The Circle: Exclusive Excerpt

The Circle by Bernard Minier
The Circle by Bernard Minier
The Circle by Bernard Minier is a dark psychological thriller set in the south of France (available October 27, 2015).

They find the boy by the swimming pool, dolls floating on its surface.

Inside the house, his teacher lies dead.

But he claims to remember nothing…

June 2010. In the middle of a World Cup match, Martin Servaz receives a call from a long-lost lover. A few miles away in the town of Marsac, Classics professor Claire Diemar has been brutally murdered.

As if that weren't disturbing enough, Servaz receives a cryptic e-mail indicating that Julian Hirtmann, the most twisted of all serial killers, is back…and hitting a little too close to home. With death and chaos surrounding the small university town in Southern France where he was once a student and where his daughter is now enrolled, Servaz must act quickly.

With the help of detectives Irene Ziegler and Esperandieu, Servaz will have to uncover a world of betrayal and depravity to connect the dots between these gruesome murders that keep re-opening wounds from his past.

1

Dolls

And it was there, in the shady garden,

The killer’s shadow in cold ambush,

Shadow against shadow on the grass less green than

Red with evening’s blood.

In the trees, a nightingale

Was challenging Marsyras and Apollo.

Deeper down, an aviary of nests and

Mistletoe berries

In rustic setting …

Oliver Winshaw stopped writing. Blinked. At the edge of his vision something had attracted – or rather distracted – his attention. Beyond the window. A flash of light, outside. Like a camera flash.

The storm had broken over Marsac.

That night, as on every other night, he was sitting at his desk. He was writing a poem. His study was on the first floor of the house he had bought with his wife in the southwest of France thirty years earlier; a room with panelled oak walls, almost entirely covered with books. Primarily British and American poetry from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Coleridge, Tennyson, Robert Burns, Swinburne, Dylan Thomas, Larkin, e.e. cummings, Pound …

He knew he could never hold a candle to his personal idols, but he didn’t care.

He had never shown his poetry to anyone. He was approaching the winter of his life, even autumn was behind him now. Very soon he would build a big fire in the garden and into it he would throw 150 black notebooks. All in all, more than 20,000 poems. A poem a day for fifty-seven years. Probably the best kept secret of his life. Even his second wife had not been allowed to read them.

After all these years, he still wondered where he found his inspiration. When he looked back on his life, it was nothing but a long procession of days that always ended with a poem written in the evening in the peace of his study. He never went to bed until he had finished, sometimes at one or two o’clock in the morning, even back in the days when he had been working. He had never needed a great deal of sleep and his job was not physically demanding: English professor at the University of Marsac.

Oliver Winshaw was about to turn ninety.

He was a calm and elegant old man, known by all. When he settled in this picturesque little university town, he was immediately dubbed l’Anglais. This was before his compatriots had swooped down like a swarm of locusts onto everything in the region that possessed old stones to be restored, and the nickname became somewhat diluted. Now he was only one among hundreds of other Englishmen in the area. But with the economic crisis the English were heading for destinations that were more financially attractive, such as Croatia or Andalusia, and Oliver wondered whether he would live long enough to find himself once again the only Englishman in Marsac.

In the lily pond

The faceless shadow slides

Slender dreary profile

Like the knife’s keen sharpened edge.

He paused once again.

Music … He thought he could hear music above the regular patter of rain and the endless echoing of thunder across the sky. Obviously it couldn’t be Christine, she had been asleep for a long while. Yes, it was coming from outside: classical music.

Oliver grimaced in disapproval. They must have the volume on full blast for him to hear it in his study despite the storm and the closed window. He tried to concentrate on his poem, but there was nothing for it: bloody music!

Annoyed, he looked again at the window. A lightning glow came through the blinds, and he could see the rain streaming down. The storm seemed to be concentrating its fury on this small town, cutting it off from the rest of the world.

He pushed his chair back and stood up.

