End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Penguin, 1982, 158 p.

It is the duty of the detective story to set the world to rights, to remedy the transgression at its heart (usually a murder) by bringing its perpetrator to justice. The literary novel, however, affects to resemble the world in all its aspects – albeit mostly via a microcosm of that world – and therefore, unlike in the classic crime novel, good does not always prevail.

Massie’s series of books set in Bordeaux during wartime and occupation (of which the previous three were Death In Bordeaux, Dark Summer in Bordeaux and Cold Winter in Bordeaux,) seeks to square that circle, employing a literary sensibility but examining various crimes highlighting the more sordid aspects of human nature. In this final instalment things are again seen mainly from the point of view of Jean Lannes, Superintendent in the police judiciaire, who has been suspended from duty for being less than cooperative with the German occupiers, whose marriage has seen better days, whose sons are variously working for Vichy or acting as an agent for the Special Operations Executive and whose daughter’s boyfriend is on the Eastern Front with the Legion of French volunteers against Bolshevism. Wartime France in microcosm then.

Massie’s Bordeaux quartet is of course dealing, albeit obliquely, with an almighty transgression, the enormity of Nazi ideology. Inextricably bound up with that in these novels is the reality of French collaboration; willingly or not most French people were compromised by it, soiled by association. These are, however, matters that Lannes cannot remediate in any way. While the reader knows the outcome of the war, the prospect of the usual consolation of the detective novel is nevertheless withheld. It is to Massie’s credit that he illuminates the sheer grubbiness of life in such circumstances and intimates the deceptions with which the French people will reassure themselves after the war. Even the Allied landings in Normandy do not lift the gloom as the Germans still hang on in Bordeaux and their adherents, such as the Milice, continue to persecute those they deem traitors either to (Vichy) France or to what they would call decency.

The incident which starts proceedings here isn’t a crime, though. Lannes is asked privately to investigate the disappearance of Marie-Adelaide d’Herblay, a nineteen year-old who has gone off with one Aurélien Mabire, apparently of her own volition. This is something of a red herring as it serves only to draw Lannes once again into the sordid realm of the advocate Labiche whose various misdeeds have preoccupied Lannes for the whole Quartet, but it does relate back to earlier events where a music teacher was procuring very young girls for those who had a taste for them. Lannes is desperate to find someone to testify against Labiche, of whom he has a compromising photograph, but when Marie-Adelaide eventually turns up to see him her reaction is not what he expected.

Massie’s object is not to have justice done. It is to illustrate the complexities of human nature – especially under stress. No-one in the book is without fault of some sort – except perhaps the prostitute Yvette, for whom Lannes developed a soft spot and who of course, as a horizontal collaborator (even if out of necessity,) suffers the consequences of being labelled as such when the occupation ends.

In the end here, no-one is as they were at the beginning, the war has changed everything, except the influence of the powerful, or those who gravitate towards it. As is usual the literary novel unveils evolution; hence that circle isn’t squared. I’m not sure crime aficionados will be satisfied with this. The literary reader may also find the quartet’s focus to be too narrow.

Pedant’s corner:- Lannes’ (all names ending in ‘s’ are given s’ for their possessive form; but still, Lannes’s,) staunch (stanch,) Chemin-les-Dames (Chemin-des-Dames,) “no older that Dominique” (than,) Francois’ (since the ‘s’ in Francois is never pronounced its possessive demands ’s after it; Francois’s,) a question mark at the end of a spoken sentence that wasn’t a question, “and distrusted rather that envying the rich” (rather than envied.) “‘Expect it is, really’” (in context ‘Except it is’ makes more sense.)

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