Death in Bordeaux

Allan Massie first came to prominence in the 1980s, at the same time as other Scottish novelists such as James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. Yet in almost every way he was their opposite: politically (a Tory), geographically (rural) and artistically – a writer of traditionally-fashioned historical novels, focusing on ‘great men’. Having written four more or less contemporary novels (The Death of Men was based on recent events, the others were comedies of manners), Massie found his voice in a fictionalised autobiography of Augustus. This was followed by five further Roman novels, as well others focusing on such diverse figures as Sir Walter Scott and King David. Perhaps his greatest success, though, came with a loose trilogy which looked at issues of loyalty and betrayal, beginning with A Question of Loyalties in 1989. It is from this work, set partly in Vichy France, that Massie’s new novel seems to spring. Death in Bordeaux is a departure for Massie, however, as it quite clearly intended to be shelved alongside other detective novels – including presumably those of Philip Kerr, creator of German wartime investigator Bernie Gunther. Massie has previously reviewed Kerr’s work unfavourably in the Scotsman, and it tempting to see this novel as a further riposte. (Kerr was supposed to have retaliated with an online savaging of one of Massie’s books).

Massie’s protagonist also offers a counterpoint to Kerr’s Gunther. Not only is Superintendent Lannes not a loner, he is manifestly a family man, with a wife he loves and three children. That one of his two sons is of an age to be conscripted allows Massie to demonstrate the effects of the war on ordinary families. Lanes’ wife, Marguerite, writes to their son and then puts the letter to one side:

“Folding the paper, she put it away in the top right-hand drawer of her desk, along with other letters to Dominique which she hadn’t sent because they would make him unhappy, and wrote another, determinedly cheerful, full of little pieces of news, expressing nothing of what she felt, concealing her fears and longing for the boy.”

Lanes is concerned that his wife’s anxiety is changing their relationship into “one of those silent marriages” and when, later, he finds himself attracted to another woman, it is not in the clichéd manner so common in detective fiction, but linked to the unhappiness at home caused by his son’s absence. Massie also demonstrates the effect of the surrender on Lannes’ younger son, and two other young male characters who feature and become friends. The question of how to react to the occupation is a very real one, creating moral dilemmas from chance encounters, as Lannes’ daughter discovers:

“You know the Romiers upstairs have had a German officer billeted on them? …Well, I met him yesterday as I was coming home and…yes, indeed, he was nice, very friendly…I liked him Papa. Was that wrong?”

Leon, a young Jewish boy first Lannes met when investigating the murder that opens the novel, and then arranged a job for in a friend’s bookshop, has a similar problem with a German officer:

“He’s nice actually, but I’ve no desire to get involved. On the other hand, I can’t tell him to bugger off, can I? Or should I just tell him I’m a Jew?”

Massie’s great skill here is in portraying these political problems as personal ones.

If Lannes is the detective as family man, then much of the evil in the novel radiates from a dysfunctional aristocratic family. The novel, as you would expect, opens with a particularly grisly murder, but Lannes’ acquaintance with the Comte de Grimaud comes at his own request, the result of a number of threatening letters he says he has received. His own unpleasantness is quickly apparent, but his family (most of whom he dislikes) are equally grotesque, excepting his young (third) wife and a grandson. Unsurprisingly, the two cases are linked, but to say much more would spoil the pleasure of discovery as the narrative unfolds. Much of this is political and Lannes struggles at times to keep the investigation open in the ever-changing situation: the novel begins before the Germans invade France, but ends after the occupation has begun. Massie leaves him with enough determination for the reader to admire, but without the unrealistic recklessness of pulp fiction – another advantage of being a family man.

This is an excellent addition to Massie’s oeuvre and the rather over-populated detective genre. It is intended to be the first of a trilogy, which presumably will take us through the war. I suspect this is why Massie has taken such care to introduce a cast of characters that will allow him to explore the effects of that conflict on France in full. I, for one, am already looking forward to the next volume.

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