Dark Summer in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

This is the second in Allan Massie’s four-book crime series set in occupied France during the Second World War. My review is as spoiler-free as I could make it, so it should be safe to read on even if you’re new to the series, but I would definitely recommend beginning with the first book, Death in Bordeaux, as there are lots of recurring characters and some storylines which continue from book to book.

In Dark Summer in Bordeaux, we re-join Superintendent Jean Lannes of the Bordeaux Police as he is called out to deal with another crime – this time involving the murder of an elderly man, whose body has been found in a city park. As Lannes learns more about the man and how he died, some political implications begin to emerge, as well as some surprising links to the murders committed in the previous novel. Lannes comes under pressure from his superiors who want the investigations brought to a close as quickly as possible, but he is not ready to drop the case just yet – not until he finds out what is really going on here.

Investigating a murder is never going to be easy or pleasant at the best of times, but it is particularly challenging for Lannes because of the political situation in France, where the demands and concerns of the Vichy secret services, the German occupiers and the French Resistance all have to be taken into consideration. As a decent, principled person Lannes often finds himself torn between his conscience telling him to do what he knows is right and see justice done, and his common sense telling him to do as he is told and keep his family safe.

As if the stress of his job was not enough, Lannes is also worried about all three of his children, for different reasons. His eldest son, Dominique, is making plans to go and work for the Vichy regime, while Alain, whose views are rather different, wants to join Charles de Gaulle and the Free French. Meanwhile, his daughter, Clothilde, announces that she is in love with the young German officer who is stationed in their apartment block. Lannes is not very happy about any of this, but only because he is looking ahead to a time when (he hopes) the war will be over and a wrong decision taken now could have disastrous consequences. His wife, Marguerite, has her own opinions and this is causing tension in her marriage to Lannes.

As well as Lannes and his family, we also catch up with other characters from the previous book, including one of my favourite characters – Leon, the nephew of Lannes’ friend Miriam. Leon is in a particularly interesting – and dangerous – position in Vichy France, being both Jewish and gay, and this makes him a target of blackmailers and others who want to take advantage of him for their own ends. It seems that, in Bordeaux, the war is bringing out the best in some people and the worst in others. It’s a fascinating setting, even more so because I have read so little about life in France during the Occupation.

I haven’t said much about the mystery aspect of this novel, but that’s because I found it almost secondary to the setting and the characters. The murder of the man in the park is important and ties all the other threads of the story together, but I was much less interested in finding out who killed him than I was in reading about Leon’s ordeals or Alain’s support for the Resistance. I found this a more enjoyable book than the first one, probably because I already knew the characters and was invested in what happened to them. I’m looking forward to continuing with the third book, Cold Winter in Bordeaux.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery).

Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

As some of you may know, I am currently working my way through all of the titles shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since the prize began in 2010. Allan Massie’s End Games in Bordeaux appeared on the 2016 list, but on discovering that it was the final book in a series of four, I was faced with a dilemma: should I just read the book that I needed to read for the prize or should I do as I usually prefer to do and start from the beginning of the series? In the end I decided to at least try the first book, Death in Bordeaux, in the hope that I would enjoy it enough to want to read the other three anyway.

The novel opens in Bordeaux in March 1940, with Superintendent Jean Lannes investigating the death of an old friend, Gaston Chambolley, whose mutilated body has been found in a street near the railway station. Gaston was homosexual and Lannes’s superiors are happy to assume that this was some sort of sex crime, but Lannes himself is sure there must be another explanation. The dead man’s sister-in-law has gone missing after becoming caught up in the political intrigue surrounding the Spanish Civil War, but as soon as Lannes suggests that her disappearance could be linked in some way with Gaston’s murder, he is ordered to drop his investigations immediately. Lannes, however, knows that he won’t be able to rest until he finds out who killed his friend and why.

In a seemingly unrelated case, he is also called in to help the elderly Comte de Grimaud identify the sender of some threatening letters he has received. As he gets to know the various members of the Comte’s dysfunctional family, Lannes begins to uncover some links with the other case he is working on – and that is all I will say about the plot, as it quickly becomes quite complex and I couldn’t go any further without spoiling the story.

All of this unfolds during the early stages of World War II – a period in which, at first, very little seems to be happening despite France having declared war on Germany. Soon, though, France becomes occupied, refugees from Paris begin to arrive in Bordeaux, and Lannes and his wife become increasingly afraid for their eldest son, Dominique, who is at the Front. While the author does provide a lot of historical detail, describing the major events and political decisions, and setting the story in its context, the focus is always on how the war is affecting the lives of our main characters: Lannes’ wife, Marguerite, writes letters to Dominique which she knows she’ll never send; their younger children, Alain and Clothilde, try to decide how they feel about the occupation of their country; and Alain’s new Jewish friend, Léon, wonders for how much longer he will be safe in France.

By the end of the novel, the war is still in progress and the personal stories of the characters mentioned above (and many others) have not been resolved. I believe that in the next book in the series, Dark Summer in Bordeaux, we rejoin some of the characters introduced in this one, so for that reason I’m glad I decided to start at the beginning. I can’t say that I loved this book – I found it slow and a bit too drawn out in places and it didn’t really work for me as a murder mystery. As a portrayal of life in Occupied France, though, it is an interesting, quietly atmospheric read. I liked it enough to want to continue with the second novel – and hopefully then the third and the fourth.

This is Book #3 for the R.I.P. XII challenge.

2016 Walter Scott Prize shortlist

Following the announcement last month of this year’s longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, today the shortlist of six books has been revealed. As I am currently attempting to work my way through all of the books shortlisted for the prize since it began in 2010 (see my progress here), I was particularly interested to see which titles would make the list this year. And here they are:

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Sweet Caress

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

A Place Called Winter

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

Mrs Engels

End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

End Games in Bordeaux

Tightrope by Simon Mawer


Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek

Have you read any of these? If not, are there any you’re interested in reading?

So far I have only read one of the six – A Place Called Winter, which I enjoyed, although I haven’t posted my review yet. I know very little about any of the other books on the list, but I do know that Tightrope is a sequel and End Games in Bordeaux is the fourth in a quartet, which means, with my preference for reading a series in order, I will have some catching up to do before I can start either of those two!

I’m surprised – and slightly disappointed – that there’s no place on the shortlist for A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson or Dictator by Robert Harris, both of which had been longlisted, but congratulations to the six authors above. The winner will be announced in June.