I’ve been spending a lot of time in France lately in the company of Inspector Maigret. I’m all up-to-date with the Penguin reissues (and my piece will be appearing in the next issue of Shiny New Books). It seems though that France is a very popular destination with 3 other recently read crime novels set there. Let’s start at the beginning and if I get my Normandy mixed up with my Brittany, forgive me. I’m beginning to lose my bearings.
Death In Pont-Aven – Jean-Luc Bannalec
Bretonische Verhältnisse translated from German by Sorcha McDonagh
The first in a new series establishes its literary credentials on page one. Firstly in the name of its detective – Dupin – it is following in the footsteps of Edgar Allen Poe’s creation, and secondly with a nod to Maigret. Bannalec’s Dupin is drinking his coffee in the Amiral in Concarneau, the Breton village which appeared in Simenon’s The Yellow Dog. Where Maigret’s visit to Brittany was fleeting, Dupin’s stay will be longer. He has been relocated to this remote backwater due to certain disputes. (We never find out why in this volume – perhaps it will become clear, later in the series?) Still there are certain other similarities with Maigret – his bulky physique, his love of coffee, and his modus operandi – he prefers to be alone to work things out. Dupin’s misfortune is that he is a modern detective and that comes with all the pre-requisite apparatus – a team, forensics, press intrusion. He is not allowed to operate alone, but he skirts that issue when he can, much to the irritation of his team.
Things are quiet until the day Dupin is called from his coffee and croissants in the Amiral to the scene of the brutal stabbing of the amiable 91-year old hotelier Pierre-Louis Pennec. Investigations into the last days of the victim’s life reveal that he knew he was living on borrowed time, and he had arranged to change his will. Motive, motive, motive, except that all suspects and potential heirs are reconciled to the change which involves a precious painting.
Cue link to the artists’ colony in Pont-Aven and the undiscovered Gauguin that lies at the heart of this mystery. A thoroughly enjoyable seam involving art experts and the mechanisms they use to establish a painting’s authenticity. So too, the details regarding the Breton landscape. The author is half-Breton, so landscape and cultural detail are lovingly drawn and the nod in the original German title. Just one word of warning – those cliffs can be dangerous as the second victim discovers ….
Dog Will Have His Day – Fred Vargas
Un peu plus loin sur la droite translated from French by Sîan Reynolds
Bannaluc’s second victim shares the same fate as the first in the latest translation from Vargas’s back catalogue. The second installment in her Three Evangelists series has taken its time getting to the English audience. It was originally published in 1996! Circuitous too the path to the murderer. No-one even realises there’s been a murder until a dog does his business in a Parisian park and, Kehlweiler, an eccentric intellectual with a pet toad, spots a bone in it. Time to bring in a former housemate, one of Vargas’s Three Evangelists, a specialist in prehistoric bones. He declares it to be a human toe.
Vargas is nothing if not quirky and how this discovery leads to a body at the bottom of the Breton cliffs is both bizarre and surreal, and one you won’t find in any other writer. Nor the characters – one eccentric after the next: the network of old people and tramps that Kehlweiler uses to track down the offending dog, the typewriter restorer plus Kehlweiler and toad. For all the eccentricity, there is a nasty crime at the centre involving long-hidden secrets … and something even nastier from the days of Vichy France. All of which is uncovered because the dog had his day ….
Cold Winter In Bordeaux – Allan Massie
Talking of Vichy France, the third in Allan Massie’s quartet takes us to the winter of 1942-3. At the front the war is turning against the Germans though there’s no relaxation of the iron fist in Bordeaux. Superintendent Lannes is under pressure to collaborate with the deportation of the Jews and the new German supervisor won’t countenance the passive-aggressive delaying tactics hitherto employed. Lannes is on the edge in other ways also: One son happily serves the Vichy government, the other has left home to join De Gaulle’s Free French, his daughter’s romance with a Fully-fledged collaborator leaves him uncomfortable and his wife’s depression is creating an unbridgable gap in the marriage. Outside home, the safety of his Jewish friends is under threat and the “rather sweet tart” (as the author described her at Aye Write in March) consorts openly with the Germans. In the midst of this world gone mad, Lannes tries to remain ethical, particularly during his murder investigations.
This brings us right back to Maigret, who too was concerned with higher justice, not necessarily the law. Maigret, however, wasn’t operating in Vichy France, and so was not subjected to the external, political and, frankly impossible pressures that Lannes faces on a daily basis – Pressures that create unpalatable realities namely a) it’s not always possible to see justice served (politics gets in the way) and b) Lannes cannot always keep himself on the side of right.
For those who have read the first two in this series (reviewed here), one of the big questions is whether Lannes will actually be allowed to prosecute the murderer of Gabrielle Peniel, who is found dead with a silk stocking round her neck. His subordinate, Inspector Moncerre, calls it a “pre-war crime”, so there’s every likelihood …..
… provided the events of the war don’t interfere. As the novel draws to the end, it is becoming increasingly clear that the war has turned, but can it turn quickly enough to ensure the survival of Lannes friends? And what about those who haven’t exactly struggled against the German yoke? We know what is to come but Massie’s characters do not. They really are pinned on the horns of the present and Massie paints them realistically, without judgment, purposely so.
“I hope so,” he says, “because once you become judgmental, you’re feeling superior to your characters. In novels such as this you are placing your characters in positions that you have never been in yourself, and what you are really asking is, how would you behave in these conditions? And I don’t think you have any right to say I would have behaved much better than they would.” (Interview with The Herald 15.02.14).
Over the course of three novels Massie’s characters have become real and, while they have a growing awareness (hope?) of a German defeat in the offing, we are certain of it and know of the dreadful reprisals that will follow in the Épuration. What I am not sure of is the definition of culpable collaboration, nor how Lannes will fare. Massie admitted that he was rather worried for his “sweet, little tart”. Well, I’m terrified on her behalf, and yet, the concluding part of this quartet can’t be published quickly enough.
A Death In Pont-Aven / Dog Will Have His Day / Cold Winter In Bordeaux