Dark Summer in Bordeaux
246 pages • Quartet • June 7, 2012 [PB]
“He kept his gaze fixed on the door, waiting for the moment of liberation. Waiting, like France itself.”
In Dark Summer in Bordeaux, Allan Massie has pulled off the most tricky of feats for a novelist: the successful second part of a trilogy. As I mentioned in my review of the first part, Death in Bordeaux, I don’t normally read detective fiction but these novels, set in France under German occupation in World War II, have captured my interest and enthusiasm; and the second part, if anything, excels the first. It certainly takes the story to another level; significantly darker, more troubled and even more morally ambivalent, but also with a glimmer of hope for the future enshrined in the final sentence quoted above.
Once again, Superintendent Jean Lannes of the Police Judiciare (or PJ) is called in to investigate a puzzling murder and again finds his enquiries blocked by political interference from the highest levels of the Vichy Regime. The case is linked to his first investigation and, as before, he is ordered to drop it. Having compromised his integrity ( as he sees it) by dropping the first case in order to secure the release of his eldest son, Dominique, from a POW camp, he is reluctant to surrender this case without solving it, and his investigations uncover some very unsavoury goings-on indeed. The fact that, having solved the case, he finds himself further morally compromised by not being able to reveal the identity of the murderer only adds to his sense of frustration and alienation.
As with the first novel, this work can be read on several levels, but the research which underpinned the first really comes into its own here as the German Occupation tightens its grip and the illusion of normality which sustained the characters through the first part dramatically slips away, revealing the grubby, increasingly brutal and very dangerous realpolitik underlying the fragile façade of Vichy ‘normality’. Massie evokes this increasingly unstable society exceptionally well and provides the reader with a real sense of the anxiety and insecurity that must have ruled the lives of all who lived in Pétain’s ‘French State’.
As German control tightens, exemplified by Lannes’ new German liaison officer, Kordlinger (a thoroughly nasty piece of work who replaces the urbane but fatally compromised Lieutenant Schussmann), the underlying tensions amongst the French reveal themselves in equally stark brutality. The political undertows of Fascism, Communism, Cagoulardism and Gaullism eddy around a growing tide of anti-Semitism and ultra-Catholic morality, exemplified by the Pétainists’ determination to reinstate what they see as ‘traditional’ French moral and family values.
These tensions are increasingly played out in Lannes’ own family, with his two sons at opposite ends of the political spectrum (Dominique joining the Vichy administration and Alain the Free French), his daughter, Clothilde, dating a young German officer and his relationship with his wife, Marguerite, falling apart as he finds himself becoming increasingly susceptible to the charms of some of the women he encounters in the course of his investigations, particularly the young tart, Yvette.
But Lannes is a fundamentally decent and honourable man and his liberal view of the ‘vices’ he encounters in his work, including homosexuality and prostitution, mark him out as a man who understands the frailty of the human condition all too well. He is a pragmatist who finds his idealism kindled (or re-kindled) by the bravery and stoicism he increasingly finds about him, from his younger son, Alain, and his friends (whom he helps to escape to North Africa to join the Free French – further alienating his distraught wife) to the Jewish characters facing growing resentment and threat, especially the young Léon, whose vicious assault and rape by a French ‘spook’, Félix, of the shadowy counter-espionage organisation, Travaux Ruraux (which, in a rare apparent research flaw, Massie refers to as the Travaux Rurales) occurs early in the book and shockingly sets the scene for a much bleaker and more nuanced work than the first.
There are hints throughout this second book that there may well be a future reckoning to be paid for collaboration. Hitler’s unexpected invasion of Russia gives rise to a hope amongst the non-Vichy-supporting French that in this ill-advised campaign Hitler may have overstretched himself as disastrously as Napoleon did in his own, thus hastening their freedom. But there is also the recognition that that freedom will inevitably bring revenge and retribution, and even Lannes pragmatically acknowledges that having one son in Vichy and another with De Gaulle may stand him in good stead when the fervently hoped-for but also dreaded liberation finally arrives.
The novel closes with Lannes, taken in for interrogation by a Kordlinger furious at having been thwarted, turning the tables spectacularly on his tormentor. Every family has its skeleton in the closet and Kordlinger’s is no exception, a chance discovery of which Lannes nurtures until he is able to reveal it in a stunning coup-de-grace. In doing so he also reveals that, decent cop though he may be, he is to be messed with at one’s peril, and this will doubtless be pursued in the final part.
But that is some way in the future and the third part of this fascinating trilogy when it comes will presumably provide the clincher, with old scores being settled and all the characters forced to reappraise their position as free Frenchmen and women moving into an uncertain future tainted by the past. I only hope that the wait for a final reconciliation will not prove to be as long drawn-out as that of the defeated French waiting for Liberation.