The philosophical discourse at the heart of The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge by Patricia Duncker is wrapped in just enough mystery to keThe philosophical discourse at the heart of The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge by Patricia Duncker is wrapped in just enough mystery to keep the reader pursuing the answers to the puzzling mass suicides committed by followers of an ecumenical religious order known as the Faith.
The story opens with the discovery of 16 bodies, adults and children, found by hunters in a field in France, the adults arranged in a semi-circle facing the east with the children at their feet. All but one has died by poisoning; the remaining one, Marie-Cécile Laval, has been shot, but no gun is found at the scene. This second mass “departure,” as it is known in the Faith, is much smaller than the one that occurred in Switzerland six years earlier in which sixty-nine teenagers and adults “had either killed themselves, or been assisted on their passage into eternity . . . .” In that departure Marie-Cécile Laval's brother had been the one found shot and, likewise, no gun was found. Because many of the dead at the Swiss site were French, André Schweigen of the French police was consulted. He in turn consulted with a specialized investigator, Judge Dominique Carpentier, known as “the sect hunter,” whose mission is to ferret out pseudo-religious sects and determine what charges, if any, can be brought against them. But the Swiss were not anxious to pursue the case and so the French team made no progress. Now, six years later with a new crime on French soil, the Judge can pursue her investigation against the Faith with renewed vigor. Together with Schweigen and her assistant, Gaëlle, they discover a coded guidebook to the Faith, as well as its most prominent member, the world-renown German Composer, Friedrich Grosz, who is the godfather of Marie-Thérèse, the daughter of Marie-Cécile Laval, a friend from the Judge's youth. The Judge is determined to discover how all of these people and clues fit together, but there is another complication, one the Judge is not as prepared to handle: both Schweigen and the Composer are hopelessly and unashamedly in love with the Judge. And so, what begins as a murder investigation enlarges to include an examination of religious sects and the limits of religious freedom, the emotional appeal of opera and--because the Faith is based on the movement of certain stars--the central role of astronomy in many religions. Much like a musical composition, the story starts slowly then builds to a tension-filled crescendo with a fitting and just finale.
Ultimately,The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge is primarily a literary work with the mystery serving more as a transparent framework for the philosophical dialogue that infuses the story. Mystery readers who read widely in other genres will find this an interesting read, as well as readers who enjoyed works like The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and Olive Kitteridge.
This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher through an early review program. ...more