Black Water Lilies cover detail by Didier Cassegrain
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Black Water Lilies: A Novel Turned Graphic Novel

“Black Water Lilies” is a murder/mystery set in a small town in France where Claude Monet painted his famous water lilies.

But when a man turns up dead in the water, a police investigation threatens to turn the over-touristed area upside down to find the culprit.

At the center of it all are three women: the lying one, the wicked one, and the selfish one.

But is one of them also a murderer?

Painting a Not Pretty Picture

Cover to Black Water Lilies
Writers: Michel Bussi/Fred Duval
Artist: Didier Cassegrain
Letterer: Cromatik Ltd.
Translator: Edward Gauvin
Published by: Dupuis/Europe Comics
Number of Pages: 142
Original Publication: 2019

Three Women, Two Murders, Plenty of Motivations

The book begins like so:

Claude Money's impressionistic paintings of water lilies provide the backdrop to this book

And these are them:

The three main characters of Black Water Lilies

The opening to this book sets the scene beautifully. It’s narrated by the “wicked” one, who’s the old lady of the group, aged around 80 years. She knows the small French town of Giverny by heart, having grown up in it and lived there all her life. She’s almost a part of the landscape at this point.

The entire book is her reflections of the events in her small town after the body was found, his head bashed in and a knife wound in his heart.

That begins a police investigation, which starts digging up the small town’s secrets, then the jealousies start on multiple levels and age groups, people turn out to be interrelated in interesting ways, and things get worse before they get better.

So, yeah, this is a murder/mystery set in a small town, but in graphic novel form.

I’m being vague about the plot because of spoilers, obviously. I want to preserve the mystery for you. I think it’s handled very well, and I think the final outcome is brilliant. Go for the ride and enjoy the destination. Once you get there, you’ll run back to the beginning to see it all again from a new angle.

But let’s talk about what we can talk about, without spoilers.

Three Generations In One Story

The three leading ladies of Black Water Lilies

While the crux of the story is the police investigation into the local man’s murder, that’s all woven into a larger narrative that’s told from three different points of view and three different generations.

You have the little girl, the young woman, and the old woman. They each lead separate lives that crossover in ways that are both obvious and surprising, all at the same time.

The three leading ladies of Black Water Lilies

The young girl is an artist, and the young woman is a local art teacher. But the art teacher’s husband is a suspect in the murder, and also the subject of some romantic interest from the police investigator brought in to be in charge of the case. Is she just leading him on? Is the case compromised by his feelings for her? It certainly looks like it when he targets her husband…

The young girl has something of a similar issue with two different boys who take a liking to her.

The old woman’s husband is gravely ill, and she’s practically a loner, save her ever-present dog. She’s both the most and least interesting character in the book. She’s the one to provide all the foreshadowing and out of context clues that won’t make sense until all is revealed.

She doesn’t become completely frustrating with that clue dropping, though. She has her own personality and her own style. Those little plot points and clues are part of her persona in the book, but not overwhelming to the point where you want to skip past her pages because you know they’ll all be teases and not anything new.

It’s a good structure to see how similar things can happen to people of different ages. Humans are humans, and those petty jealousies and love-struck glances are present across the generations.

The Unseemly World of Art

Black Water Lilies architecture and art

Monet’s works are worth a fortune. There are hundreds of them. But there’s a creepy underworld aspect to the whole thing. While all we usually see of the art world is a few high end collectors, some museum pieces, and the occasional story of a big auction, there’s a lot more bubbling underneath the surface.

In this story, the murdered man is known as someone who’d like to get his hands on a Monet for his collection. The inspector brought in to investigate his murder has a small art background, and the investigation goes down several avenues related to the art world.

The art dealer knows more about Monet than you assume you knew, in Black Water Lilies

There’s some unspoken yet well known stories of the true lineage of some of Monet’s pieces, and a potentially large cache of paintings that have just gone missing.

I’ve never dabbled in the art world passed some original comic book art, but I find all of this fascinating. It’s an interesting new world that this book brings me into. And while much of it is expository and its relevance to the actual murder may not be as strong as you’d think, it’s a fun dimension to add to the story. It helps it feel more real.

The Tourists. Oh, the Tourists!

The tourists invade Giverny in "Black Water Lilies"

There’s a lot of talk, particularly in the beginning of the book, about how the town has become a tourist trap. There’s a term for that these days, and that’s “overtourism“.

