POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.
In a novel recently translated into English by Frank Wynne, French writer Pierre LeMaitre takes the reader back 97 years ago to the final weeks of World War I. The novel begins with an account of a French officer’s ordering of a trench-to-trench attack against German forces at a time when everyone knows that the war is about to end. So the attack, although “successful” in achieving a very limited territorial gain, merely adds more senseless deaths and shattered lives to the horrendous casualties suffered in four years of war. During the attack, a terrible crime is committed. The reasons for this crime and for the attack itself are explored in LeMaitre’s trenchant analysis of the characters involved.
The novel proceeds to explore further horrors of the war and its aftermath. During the fighting, the bodies of the fallen were frequently interred in makeshift fashion, often buried in farmland and without coffins. After the war, families of the fallen sought to learn where their loved ones were buried and to have them exhumed for re-internment in a proper resting place. Because of the massive numbers of dead and problems in identifying decaying corpses, this process involved severe difficulties and taxed the resources of a French government whose finances were depleted by four years of war on French soil.
The novel tells the story of some unscrupulous people who schemed to profit from this situation through acts of fraud in purporting to identify, exhume, rebury, and provide monuments for soldiers who died in service to their country. While the particular facts of this part of the story are fictional, they are largely based on an actual exhumation fraud in France that was exposed a few years after the war.
LeMaitre provides a brilliant and disturbing account of how a criminal scheme such as this could come about and how, at a time at once of both national celebration and mourning, some of those in power would prefer to have a fraud like this swept under the rug, not only for the sake of those grieving but primarily for their own sake in avoiding charges that they failed to exercise proper oversight.
The novel often shockingly forces the reader’s attention to some of the most abhorrent possibilities of human behavior and to the unspeakable suffering involved in war. But it also provides a story of extraordinary devotion to duty by common soldiers and by an investigator who pursues the truth and does the right thing, despite temptations to turn away.
The plotting and pacing of LeMaitre’s novel are superb. His character analysis plumbs the depths of the human soul, with great insight. It is not surprising that when this novel was published in France in 2013, it was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s leading literary award. An English translation was published this year, with the title The Great Swindle.
- Pierre LeMaitre, The Great Swindle at Amazon.com
- Edward Wilson, The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre; Trans Frank Wynne, Book Review, Independent (Nov. 20, 2015).
- Patricia Wall, Review: In ‘The Great Swindle,’ Pierre Lemaitre Spins a Dark Postwar Tale, NY Times (Oct. 4, 2015).