment Before Drowning is a mystery novel. But is there a subgenre of mystery, or combination of them, that you think describes this story better?
I’d say it’s definitely a noir novel. Both the murder investigation and le Garrec’s memories of war probe disturbing events, and the atmosphere throughout is dark and unsettling. Subjects such as colonial oppression and the hidden realities of war tend to remain in our cultural subconscious because they are so difficult to confront. In this sense, it’s also a historical novel, though the depictions of crime, war, and the psychology of the protagonists draw on much more modern representations than those from the fifties.
In your day job, you set cryptic crosswords, including for the Guardian newspaper. How, if at all, did your work with puzzles influence the way you told the story in The Moment Before Drowning?
I guess I’m used to inventing mysteries to entertain people. In this book, rather than a whodunit that’s finished when the writer pulls a rabbit out of the hat with a big surprise ending, there are enigmas which should keep readers on their toes as they sift through differing interpretations of what happened. What can we really know about the murder victim between the contradictory accounts given by different witnesses? Where does the truth of what happened in Algeria sit, between le Garrec’s version of events and that of the army? How much does le Garrec’s guilt affect the murder investigation he carries out?
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Moment Before Drowning, but not on anything else you’ve written?
To avoid mentioning any of the usual suspects when it comes to crime writing, I’ll say that I was, as a teenager, hugely struck by how William Faulkner renders Quentin’s scarred consciousness in The Sound And The Fury. I wanted to convey a sense of oppression and obsession in the voice of the main character as a man whose sense of guilt is the prism through which he views everything else, whether that is the crime he’s investigating or just the color of the sky.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had an impact on The Moment Before Drowning?
Christopher Nolan’s film Insomnia was almost certainly an influence in its presentation of a bleak and darkly atmospheric setting, and a detective himself under investigation whilst probing the unsettling murder of a teenager. I liked the thoughtful, resonant way the Danish series The Killing explored the grief of characters close to the murder victim. Towards the end of The Moment Before Drowning, le Garrec is summoned before a juge d’instructionto account for his actions in Algeria, an idea that came from the French series Spiral. There’s also an explicit reference in the book to a German TV series called Heimat. A few details about a background character make him sound, at first, like one of the protagonists in that show, which is an expansive view of twentieth-century German history.
A lot of mystery novels are not self-contained stories, but are just one mystery in some sleuth’s career. Is that the case with The Moment Before Drowning as well, is this the first book in a series, or is it the only adventure for Captain Jacques le Garrec?
I’m not going to resurrect the character, who was conceived to fit the kind of crimes and the investigation featured in this novel. Instead, I’m sticking with the same general period but writing a book set in collaborationist circles in Paris during World War Two. I think this is an absorbing setting for a noir novel, with its unbridled hedonism, rampant criminality, amoral pamphleteers and propagandists, fascists of convenience, rabid and hysterical rhetoric, and police services stuffed with underworld thugs. Perhaps an image of a profoundly divided society where aggressive mythology has replaced meaningful dialogue could even be timely on both sides of the Atlantic.
Earlier we talked about the movies and TV shows that influenced The Moment Before Drowning. But has there been any interest in making The Moment Before Drowning into a movie or show?
Well, nobody’s really had a chance to read it so far. But I can see it working as a movie. It’s structured as a whole rather than being episodic, and the first-person narration means some scenes already have a movie-like perspective. On the other hand, a book is quite a good way of mitigating some representations of violence, which would be more graphic on screen.
If The Moment Before Drowning was to be made into a movie, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
Let’s see if anyone thinks it has potential first.
Sure. Finally, if someone enjoys The Moment Before Drowning, what mystery novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre Of Alexander Wolf is a great book. It’s short, eerie, and tightly structured around the memory of a murder committed by the narrator which comes back to haunt him. For anyone interested in formally inventive crime novels, it’s a fascinating read.