This is ostensibly a detective story, about a crime that is committed in 1917, and solved 20 years later. The location is a small town in Northern France. The war is still being fought in the trenches, within sight and sound of the town, but the men of the town have been spared the slaughter because they are needed in the local factory. One freezing cold morning in the dead of winter, a beautiful ten year old girl, one of three daughters of the local innkeeper, is found strangled and dumped in the canal. Suspicion falls on two deserters who are picked up near the town. Their interrogation and sentencing is brutal and swift.
Twenty years later, the narrator, a local policeman, puts together what actually happened. On the night the deserters were arrested and interrogated, he was sitting by the bedside of his dying wife. He believes that justice was not done and wants to set the record straight. But the death of the child was not the only crime committed in the town during those weeks.