Edinburgh International Book Festival 16.08.2012

Question to Allan Massie: How do you think you would have responded as a French man in occupied France during the early 1940’s?

Allan Massie: I would have been a tepid collaborator.

He stressed that the French believed that the war had been lost and that the only recourse was to make the best of it, particularly as they never thought that Britain would carry on fighting. Resistance to the Nazis only started in France when Hitler invaded Russia and was so long in coming because the Germans were instructed to behave correctly in France, which they did until about 1943-44.

Why the history lesson? Because Massie, a modern day Scottish polymath, author of some 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction, has turned his attention to historical crime writing. Vichy France has long fascinated him. In 1989 he published the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year A Question of Loyalties, which is also set there.

One of his objectives is to show that pleasant things happen even during a war. People try to live normal lives. It is remarkable, he said, that Kafka never mentioned World War I in his diaries. And so his characters, living in occupied Bordeaux, come to terms with the political situation. They raise families, enjoy good food and wine (when they can get it), fall in love, read excellent literature! In the first of the series Death In Bordeaux, the French surrender and the establishment of occupied sector is a matter of hope for Lannes and his wife, whose eldest son, is a prisoner of war in Germany. These new circumstances may mean his release.

Of course, nasty things do happen and Lannes finds himself investigating a rather sordid murder which sees him having to pit himself against degenerate members of the French elite and influential Vichy apologists. Crime fiction fans will recognise familiar tropes and be delighted by the subtle reconfiguration: Lannes, although living with his wife, is estranged from her because of her distress at her son’s absence; his relationship with his superior, excellent at the start, begins to fracture over the issues of collaboration and compromise.

These vexed issues grow thorns in the second novel, Dark Summer In Bordeaux, as people sicken of “this war that is not being fought”. The characters begin to polarise in their opinions with Lannes’s sons taking opposing stances. One leaves to take up a position in Vichy France, the other to join de Gaulle’s fledgling resistance. Interestingly Massie said they were both admirable characters. They just have different ideas and ideals. That non-judgmental attitude carries over into the writing with the reader being able to understand the rationale of both. Poor Lannes is literally stuck in the middle, a man whose sympathies lie with his “musketeer” son yet a servant of the establishment, seeking to preserve his integrity in the face of extraordinary political pressures, which, one can only assume, are going to intensify as the Vichy years progress. You have to sympathise when he longs for a “an old-fashioned, pre-war murder” i.e one that he solve without political interference and admire him for his resolution to some of the occupiers’ demands.

There’s no denying it. The clouds are darkening in Dark Summer in Bordeaux. The thunderstorm approaches and while that may be bad news for Lannes (and I admit, knowing where this goes historically, I am beginning to worry on his behalf), the good news for me is that Massie’s original trilogy has now become a quartet. Cheekily he said he would write more, if he were approached with regard to a TV series. Thought I’d pass the message on as I wish someone would start talking to the man now!

Death In Bordeaux / Dark Summer in Bordeaux