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Death on the Pont Noir by Adrian Magson

Death on the Pont Noir by Adrian Magson

Half the fun of reading modern historical fiction in political thriller mode is to be able to compare the times and places described by the author with what I experienced. Just after the time this is set, I was staying in Vannes, Brittany, expanding on my search for variations on la belle langue. Later that year, I was over in Arras and Soissons, not so far from the fictional Poissons-Les-Marias in Picardie where the food and wine are delights and, it seems, crime was rampant. I was also a reasonably regular visitor to London but, for reasons which escape me, never had occasion to rub shoulders with the Kray Twins or the Richardson Gang (fortuitous since they tended to use cheese graters to rub shoulders and other parts of the anatomy). The Richardsons never had quite the celebrity status of the Kray Twins, but it’s impossible to have lived through that era of criminal gangs and not be aware of their activities. Those people were part of the folklore of the day. That said, we have a slight dissonance here.

Death on the Pont Noir by Adrian Magson (Allison & Busby, 2013) is the third book featuring Inspector Lucas Rocco. This is set in 1963 after the assassination attempt on De Gaulle. Our hero has been transferred from Paris to work with his former army commanding officer, now Police Commissaire, François Massin. Rocco is a city person out of water in rural surroundings, but making it all work reasonably well. As to the dissonance. . . To say the people I met in Brittany were oblivious to national events would be a mischaracterisation. Rather as Wales has endured centuries of oppression from the English, so Brittany preferred not to see itself as interested in the problems of France as a colonial power. If anything, they identified with the Algerians as fellow sufferers under French occupation. There was more interest and political awareness in Arras as you would expect of a city. More people seemed vigilant with public buildings given a visible police presence to foster the belief security was a priority.

Adrian Magson

Adrian Magson

I vividly remember all the problems arising out of the relationship between France and Algeria, and had been in France when the plastique bombs were going off. In some parts of France, it was a time of ferment which, for most of the time, we Brits watched from the relative safety of our side of the Channel. Until the IRA mainland campaign got under way, that is. Then it was the Schadenfreude coming home to roost, as it were. And talking of things coming home, the OAS bombing and terrorist campaign killed hundreds, if not thousands. Families all over France were affected with relatives or friends killed. The word “pastique” entered the national discourse. People would joke with relief that they had not been pasticated that day — the first bomb going off in Paris on the 6th January, 1961. As a result of laws to regulate the property insurance industry, the risk of being blown up in France was formally recognized. The use of bombs to settle disputes was normalised.

Yet this book seems to be portraying this small part of France as living in a bubble. It’s a mise en scène and then on with the plot. It’s an historical time — OK so here’s a little background explaining who De Gaulle was and why he was controversial — and then on with the plot. I’m not saying there should have been a lot of detail but, for what’s billed as an historical thriller or police procedural, there sure ain’t a lot of history on display. Even the visit to London is perfunctory to move the plot forward. Apart from him buying some less appropriate clothing from Saville Row, there’s no sign London was beginning to swing.

Death on the Pont Noir is a purely functional piece of prose with everything subordinated to progressing the plot. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this so long as it’s a good plot. Fortunately for the author, this is a very nice piece of narrative engineering. Shorn of all extraneous detail, we move rapidly through the set-up, consider the implications, and then positively put the pedal to the metal in a race to see who can get to the end of the book in one piece. In many ways, this is an impressive piece of writing with very little redundancy. Too often today, you get a four-hundred page book and feel it’s been padded out to make the desired page count. Which is all somewhat ironic. I don’t usually criticise a book for not having enough colour and atmosphere in it. I’m not usually in the bean-counter’s corner when it comes to length. But, for once, I think a little more would have taken this good thrillerish police procedural and made it great.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. August 19, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    I rather liked the fact that there wasn’t too much ‘telling’ about the background, nor pandering to the foreigner’s view of France as a quaint and picturesque place with copious amounts of food. There was enough local atmosphere to draw me in, and more of that perhaps in the first two books of the series. But it seems quite plausible that, because Rocco is French and very much of his time, we see things through his eyes.

    • August 19, 2013 at 6:30 pm

      Reactions to a book are always subjective and I agree with you that, on many occasions, authors who write about a place and time want to show off their research or knowledge by cramming in background information. Too much telling, often through infodumps that slow down the pace, is a bad thing. Now let’s turn that around. If you have a society in which every town and city in the land has suffered the injury and deaths of relatives and friends as a direct result of their country’s policy towards a colony, everyone has an opinion about it and the politicians responsible. Yet in this book, no-one really discusses or comments on the problems. When people used to greet each other on the streets with a darkly humorous, “Not plasticated today, I see.” you might expect some reference to the possible need to be a little more vigilant for bombs if the President might be coming to the area. It all comes down to a question of credibility. To be plausible, French people of the time should talk about the politics and the bombing, even if only to joke about it. As you say, “looking through their eyes” involves assuming their life experiences and the effects of the terrorism on their outlook. It’s not a case of writing about how quaint it was. It wasn’t quaint at all. It was a time of recovery with the German occupation still on everyone’s minds. There were still hardships and shortages of some foods. Remember France had been through food rationing with food production down by 60% and imports completely cut off during the war. After the war, the farming communities were better off because they fed themselves first, but even though France did rather better than Britain, it was often on a peasant diet. Nothing ever went to waste. In the early 1960s, I was eating cows brain vol au vents with haricots. All offal was eaten as the young Boomers were growing up to replace lost population. Why do I think the description of London poor? Because it had been rebuilt more quickly than the rest of the country and the countercultural revolution was seen there first. If Rocco had been to London during the 1950s, he would have noted a significant change in 1963. Through his eyes, this foreign country would have seemed new and strange. I’m not saying there should have been reams of background and subtext. All I’m saying is the author is allowing readers to think France and Britain were little different to how they are now. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In my opinion, an honest historical novel should have enough detail in the subtext to communicate some, if not all, those differences.

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