Being the home of Monet’s famous paintings, legions of tourists show up in town on a daily basis to run through the garden and take selfies. It can be disruptive to a small town, of course.

But it’s also a town that’s fully embraced its connection to an artistic legend. It’s part of the fabric of their lives, from the way local artists bloom and contests are held for the children, to the way art dealers treat the locals. They work to keep the gardens and the river clear to preserve what Monet left behind as he has originally seen it.

There are scenes set in specific locations of the town of Giverny that are drawn from real life places, too. For example, the Inspector and Stephanie (the aforementioned “liar”) share a sequence set in Monet’s house. You can view a walk-through of that real life house on the Claude Monet Foundation’s website.

Here’s one quick example I immediately spotted while perusing the site. It’s from Monet’s kitchen.

Artist Didier Cassegrain drew from real life for Black Water Lilies, such as in this scene set in Claude Monet's house.

The 360 viewer on the website won’t let me get a wider angle than that, but trust me. It’s the same. Other rooms show up in the sequence, as well.

Cassegrain Paints It All

Monet's paintings bring inspiration for Cassegrains's landscapes.

The first thing you’ll notice about this book, despite all of my gushing over its story structure and characterizations so far, is the art.

This is a beautiful book. Didier Cassegrain draws and paints all 142 pages, and they’re beautiful. His color choices are almost magical. The color palette fits the small town and its historic past, while remaining solid in adding volume to shapes with coloring detail.

There’s something about the way his pencil lines match up with and then get subsumed by the painted elements that just works for me. It feels a lot like traditional comic book line work, but has the added complexity of being fully colored.

Here’s a one minute promotional video that gives you an idea of how he builds his pages using a variety of tools:

Inspired no doubt by Monet’s techniques and color choices, Cassegrain adds a lot to every page with his painting. It’s not going for photorealistic. It does add texture and lighting, though, in a manner that doesn’t show itself off.

So much of the story happens outside in the gardens and fields in and around Giverny. Cassegrain makes those settings look like paintings, with slight abstraction made with his paints — splotches of leaves in the foreground, or the still water in the background..

Fair or not, what really amused me in reading this book is how his line art style reminds me of Ryan Ottley’s. Take a look at some of the faces and mannerisms of his characters and tell me you aren’t reminded of “Invincible.” Here’s Mark Grayson and his father:

Cassegrain's art reminds me of Ryan Ottley's Part 2
Cassegrain's art reminds me of Ryan Ottley's Part 1

Seriously, give this man an “Invincible” one shot set in France, and make it fully painted!

Talking Heads

The power of a head turn in a talking heads scene

It wasn’t until I flipped back through this book while writing this review that I realized an obvious thing:

This is mostly a talking heads book. It’s a police investigation, so that shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s not an action/adventure piece. It’s not really even a thriller.

In fact, the way the book is laid out, you know in a general roundabout way everything that’s going to happen before it happens. Yet, it still surprises and keeps you guessing.

That’s a neat trick, by itself.

For starters, it has a very bucolic setting. The town of Giverny is a beautiful place, stuck in time and filled with colorful flowers and water. That also includes the architecture, which includes some old structures with great characters and, in many cases, stories of their own.

But it’s to the credit of Duval’s translation and Cassegrain’s storytelling that it’s never boring or dry. It’s never just the talking heads.

The Police Inspector is clearly acting out of self-interest here, and his partner knows it.

The settings certainly help to keep things lively, whether it’s in open fields, the gardens, outdoor cafes, or creaky old houses.

When I look back at those scenes, I can see how Cassegrain controls the panels in association with the word balloons and caption boxes to emphasize all the right things. There are a lot of closeups in this book, giving us just the head and maybe a part of the shoulders. Cassegrain can draw emotion well, and plays to that strength.

As the conversations inevitably heat up and characters are clearly dodging and parrying each other’s conversations, he emphasizes those deceptions and those moments of otherwise intense emotion by getting almost uncomfortably close to the character. But then he’s able to pull back for a moment of levity or to show a gesture the character is making to illustrate a point.

Duval makes the conversations so interesting so often by what the characters don’t say. Or, rather, what they dance around. There’s always something going on in every conversation just below the surface. Characters are telling each other what they want them to hear, or what feels safe to say. All the way, there’s something hidden or suppressed inside of them that struggles to come out, often until some outside influence forces it out of them.

That’s just good writing, no matter how much of it comes down from Bussi and how much from Duval’s translations.

