Death in Room Five by George Bellairs

George Bellairs, author of over fifty crime novels, many of them featuring the character of Inspector Littlejohn, seems to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity recently due to various publishers bringing a selection of his titles back into print. This one, Death in Room Five, is the second I’ve read and like my first, A Knife for Harry Dodd, it has been reissued by Agora Books.

In Death in Room Five, first published in 1955, Inspector Littlejohn is looking forward to taking a break from detective work and enjoying the sun, sea and sand of the French Riviera. His holiday has hardly begun, however, when a party of British tourists arrive, one of them is stabbed to death in the street, and Littlejohn finds himself drawn into a murder investigation. The dead man – the Alderman Dawson, from the fictional English town of Bolchester – appears at first to have been a respectable, honourable pillar of the community, but Littlejohn soon discovers that there is no shortage of people who had reasons to dislike Dawson or to benefit from his death.

This is an interesting and well-constructed murder mystery with plenty of suspects all with a possible motive for wanting Dawson dead. In order to understand the background of each suspect’s relationship with the Alderman, Littlejohn has to make a brief journey back to England to interview the residents of Bolchester (leaving the long-suffering Mrs Littlejohn to continue their holiday alone) but most of the action takes place in the south of France. I loved the beautiful descriptions of the Riviera, and the French setting also allows Bellairs to explore an intriguing motive for the murder – Dawson’s involvement with the French Resistance during the war.

It’s quite a complex mystery and although I didn’t find the solution particularly convincing, I appreciated the way Bellairs misleads us with red herrings and keeps us guessing to the end. However, I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as A Knife for Harry Dodd because I thought the characters in that one were more interesting to read about. Apart from the formidable Mrs Beaumont, I found the characters in this book less memorable and so the novel as a whole was not as entertaining. I did love the setting, though, and was pleased to discover that there are several other Littlejohn mysteries set in France, as well as on the Isle of Man, which is where Bellairs lived after his retirement. I’m looking forward to trying some of them.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard by Melvyn Bragg

I’ve never read anything by Melvyn Bragg before, although he has been writing since the 1960s and most of his novels fall into my favourite genre, historical fiction. His new book, Love Without End, a retelling of the story of Abelard and Heloise – often described as one of the greatest love stories of all time – sounded appealing to me, so I thought I would give it a try.

The novel opens in 12th century Paris, where Heloise is living with her uncle, the canon Fulbert. She is intelligent, resourceful and exceptionally well educated for a woman of her time, particularly in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. When the renowned philosopher and scholar Peter Abelard returns to Paris after an absence of a few years, Heloise longs to go and sit with the male students listening to his lectures, but she is aware that this is an opportunity open only to men. A solution is found when Canon Fulbert allows Abelard to join his household as private tutor to Heloise, but he quickly comes to regret this decision when he discovers that his niece and her tutor have fallen in love.

I’m not going to say any more about the legend of Heloise and Abelard – if you don’t already know the story you probably don’t want me to spoil it for you, and it’s so well documented the details can easily be looked up online anyway. All I will say is that, like Romeo and Juliet and other legendary lovers, their romance is dramatic and tragic. Melvyn Bragg’s account follows the usual, accepted outline of the story, using sources such as the Penguin Classics collection of the translated letters of Abelard and Heloise, although he also uses his imagination to fill in some of the gaps and mixes some fictional characters in with the real historical ones.

Despite all the drama and tragedy, however, I found this novel strangely flat and emotionless. There seemed to be no real chemistry between Heloise and Abelard; although Bragg tells us that they are passionately in love, I never really felt that for myself. Even the setting never came to life; I wanted to know what it felt like to live in 12th century Paris, what it looked like, sounded like, smelled like…but instead I came away with the feeling that the story might as well have been taking place in any city and at any time.

Even so, I might have still enjoyed this book if it had just concentrated solely on the story of Abelard and Heloise. Recently, though, I’m finding that authors rarely seem to write books set entirely in the past anymore. Instead we get two alternating storylines – one set in the past and one in the present. In this case, the present day story follows an author, Arthur, who is visiting Paris with his daughter, Julia, to finish researching and writing a novel about Abelard and Heloise. It is supposedly Arthur’s novel that we are reading in the historical chapters, while in the modern day chapters he and Julia talk about his work and how he has interpreted various parts of the Abelard and Heloise legend.

