Death in Bordeaux
260 pages • Quartet • June 01, 2011 [PB]
“At least while we remain in the Force we have the chance to do some good. Not much, but some.”
Although published last year, this book only came to my attention this summer after it was recommended for holiday reading – and an excellent recommendation it was, too.
I don’t normally read detective fiction, but this novel chimed with a personal interest in the history of France under German occupation in World War II. As the title suggests, the book is set in Bordeaux and charts the working and personal life of a police detective from the fall of France through the establishment and early days of the Vichy Regime.
Superintendent Lannes of the Police Judiciare is called in to investigate the murder and grisly mutilation of a gay man but finds his enquiries blocked by political interference from the highest levels. This leads him to suspect, rightly, that there is much more to this case than meets the eye. He is ordered to drop it but (needless to say, otherwise there would be no book) he disobeys his orders and receives both help and hindrance from unexpected sources.
This work can be enjoyed on several levels but it is underpinned by a firm location in time and place. Massie captures, and vividly conveys, the spirit of these unsettled times by starting his novel in March 1940, before the fall of France, thereby establishing the shift of mood from cautious optimism that the Germans might be repelled (Lannes’ own eldest son, Dominique, is stationed at the front), to a fatalistic acceptance of defeat (thinly-veiled by armistice), to a reluctantly pragmatic acceptance of the reality of the collaborating Vichy Regime under Marshal Pétain.
Bordeaux itself is portrayed as a city already somewhat apart from the rest of France; a fiercely independently-minded commune which harks back proudly to its Girondin spirit of defiance against the French Regime in the eighteenth century and, long before that, the English rule of Gascony under the Angevin kings. Defeat and the resultant Vichy Regime are thus doubly hard for many Bordelais to stomach – though many others willingly collaborate.
At the opening of the novel life goes on in its old, untroubled fashion; there is plenty to eat, plenty to drink – and the Bordelais are shown to relish both immoderately. But as the months go by the situation worsens and once the Vichy Regime is firmly established shortages and rationing become the dreary norm. But there is a darker aspect to the collaborating state, and that is its increasingly fervent anti-semitism – including from Lannes own brother-in-law, Albert.
Two important characters, Miriam and Léon, are Jewish (although, as Dr Jonathan Miller once famously described himself, only Jew-ish) and whilst they both remain unscathed at the end of this first part of what is planned as a trilogy, one is bound to wonder what will become of them in later offerings.
Nor does Massie shrink from the casual homophobia of the times. Even the most sympathetic of his characters, Lannes included, find homosexuality impossible to comprehend, if not actually repellant. The word degenerate is often used and this points the way that the Vichy Regime will go – considering all forms of non-conformity with its Nazi-inspired-and-sanctioned ideology as moral degeneracy punishable by incarceration and even death. But that is in the future, for now Lannes pursues his case-which-is-not-a-case with dogged determination, despite all the obstacles put in his way.
The gruesome murder of Gaston Chambolley, two other subsequent murders and an attempt on his own life, lead Lannes and his loyal team of eager young René Martin and hard-bitten old Moncerre inexorably toward the unexplained disappearance of a Spanish woman, Pilar, who is linked to the Republican refugees who have settled in Bordeaux after fleeing Franco’s regime following their defeat in the Spanish Civil War. It also leads to the dysfunctional and deeply unpleasant family of the decadent Comte de Grimaud, which in turn leads to the upper echelons of the Vichy government itself. Lannes suspects a conspiracy – and he is not wrong.
Along the way we meet a host of well-drawn characters, from Lannes’ own wife, children and extended family; good Germans, bad French, the demi-monde of the criminal underclasses and those of the political class who consider themselves to be untouchable by the likes of Lannes under the new political dispensation. And, for the time being, the latter forces prevail, leaving Lannes with no option but to resign himself (rather than resign), with a weary pragmatism, to trying to work within the new order. As he says to his loyal side-kick, Moncerre: “If we allow them to get rid of men like us – and young René – what sort of bastards will take our place?”
Perhaps inevitably, there are shades of Georges Simenon’s Maigret here – which, to be fair, Massie acknowledges (or is it cunningly deflects?) by mentioning the novels himself. Whilst Massie’s own novel may owe a debt in this direction it is fresh, entertaining, well-researched and leaves one keenly anticipating subsequent volumes.
One criticism, however, must be levelled at the proof-reading, which is poor throughout and slightly undermines Massie’s efforts. However, as a friend recently remarked, no-one under the age of forty is capable of proof-reading anyway so perhaps we of an older generation will just have to learn to live with such infelicities! Not too hard to do when the work itself is of this quality.