The police inspector questions a potentially jealous husband.

So, yes, it’s two characters in a room or a setting and they’re “just” talking. Duval’s dialogue maintains the mysteries while answering questions, while Cassegrain’s art punches all those points home through gesture, expressions, and framing.

Seriously, go back to read this book a second time and tease apart a scene and see how many levels it works on after you know the full story. Notice, then, how clearly Cassegrain shows the reader where the emphasis lies based on his camera angles.

It’s great stuff.

When all else fails, and an exposition dump is necessary, he can just draw an eccentric character acting the part well. It becomes less about the storytelling and more about the enjoyment of watching an artist go a little further than the story might otherwise suggest. There’s an art dealer in this book — of page 70, digitally — who first that example. He’s a strong character with larger expressions, mostly of annoyance. He has a verbal tic to help identify him

The Way of the Novel and the Way of the Comic

Michel Bussi's original Nympheas Noirs novel

This book is based on a novel by Michel Bussi. It’s adapted by Fred Duval, and he does so masterfully.

I specifically point this all out because the book feels like a novel. It has a lot of characters, and each character has their own motivation. They’re individual people with points of view, not just cardboard cut-outs meant to fill a certain role in the story. There’s not a character in this story that doesn’t get a certain amount of page time to be defined as something interesting.

That might pad the book out a little, but I don’t care. I like knowing a lot about everyone, and it also helps to keep suspicion on everybody. Have you ever read one of those stories where you knew that so-and-so couldn’t be the murderer because their role is too small, or maybe too large?

This book is all about manipulating the reader. Bussi’s original manuscript, no doubt, did it well. I haven’t read the book — it’s in French, so I’m out — but there are certain tricks he plays in this story that I can see working in a novel.

The most impressive part of this book, in retrospect, is that Duval and Cassegrain worked the same tricks as the novel in this graphic novel. There’s a lot of work done with this book to walk the reader very carefully down the path the author wants the reader to go. Everything you see and everything you see happen is chosen very carefully to craft the story.

That’s not unusual in a murder/mystery, but this book takes it to the next level.

This is Bussi’s dedication at the end of the book:

Black Water Lilies Dedication by author Michel Bussi

“Unadaptable.” I would have thought that, too, until I read this book and saw that they did it.

When I read the book, I had a feeling in the back of my mind like I was missing something, or not seeing something in particular that I was expecting. When all is said and done, it’s easy to pinpoint what that was.

And part of it comes from the change in media. I think this is a harder story to tell in comics than it was in novel form, which is a large part of what impresses me so much about this book.

You’ll know it when you read it. I love the way the revelations happen at the end of the book, though. They pay everything off nicely, and make your mind race back to previous scenes to fit it all back together.

Someday, we should come back to this book and discuss how it all fits together under some spoiler warning coverage. Not today, though. I’ll give you time to read it first.

Like I said earlier, though, this is a book with a lot of names flying around. It might help if you read this book in fairly short order. It’s not a difficult book to read, but it’s still 140+ pages. That’s a lot of reading, any way you look at it. I just think you’ll be able to keep track of Who’s Who by doing it in a compressed time frame.

It’s OK, because this book is very hard to put down. I read it in two sittings because I had to. If I didn’t have pre-existing obligations on my schedule, I would’ve finished it all in one.

Recommended?

Cover to Black Water Lilies

Absolutely. No doubt. Read this book. It’s a very strong piece of work, and a great murder/mystery where every character has their own strong motivation. No stone is left unturned, and the final answer is both surprising and satisfying.

Once you know who did it and how and why, you’ll want to go back to re-read the whole thing to see the clues you missed the first time.

Can’t ask for more for your money…

— 2019.051 —

Buy It Now

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4 Comments

  1. Ok, I’ll see when I can fit it in the reading schedule. Still have the last two volumes of Undertaker and the three Siegfried books but I should be able to fit it, it’s too pretty not to.
    Thanks for the review

  2. Just stumbled across this review and couldn’t agree more. This book was a masterpiece in storytelling and comics.

    Just beautiful to look at, like Monet’s paintings, I could stare at many of the pages for hours.

    And the story was full of strong characters and many twists and turns that kept my engagement. It was hard to pace myself and not speed through it.

    The world needs more books like this.

    1. Agreed on all points. It’s a great and beautiful book that pulls off what it attempts to do very well. Not many artists could pull this book off. Glad you found the review. Thanks for leaving the comment!