The Arthur and Julia storyline appears to exist purely as a way for Bragg to discuss and comment on various aspects of the relationship between Heloise and Abelard or to explain things for the benefit of the modern reader, rather than leaving us to reach our own conclusions. Most of the discussions involve Julia questioning Abelard’s behaviour and Arthur trying to defend him by pointing out that she needs to put things into historical context and judge Abelard by the standards of the 12th century instead of the 21st. I found both Arthur and Julia very irritating; their dialogue seemed unnatural and not the way two people would speak to each other in real life. They just didn’t feel like real human beings at all and were a distraction from the Heloise and Abelard story rather than an interesting addition to it.

This was disappointing, but if you’ve enjoyed any of Melvyn Bragg’s other books maybe you can convince me to give him another chance? Also, if anyone has read anything else about Abelard and Heloise – or even some of the original letters and writings – please let me know what you would recommend.

Thanks to Skyhorse Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

Casanova and the Faceless Woman is the first in a series of historical mysteries by French author Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, set in pre-Revolutionary France. There are currently seven books in the series but this one, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, is the first to appear in English. When I was offered a copy for review by Pushkin Vertigo I was immediately intrigued because although I read a lot of historical mysteries I don’t think I’ve read any set in this particular period.

It’s 1759 and Louis XV is on the throne of France. He is not a popular king – unrest is growing amongst those who feel they have been oppressed under his reign and his rumoured liaisons with innocent young girls have not helped his reputation either – and there are several different factions plotting to overthrow or discredit him. Not long before our story begins, Louis had been the target of an assassination attempt and narrowly avoided being stabbed to death thanks to the quick actions of the Chevalier de Volnay. As a reward for his bravery, Volnay has been given the title of Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, responsible for investigating particularly unusual crimes on the king’s behalf.

One such crime occurs when a young woman is found dead in a dark Paris courtyard with the skin torn away from her face. On arriving at the scene, Volnay removes a sealed letter from the corpse intending to examine it later, but it seems that someone – perhaps several people – have seen him do it. Over the days that follow, as Volnay sets about trying to identify the woman and hunt down her killer, he himself is hunted by those who want to retrieve the letter and will stop at nothing to get it back.

Volnay interested me from the beginning because he is such a mysterious character. We are told very little about him at first, with the secrets of his tragic and eventful past being revealed very gradually as the story progresses. He seems very alone in the world, his only companions being a monk (with whom he forms a fascinating crime-solving partnership) and a tame magpie. There is a sense that he is not somebody who finds it easy to love or to trust others, and so, when he enters into a relationship with the beautiful Chiara D’Ancilla, we worry that he is going to get hurt – especially as his rival in love is the legendary Casanova.

Giacomo Casanova is one of several real historical figures who have important roles to play in the novel; others include Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, and the Comte de Saint-Germain, the alchemist, sorcerer and musician who has fascinated me since I first met him in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I don’t think Casanova has appeared in any other novels I’ve read, although his career as writer, adventurer, gambler and, most famously, seducer of women, makes him an ideal subject for historical fiction. His character is well developed and convincing here and Barde-Cabuçon explores events from his past in order to explain his present behaviour, but I could never quite warm to him because my sympathies were with Volnay from the start. While Casanova seems to treat his romance with Chiara – and his involvement with the stolen letter and all the intrigue surrounding it – as a game, for Volnay these things are literally a matter of life and death.

I’m not sure whether Louis was really as disgusting and depraved as he is depicted in the novel but his reign certainly wasn’t seen as very successful and I think the author does a good job of conveying the mood in France in the years leading up to the Revolution and the discontent of the people with the king and the aristocracy. However, as a mystery novel, I thought the plot felt a bit more complicated than it really needed to be and the action moved between one set of characters and another too quickly, so that there were times when I struggled to hold on to all the different threads of the story. I also found the ending unnecessarily dramatic with one twist too many – although I had been intrigued by some of the revelations near the end, which left me wanting to read the next book in the series. I hope it’s going to be available in English soon too as I would love to see more of the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

The She-Wolf by Maurice Druon

First published in French in 1959 as La Louve de France (The She-Wolf of France), this is the fifth novel in Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series. The series – which began with The Iron King – tells the story of Philip IV of France and his descendants, a line of kings “cursed to the thirteenth generation” by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, whom Philip sent to burn at the stake. So far, the curse seems to have been very effective, as in the first four novels we have seen poisoned kings, strangled queens, failed marriages and family feuds.

