THE GREAT DEER HOTEL
(Seuil, 352 pages, 2018)
*** RIGHTS SOLD TO ITALY (FELTRINELLI) ***
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“My method,” explained the policeman, “is that I don’t have one. What I want is to turn this village upside down. That no one understands anything. That we don’t know who is looking for who, who killed who, who did not kill. I want to treat everyone the same. I want to create panic. I’m bringing madness in town. In three days, I’ve been wreaking havoc in their minds. They know I’m crazy. But something in them tells them they have to be wary of me.”
—The Great Deer Hotel
Reugny, a small village in the Ardennes region of Belgium, is famous for its Great Deer Hotel. In 1977, movie starlet Rosa Gulingen died in her bathtub while shooting a movie with her screen partner Armand Grétry. Forty years later, a rich documentarian fascinated by Gulignen hires private investigator Nicolas Tèque to learn what caused her death. At the same time, inspector Vertigo Kulbertus is sent to Reugny to investigate a murder, two weeks before his retirement. Jeff Rousselet, the local customs officer hated by every inhabitant of the town for spying and documenting their secrets, was found decapitated. Soon afterward, Brice, the village idiot, is also found dead, and Anne-Sophie, the daughter of the manager of the Great Deer Hotel, goes missing.
Kulbertus meets his suspects: Thérèse Londroit, the angry and nosy, paralyzed founder of the hotel and mother of the current manager; Sylvie Monsoir, the sad and courageous taxi driver; Richard Lépine, the uptight director of the local motivation center, whose parents were slaughtered for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. Tensions rise as the investigation rapidly progresses. Kulbertus shakes everyone down with his imperious requests: he needs fries and wieners or meatballs, four times a day, every day, and pint after pint of beer. The scatterbrained inspector befriends Nicolas Tèque, the only one he can trust.
In only seven days, with an unexpected and grandiose finale, Kulbertus connects the two investigations and explains everything. At the end of the Second World War, Rosa Gulingen (who was German) helps extradite from Germany her sister Anelore, the wife of a Nazi officer, and her baby boy. Unfortunately, they get into a car accident, and Anelore dies, while Baudoin, Thérèse Londroit’s husband, rescues her baby, Manfred.
A few days prior, Baudoin and two friends burglarize the Lépine property, as part of their plan to steal goods from abandoned mansions in regions under Nazi occupation. However, Edouard Lépine, his wife, and baby Richard had not left, and Edouard confronts Baudoin and his associates. Enraged by the war and jealous of his wealth, they slaughter him and his wife, accidentally killing the baby at the same time.
Baudoin brings Manfred to Thérèse. In order to keep the stolen goods and money found at the Londroit’s, she suggests swapping the babies’ identities. With the money, she is able to fund her dream: the Great Deer Hotel.
A few years later, still looking for her sister, Rosa Gulingen uses the pretext of a movie shoot to come to the region where investigators lost trace of Anelore. She sees the young Richard Lépine and recognizes her sister in his facial features. Filled with doubts, she confides in her hostess, Thérèse, who realizes that she might lose her hotel if Rosa discovers the reasons why the babies were swapped. An hour later, Rosa dies in her bath.
In present day Reugny, Jeff Rousselet finds joy in investigating and uncovering everyone’s darkest secrets. He realizes that Elisabeth, Richard Lépine’s collaborator and wife, is having an affair with Jack, Richard’s protégé. Elisabeth also manipulates Freddy, Sylvie Monsoir’s abusive and alcoholic husband, into believing that his wife is having an affair with Richard Lépine. She hopes that in a moment of rage, Freddy will explode and kill Richard, so that she inherits the Motivational Center. When Jeff Rousselet discovers her affair with Jack, she fears that he will tell her husband. She has Jack kill Jeff to protect her secret. Anne-Sophie unexpectedly arrives on the scene of the crime and runs away from Jack. Jack murders Brice, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, then tracks down and murders Anne-Sophie several days later to tie up loose ends. Pushed by Elisabeth, Freddy kills Richard, blinded with rage and jealousy.
Women are the masterminds in these two intertwined stories. They uncover and guard the darkest truths in order to get to what they want. As the mysteries unravel, the reader is pushed around between masterfully built colorful characters and their scathing stories. Franz Bertelt creates a high-tension situation with a bewitching narrative voice, topped with a disconcerting and brilliant humor.
Franz Bartelt has written many books. He has been translated in Italian, German, Greek, and Spanish.