He went over to the window and cracked open the blinds. The central drain was spilling over onto the cobblestones. Above the rooftops, the night was streaked with thin bolts of lightning, as if inscribed with the trace of a luminescent seismograph.

In the house across the street all the lights were on. Perhaps they were having a party? The house in question, a townhouse with a garden to one side, was protected from the street and outside observers by a high wall. A single woman lived there; she was a professor at the lycée in Marsac, the most prestigious prep school in the region. A good-looking woman, with brown hair and an elegant figure, in the prime of her thirties. From time to time Oliver spied on her discreetly when she sunbathed in her deck chair, sheltered from all eyes – except his, because her garden was visible from his study window. There was something wrong. All the lights on every floor of the four-storey house were lit. And the front door was wide open, a little lantern clearly guiding the way to the threshold.

But he couldn’t see anyone in the windows.

At the side of the house, the French windows were wide open, banging in the wind, and the rain was driving at such an angle that it must be flooding the floor inside. Oliver could see it splashing on the tiles on the terrace and crushing the lawn.

That was probably where the music was coming from. He felt his pulse quicken. He looked slowly over towards the swimming pool.

Thirty feet by twenty. Sand-coloured tiles all around. A diving board.

He felt a sort of dark excitement, the kind that grabs you when something unusual has just interrupted your daily routine. And at his age, routine made up his entire life. His gaze travelled all around the swimming pool. At the end of the garden the forest of Marsac began, 2,700 hectares of woods and paths. There was no barrier on that side, not even a chain-link fence, just a compact wall of vegetation.

Oliver focused his attention on the pool. The surface seemed to be dancing slightly. He narrowed his gaze. First of all, he wondered what he was seeing. Then he realised that several dolls were bobbing on the water. Yes, that’s what it was … Even though he knew it was only dolls, he felt an inexplicable shiver go through him. They were floating next to each other, their pale dresses rippling on the rain-battered surface. Oliver and his wife had been invited for coffee once by their neighbour from across the street. His wife had been a psychologist before she retired, and she had a theory about the profusion of dolls in the home of a single woman in her thirties. When they got home she explained to her husband that their neighbour was probably a ‘woman-child’, and Oliver had asked her what she meant. She had gone on to use expressions such as ‘immature’, ‘evading responsibility’, ‘thinking only of her own pleasure’, ‘undergone an emotional trauma’, and Oliver had beaten a hasty retreat from the conversation: he had always preferred poets to psychologists. But he was damned if he could fathom why there were dolls in the swimming pool.

I ought to ring the gendarmes, he thought. And tell them what? That there are dolls floating in a swimming pool? But it wasn’t normal. The house all lit up, no one in sight, and those dolls – where was the owner?

He opened the window. A wave of humidity came into the room. The rain beat against his face, he blinked at the strange gathering of plastic faces, with their staring eyes.

He could hear the music perfectly now. It was familiar, although it wasn’t Mozart, his favourite composer.

Dammit, what the hell was going on!

A bolt of lightning severed the darkness, immediately followed by a deafening clap of thunder. The noise made the windowpanes vibrate. Like a blinding light from a projector, the lightning showed that someone was there. Someone sitting at the edge of the pool, legs dangling in the water, and Oliver hadn’t noticed him because he was swallowed by the shadow of the tall tree in the middle of the garden. A young man … Bent over the floating tide of dolls, gazing at them. Although he was nearly fifty feet away, Oliver could make out the lost, frantic expression in the young man’s eyes, and his gaping mouth.

Oliver Winshaw’s chest was an echo chamber, his heart pounding like a demonic percussionist. What was going on here? He rushed over to the telephone and took the receiver from its cradle.

 

Copyright © 2015 Bernard Minier.

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Bernard Minier grew up in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. He had a career as a customs official before publishing his first novel, The Frozen Dead, in 2011. The novel has been translated into a dozen languages and has garnered critical acclaim as well as several literary prizes in France. Minier lives in the Essonne, south of Paris.

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