In this book, the action switches to England for a while, where Isabella – Philip’s daughter – is unhappily married to the English king, Edward II. Feeling that her husband cares more for his favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, than he does for her, Isabella has turned to Roger Mortimer for comfort. As the novel opens, Roger escapes from imprisonment in the Tower of London and flees to France, where he hopes to gain support to return to England at the head of an army.

Meanwhile, Isabella’s brother, Charles, has just become France’s fourth king in eight years following the death of their elder brother, Philippe V. The new Charles IV proves to be a weak king but others who surround him at court continue to plot and scheme, looking for ways to gain power for themselves. But unknown to Charles, the person who could pose the biggest threat to his reign is far away, growing up in the care of Marie de Cressay, his existence known only to a select few.

It’s been a few years since I read the fourth book in this series (The Royal Succession) and I worried that I might struggle to remember what had happened in the previous novels. Luckily, the prologue gives us a reminder and then fills us in on the details of the reign of Philippe V the Long, who had just taken the throne at the end of The Royal Succession and is dead before this book begins. I was sorry that we weren’t able to spend more time with Philippe in The She-Wolf as I thought he was a much more interesting character than his brother Charles, but I’m sure Druon must have had his reasons for not writing much about that period and moving quickly on to the next king.

So far, most of the history covered in this series has been new to me and the books have given me a good introduction to the reigns of the Capet kings of France. With The She-Wolf I was on more familiar ground as there was more focus on English history and Isabella is someone I have read about several times before (both in non-fiction such as Helen Castor’s She-Wolves and in novels including Isabella by Colin Falconer and, indirectly, Susan Howatch’s Cashelmara which I’m currently re-reading). I was a bit disappointed that Isabella isn’t really given a chance to shine in this book; despite her strength and intelligence, it is Roger Mortimer who is shown to be in control and making all the decisions. Having said that, I did like the fact that she and Roger are portrayed as being genuinely in love; this helped me to believe in their characters and their relationship.

Edward II comes across very badly in this book (which does usually seem to be the case and I can’t really think of any positive portrayals of him in fiction). Druon takes the view that Edward’s relationships with Piers Gaveston and then Hugh Despenser were of a homosexual nature, although there is some debate about this today, and he also sticks with the traditional story surrounding the method of Edward’s death, which again has not been proved. The book was written in the 1950s, though, and I assume they were probably the accepted theories at that time. I can’t comment at all on the accuracy of the French sections of the novel, but I think it’s clear that Druon did his research – as with the other books in the series, there’s an extensive section of historical notes at the back which are referenced throughout the text. And as ever, Humphrey Hare’s English translation is clear and easy to read.

I was disappointed that the battle of wits between the scheming Mahaut d’Artois and her nephew Robert, which has played such a big part in the previous novels, was pushed into the background and I was also sorry not to see more of two other recurring characters, Marie de Cressay and Guccio Baglioni. For those reasons, although I did enjoy this book, it’s not one of my favourites in the series, but I’m still looking forward to reading the final two and finding out what happens in the next one, The Lily and the Lion.

Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini

I love Rafael Sabatini’s books. His classic tale of the French Revolution, Scaramouche, and his two famous pirate novels, Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk, have been some of my favourite reads of the last few years, while Bellarion was a great book too. I’m now beginning to explore his more obscure books and chose this one, Bardelys the Magnificent, more or less at random when I was putting my Classics Club list together. I hoped it would be a good choice – and it was!

