The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge, By Patricia Duncker

A haunting tale of sects and death
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The Independent Culture

On 12 June 2001 the French National Assembly ratified legislation to ensure that no sect could operate on French territory. A sect was defined in legal and philosophical terms. Protagonists of each are the main characters of this novel.

The judge is Dominique Carpentier, "chasseuse de sectes", or sect hunter, a stunning (if myopic) fortysomething who strides – or roars, in sports car, TGV or business-class airline – across France, pausing only to vanquish another swooning alpha male or to fix the thick black coils of hair that escape her tortoiseshell comb. To this Cartesian, "nothing remained incomprehensible, or beyond the reach of pure reason". The composer is Friedrich Grosz: chairman and guide of the secretive cult of the Dark Host, that is named after an astral body in the constellation of Auriga, charioteer of the heavens.

Support roles are played by Commissaire Andre Schweigen, who has already investigated the cult, following an apparent suicide pact in Switzerland, and by Gaelle, the judge's punk assistant.

The scene opens on New Year's Day in the Jura, as deer hunters come upon 16 corpses arranged in a semi-circle in the snow. The adults turn out to be the crème de la crème of a sophisticated and wealthy intelligentsia. While poison may account for the death of all but one – killed with a bullet – the reasons appear to be concealed in a book within the novel. The quest for the Guide to the Dark Host, a philosophy of science disguised in a complex code, follows a starry course that maps the terrestrial geography of the chase.

Duncker glories in phrases of French, German, Swiss-German and Latin. Her language cascades through the music of the spheres and Wagner's "Liebestod", the symbolism of mountain flora and a close reading of Nietszche's Ecce Homo. It reaches a crescendo in which a cult of death incorporates the sado-masochistic passions of a woman determined to retain control of professional and intimate affairs. For Dominique Carpentier, seeing is never believing.

Less Gothic than in her earlier novels, Duncker has never been on more exuberant form. This novel supersedes the occult dalliances of Dan Brown with intelligence, erudition and the force of compelling writing.