Jacquot and the Waterman

by Martin O'Brien

Published by St. Martin's Press

405 pages, 2006

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A Ruffian’s Game

Reviewed by Stephen Miller


During the most crucial interrogation of his investigation into a series of killings along the southern coast of France, Chief Inspector Daniel Jacquot begins to paint a key suspect into a corner.

Jacquot slipped his hands behind his head; he was starting to enjoy himself. He'd found the end of a piece of string and was pulling it in for all he was worth, confirming everything he'd suspected.

Folks poring through Jacquot and the Waterman, the intriguing series debut by British novelist Martin O'Brien, will feel much the same way. O'Brien skillfully pulls his readers along a lengthy story rich with atmosphere and unique characters.

Actually, this book almost doesn't make it off the starting blocks. Jacquot represents a tired crime-fiction cliché: the beleaguered homicide detective. A former French rugby champ, recently abandoned by his flight attendant lover, he seems resigned to the life of a perpetual sad sack, not unlike Sjöwall and Wahlöö's immortal character, Martin Beck (even though the book's title and Jacquot's nationality call to mind Inspector Jules Maigret). Assigned here to investigate the slayings of young women in and around the slightly down-at-heel port city of Marseilles, Jacquot learns that the common denominators of these crimes are that the victims were sexually assaulted, then drugged to numb their motor skills and any prayer of physical resistance, and finally drowned; and their corpses were deposited in bodies of water--salt or fresh. Only when Jacquot notices an unusual tattoo on the third dead woman, though, does he come to believe that these homicides weren't merely impulsive, but that there's something more sinister and deliberate behind them. Once those dots are connected, linking the third victim with two others who were discovered prior to this story's beginning, author O'Brien dispenses with what we've seen elsewhere and lets his creativity go to work--whether he's wheeling us through antiseptic-smelling tattoo shops, or giving us peeks inside the head of his killer, whom the media have dubbed "The Waterman":

There was nothing like a plan. Preparation. The attention to detail. If you'd ask, the Waterman would have told you that it was half the fun. The satisfaction of knowing a name, friends and family, home and work, sharing the same bus, browsing through the same shops, deliberately brushing past the object of your affection in the street, sometimes even stopping them to ask directions. ... But then, the Waterman sometimes reflected, preparation wasn't always everything. There were also those unplanned moments when life conspired to provide an unexpected opportunity. Something unforeseen. A moment's weakness, a second's hesitation: that fatal carelessness. A gathering of chance events to be seized upon and taken.

In the course of his busy narrative, O'Brien introduces us to no less than 10 significant characters whose lives weave in and out of his central story. There's Alain Gastal, Jacquot's temporary partner, a rotund department brown-noser who does as little as is required of him, and talks when he shouldn't; Raissac, the dual-skin-toned "merchant" whose shipments of cocaine and high-tech video devices keep the civic officials at bay; blue-blooded Hubert de Cotigny, the mid-level bureaucrat with the upwardly ambitious mother and the partying American trophy wife, Suzie; and Max Benedict, a glossy-magazine journalist whose society connections keep him at the center of whatever scandal he happens to be covering (a resemblance to Dominick Dunne is hard to overlook). Over the course of 100 chapters, several as brief as two pages, O'Brien keeps these various players firmly under control, never allowing his novel to turn into a routine story about a serial killer with a quirky aquatic signature.

The author's résumé includes time spent as the travel editor of British Vogue, and it's clear from the opening pages of Jacquot and the Waterman that we're in the company of a writer who values setting. Marseilles, the second-largest city in France and the largest commercial port on the Mediterranean Sea, occupies front and center in this tale. By turns seedy and prosperous, full of beauty and secrets, content to entice and repel, Marseilles comes off as the Next Big Thing as well as The Place to Avoid, with its sleek waterfront developments that help to mask the drug smuggling, prostitution and blackmail that grease the wheels of respectable commerce. O'Brien writes:

Marseilles. The city he'd grown up in, left and come back to. A city by the sea. Wherever you went--in its darkest alleyways, its busiest markets, in its parks and suburbs, along its most fashionable thoroughfares--the ocean was always there. The watery play of its reflection when you least expected it, a slice of blue at the end of a boulevard, or a flash of distant sun-glitter between the buildings. And always the clean, salty scent of it sluicing through the city streets.

But in addition to a tour around south-coastal France, O'Brien presents a portraiture of the modern-day French class system at work. The African facilitator Raissac, though wealthy as a result of his narcotics business, is grotesquely scarred by unfortunate genetics and is viewed as little more than a useful servant by a business titan unwilling to dirty his hands in pursuit of a serious fortune. Party girl Suzie de Cotigny is vapid and hedonistic, stringing her older upper-crust husband in the direction of a divorce, now that the novelty of sex and drugs is starting to wear thin. And the pony-tailed Jacquot is frequently looked down upon as a barely competent Columbo. (O'Brien even treats us to a false exit at one point, as Jacquot asks a suspect about "one more thing." I credit O'Brien for not repeating that endlessly and treating it as shtick.) However, the chief inspector's determination to solve the crimes at hand here, and to bring peace back to the city he loves is not to be underestimated.

Oddly, though O'Brien juggles multiple points of view within this novel, we see little of the notorious Waterman. Only a handful of chapters are told from the killer's point of view. While normally I detest a device like that, with Jacquot and the Waterman, I found myself wanting to know more about the villain. It's a tribute to this author's skill that he both resisted what is frequently a gimmick, and at the same time made this reader, at least, crave more.

Jacquot and the Waterman is an elegant story, told in compellingly brief snippets, some of them staccato riffs on a theme, and others following a more melodic pattern of randomness and order. This is an impressive debut to a promising series. A second entry, Jacquot and the Angel, was published recently in Britain. Let's hope it reaches American shores sometime soon. | February 2006


Stephen Miller has worked as a columnist for Mystery News since 1999, writing about new authors. He lives in Hilliard, Ohio. This is his first piece for January Magazine.