“To tell you the truth, I’m a very bad cop; I hate suspecting people. I’d rather condemn them all. There’s no such thing as an innocent man.”
Five passengers board the 10:30 sleeper train from Marseille. When the train arrives in Paris the next morning, however, only four disembark. The fifth passenger is still lying in her berth, but she hasn’t overslept. She is dead. Inspector Grazziano is prepared for a tedious effort to identify this woman and the other passengers who shared her sleeping car. What he doesn’t expect is that someone else is also hunting for these witnesses—a cunning killer who always seems to be one step ahead of the police.
The Sleeping Car Murders is a dazzlingly kaleidoscopic murder mystery reminiscent of Cornell Woolrich. Organized around the six berths of the sleeping car (one of them empty…or is it?), the novel examines each of the passengers in turn, these sharp little fragments briefly illuminating a series of ordinary lives. Intercut with the passengers’ experiences, Inspector Grazziano trudges through an investigation that takes on an unexpected urgency as the corpses pile up.
Grazziano, known as “Grazzi,” is appealingly gruff and pragmatic as he tracks down potential witnesses. His efforts are often hindered, rather than helped, by his assistant Gabert, a rich dilettante who amuses himself with a handheld game during interrogations. Grazzi doesn’t expect to get much useful information from the other passengers; as one of them points out apologetically, “on a night train, you’re really only thinking about sleeping.” And indeed, as word of the murder spreads through the city, each person’s memories of their night in the sleeping car say a great deal about their own concerns but, seemingly, very little about the crime.
These people are afraid, certainly, but not of being killed. Instead, they are in a panic that their embarrassing secrets be revealed by police. Everyone has their own preoccupations, their own little dreads and fears that predate the murder and continue on after it. These characters still worry about their jobs, dread the future, even fall in love, all in the shadow of crime, but each individual’s circumstances will affect the way they react to the murder. Their delirious stream-of-consciousness narratives are so intensely personal that the reader is plunged straight into the characters’ deepest anxieties. Within these jumbles of emotion, however, any number of clues are hidden in plain sight. Drab little René Cabourg, for instance, is eager to confess, but to what, exactly?
Tomorrow morning he would go to see the Inspector, room 303, third floor. He would tell him exactly what had happened. That he was alone, that he was ugly, that he had always been that way, that in Marseille a woman he didn’t know had made it quite clear through a hotel room wall, that he was a loser…That he had never understood anything about life, about the part of it others enjoyed so much. They had learned the rules—God knows how, but they had learned them—and he never had.
The other passengers have their own stories to tell, though the stories they tell themselves are not always the ones the police get to hear, with Japrisot constantly mixing up the format to keep the plot twisting along. As the murders continue, pressure on the police only increases, as Grazzi becomes painfully aware that every witness he is searching for could turn out to be either the killer or the next victim.
The dead woman herself is equally mysterious. Even after she is identified as cosmetics saleswoman Georgette Thomas, Grazzi has a difficult time making sense of a personality that seems full of contradictions. The victim’s sister tries to explain how Georgette could be both greedy and generous, selfish yet capable of giving and inspiring affection.
She was very ambitious. At least—I don’t know how to say it—she was capable of working very hard and making all kinds of sacrifices to get the things she wanted. But money itself didn’t interest her. She was only interested in the things she owned, the things she had bought with her money. She used to say, “That’s mine; that belongs to me; that’s my coat.” Things like that. Do you understand?
Grazzi doesn’t understand, leaving him unable to determine whether the crime’s roots are in Paris or Marseille. “He felt tired, a weariness that started in his head from too much thinking. He couldn’t put himself inside this poor girl’s skin, he didn’t understand her; there was no point in even trying. Question people, take notes, be a workhorse, and go home to your family at night, that’s all you can do.” The vast, impersonal machinery of the police is always emphasized; if Grazzi cannot solve the case, they will keep throwing resources at it until someone else can. There are no irreplaceable geniuses here, only tired men doing a job as best they can.
The Sleeping Car Murders is a stylish, unusual tale that effortlessly juggles multiple perspectives, leaving the reader uncertain which narrators can be trusted. The settings are enormously appealing, from the streets of Paris to the train itself. And the solution is ingenious even if it does feel extra-abrupt coming after the longest and slowest section of the book. While Japrisot holds back some information in order to preserve the surprise of the ending, the solution makes such perfect sense psychologically that I was still able to feel very clever by spotting the culprit just before the big reveal. The Sleeping Car Murders makes a complex trip through the minds of its characters, a journey that is well worth taking.
I enjoyed how we received information via the suspects’ thoughts as well as via police interviews. The former often helped to maintain pace until the final third where suspect thoughts slowed things down. One of the surprises in the solution I saw coming, but another one definitely took me completely by the surprise. In some ways it felt quite realistic, but on the other hand I think the reader could have been more prepared for the motivations behind the crimes.
The Sleeping Car Murders is available in paperback from Gallic Books, who have kindly provided a review copy.
The 1965 film version, Compartiment tueurs, was directed by Costa-Gavras, starring Yves Montand as Grazzi.