The story is set in 17th century France, during the reign of Louis XIII, and is narrated by the wealthy Marquis de Bardelys, a ‘libertine, a gambler, a rake, a spendthrift’ and a favourite of the King. As the novel opens, Bardelys is hosting a party in Paris at which his rival, the Comte de Chatellerault, makes an unwelcome appearance. It is well known that Chatellerault has recently tried and failed to win the hand in marriage of the beautiful Roxalanne de Lavedan and as Bardelys and his friends tease the Comte about his failure, the discussion becomes more heated. Before the night is over, Bardelys finds himself wagering his entire fortune that he can succeed where Chatellerault could not – and he sets off the next day for Languedoc, the home of Roxalanne.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and following a series of misunderstandings, Bardelys arrives at the Lavedan estate under a mistaken identity. When he meets Roxalanne and discovers that he is genuinely falling in love with her, he knows that he should tell her the truth about who he really is, but as time goes by it becomes harder and harder to do this. To complicate things further, Bardelys learns that the man whose identity he has stolen is a wanted traitor. Our hero’s life quickly becomes such a confusing mess that it’s difficult to see how anything can ever be resolved! Will he lose his fortune, his life, or the love of Roxalanne – or will he somehow manage to keep all three?

Bardelys the Magnificent is one of Sabatini’s earliest novels, published in 1906, and although I did find it weaker than the others I’ve mentioned above, it’s another entertaining adventure with all the drama, romance, political intrigue and sword fights that you would expect. As a character, I found Marcel de Bardelys less memorable than other Sabatini protagonists such as Andre-Louis Moreau, Peter Blood and Oliver Tressilian, but he is still interesting and engaging. I referred to him as a hero above, but he is not particularly heroic at all – he is selfish and irresponsible, he makes one mistake after another, and his original reason for wanting to marry Roxalanne is hardly very admirable. Despite all of this, I still had some sympathy for him and wanted him to succeed – and, thankfully, he does also develop as a character as the novel progresses. While concealing his true identity, he finds out what people really think of him and sees himself as he appears to others.

Although I wouldn’t recommend Bardelys as the best place to start with Sabatini, if you’re already a fan I’m sure you’ll enjoy this early example of his work as much as I did. I’m looking forward to exploring more of his lesser-known novels and hope my next choice will be another good one.

This is book 11/50 from my Classics Club list.

The Poppy Field by Deborah Carr

2018 has been an eventful year in many ways and in November we marked the one hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. I picked up Deborah Carr’s new novel, The Poppy Field, to read over the centenary weekend, but I’ve since fallen behind with my reviews, which is why I’m only posting about it now.

The Poppy Field has two narratives, one set in 2018 and the other in 1916-18. First, in the present day, we meet Gemma, a British trauma nurse who has taken some time away from her stressful job to work on the renovation of a farmhouse in Doullens, in Northern France. Her father has recently inherited it and wants to get it into a good enough condition to be able to sell. With the help of Tom, a man she meets in Doullens who offers to assist with the building work, Gemma begins the long and difficult task of restoring the house to its former beauty. During the refurbishment, they discover a bundle of old letters dating back to World War I, written by an Alice Le Breton, and as soon as Gemma settles down to start reading them, she becomes obsessed with finding out how Alice’s story will end.

The other thread of the novel follows Alice, a young woman from Jersey in the Channel Islands, who volunteers as a VAD nurse at a casualty clearing station near Doullens during the war. Working conditions at the station are challenging and often horrifying, as wounded soldiers are brought in from the front line and the doctors and nurses do their best to save lives with the limited medication and equipment available to them. In the midst of so much pain and suffering, Alice is still able to find some happiness when she falls in love with one of her patients – but in times of war life is uncertain and Alice knows that her dreams could be shattered in an instant.

Although Alice and Gemma are very different people, there are many parallels between their stories – they are both nurses, they have both reached important turning points in their lives, and they have both found themselves in the same part of France. They also each become involved in a romance, but while I found Alice’s very moving (as wartime romances usually are), I thought Gemma’s was less convincing and very predictable. She meets the man who will become her love interest almost as soon as she arrives in France and there’s no real suspense involved in wondering whether they will end up together or not. Gemma’s whole storyline felt like little more than a frame for Alice’s, but I find that’s often the case with dual-time period novels and I almost always prefer one narrative over the other.

Although I’d hoped for more from this book, I did still enjoy it, particularly the historical sections and the details of Alice’s nursing work. The two separate threads of the story tie together nicely towards the end and the novel as a whole is an interesting and poignant read.

Thanks to HarperImpulse for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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).