In a recent book review, the historian Norman Stone wrote: ‘Maybe the second world war can now be left to novelists.’ Perhaps he was thinking of Allan Massie’s 1989 masterpiece A Question of Loyalties, an utterly convincing portrayal of a man making all the wrong choices for the noblest reasons in Vichy France. It’s such fertile territory that Massie has returned to it for a quartet of detective novels set in Occupied Bordeaux.
The final part, End Games in Bordeaux, sees Superintendent Lannes suspended at the wishes of his German overlords. He is politically suspect but there isn’t much to do anyway: ‘Nobody’s been murdering anybody, except what they will call war-work,’ one character says. Lannes’s family embodies the conflicts within France. One son, Alain, has fled to London to fight with De Gaulle. The mother’s favourite, Dominique, is in Vichy working to instil patriotic values in deprived children and, most tragically of all, his daughter, Clothilde, has fallen in love with a deluded patriot called Michel who joins the Germans fighting on the Eastern Front. This is vintage Massie — where we would see a fanatical Nazi, Massie gives us an easily led and not terribly bright idealist.
Lannes isn’t any more popular with the Resistance, who appear as little more than gangsters extorting money in return for protection when the war is over. I hope I’m not spoiling things too much to say that the Germans lose. Whereas the earlier novels are languid and claustrophobic, End Games has almost too much action for such a short book. There are moments of breathtaking excitement as Massie cuts between protagonists in Bordeaux, London, Paris and Russia. Lannes, so commanding in the early days of the war, now appears naive. Everyone around him is playing realpolitik whereas he charges around like a knight errant trying to solve crimes, right wrongs and save people he hardly knows. Unable to align with either side, he is suspected by both.
His son Dominique is wiser, making contact with the Resistance even while working for Vichy. The smoothest politician of all is François Mitterrand, who has a cameo role in the series first as a Vichy functionary and then as a leading light in the Resistance. ‘Vichy was necessary. I’ll never deny that — except in public,’ he says at one point. Finishing Massie’s Bordeaux Quartet, it’s hard to imagine how any work of history could give one a better understanding of the complexities of Occupied France.