Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Quartet, 2010, 284 p.

 Death in Bordeaux cover

Part One; Bordeaux, Spring 1940. A body is discovered and Superintendent Jean Lannes is called to investigate. He is acquainted with the deceased, Gaston Chambolley, whose penis has been cut off and placed in his mouth as if this were a crime committed because of Chambolley’s homosexuality. The body has been moved, though, and Lannes soon supects the motive was political rather than due to prejudice, disgust, or a sexual encounter gone wrong. Chambolley had been looking into the death of his brother Henri’s wife Pilar, a Spaniard active in the Republican movement.

The times hang over proceedings like a pall. Bordeaux’s mayor is a fascist and the city rife with prejudice against Spanish refugees, Reds and Jews. For the first half of the novel the Phoney War pervades the background, a threat merely delayed. Lannes’s son Dominique is in the army manning the Maginot line and his wife, Marguerite, sick with worry. Lannes’s brother-in-law, high up in local government, spouts the ruling party line. The supervising magistrate is keen to shut the inquiry down but Lannes and his colleagues do not like unsolved cases.

When Lannes is sent to the Comte de Grimaud who requests him to track down the source of poison pen letters about the Comte’s (fourth) wife, Miriam, he has been receiving, the murder case takes on a twist. Chambolley was an associate of the Comte’s grandson, Maurice, who seeks out Lannes to tell him he witnessed the possible murderers entering the ground floor of Chambolley’s apartment block the night he was killed. Further complications ensue when one of Chambolley’s contacts with the Spanish, Javier Cortazar, is also found murdered, again mutilated. This seems to lead only to another dead end, though.

The Comte’s heir, Edmond, another with fascist leanings – but national government contacts – continually warns Lannes off “disturbing” the family even after the Comte is found dead after a fall down the stairs. The de Grimaud housekeeper (in the long ago another of the Comte’s many sexual conquests, one of whom may even have been his own daughter, and the Comte the father of her illegitimate child) suspects that child, known variously as Marcel or Sigi to be the perpetrator. On leaving a restaurant where he had been meeting Edmond, Lannes gets shot and it is possible that Edmond may have engineered this.

In Part Two the chapters do not have the date headings that Part One’s did, but we are several months down the line, Lannes is back on duty, his wounded son is in a POW camp and Bordeaux under German occupation. The justiciaire, however, will be left to its own sphere except in so far as crime is political and impinges on Germans or the occupation. Lannes’s other children, Clothilde and Alain, do not quite know how to interact with the German soldier billeted in the flat above theirs, but Marguerite now has to worry whether Alain will be drawn into something foolish.

Under the occasional disapproval of his new boss, an Alsatian called Schnyder (who privately laments to Lannes that many of his young countrymen will now be drafted into the Wehrmacht,) and of the supervising magistrate, Lannes still plugs away at the Chambolley/Cortazar case. A trip to Vichy, that deluded spa town, to interview Edmond confirms his powerlessness in the face of the new order.

Massie is a Scot but when out of the blue one character uses the Scots word blethers, it seemed a little odd in the mouth of a Frenchwoman. Then again, why not? The novel wasn’t written in French. Considering Massie’s previous work it seems something of a diversion for Massie to take on the crime novel as a form, though he has previously interrogated the French experience during the Second World War.

If it is the duty of the detective story to set the world to rights this one fails in that regard, at least in this volume. By its end things are worse than at the start, with the Germans in charge and little place for honest policemen, unless they can keep their heads well down, and the lives of the general populace circumscribed and compromised.

It is only the first in a quartet though. The other three are on my shelves.

Pedant’s corner:- Lannes’ (innumerable instances, Lannes’s – of which there were some examples,) a missing full stop (x 2,) “hadn’t know Pilar well” (known,) “they were praised her in her day” (no first ‘her’, or, no ‘in her’ needed,) Republiqué (République,) “of is being” (of his being,) “an dark blue handkerchief” (a dark blue,) inasmuchas (in as much as,) Clotilde (several times, usually Clothilde but, once, Cothilde,) a line indentation in the middle of a paragraph, “grande-me’re’s health” (grand-mère’s,) “‘That’s what I trying to get across’” (what I was trying to get across,) “‘in the matter of subject to investigation’” (in the matter subject to investigation,) “‘all I was thinking off’” (thinking of,) innumerable misplaced quotation marks some even reversed or missing, missing commas before or after direct speech, “the length of tis body” (its body,) “had spoken for a document” (of a document,) Cours del’Intendance? (Cours de l’Intendance,) “no doubt either than in a strange way” (that in a strange way,) “they had not see the count” (seen,) “Blind Man’s Bluff” (as I recall it was always Blind Man’s Buff,) “ad sit with him” (and sit,) “‘we should only to see good order maintained’” (we should only [seek?] to see good order maintained,) “without new masters” (with our new masters.) “‘Poor Jules,’ He said” (‘Poor Jules,’ he said,) “and is actress friend” (and his.) “Or an instant she responded” (For an instant,) “a hornet’s next” (nest,) “if not immediately than in time” (then in time,) “‘nobody in their right minds ever going to buy’” (nobody in their right mind’s ever.) “‘I sure of it’” (I’m sure of it,) “‘how would we fell afterwards’” (how would we feel afterwards,) “‘wsn’t she?’” (wasn’t she,) “the blossomed with a rush” (then blossomed,) Lanne (Lannes.)

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