The Prisoner of the Riviera by Janice Law
The Prisoner of the Riviera by Janice Law (Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2013) sees the historically real British artist Francis Bacon in his second mystery outing. As transitory sidekicks, he has his old nanny and Albert, his lover, caught up in intrigue just after the Second World War. For those of you not familiar with the man and his work, it’s appropriate to quote Wikipedia, “Bacon in person was a bon vivant, and notably and unapologetically gay.” This book is therefore implicitly gay in its outlook, taking as read the active oppression of the times with homosexuality still a crime in England and France.
It all begins as our happy couple are leaving a gambling establishment in London when a man is shot in front of them. Bacon does all he can to stabilise the man’s condition but, a few days later, the owner of the casino comes to their door. He reports the man dead of pneumonia. It seems there’s a widow who lives near Monte Carlo. Our hero had already arranged a trip to France. Would Bacon please deliver the deceased’s last words — upon confirmation of their receipt, his not insubstantial London gambling debts will be written off. It seems a suspiciously generous offer, but Bacon agrees, thinking he has nothing to lose. Sadly, this judgement proves wide of the mark. When he arrives at the indicated house on the Riviera to deliver the package, he suspects something is wrong and leaves as quickly as possible. Later the police arrive at his hotel. A body has been found at the house and he’s the only one seen entering or leaving.
This is very definitely an historical mystery with thriller elements, the plot dynamic depending on the politics immediately following the liberation of France. During the German occupation, the situation on the ground was complicated by the creation of the Vichy government. To show loyalty to the Germans, Marshal Philippe Pétain created the Milice, an extralegal paramilitary force to fight the Maquis in the Zone Libre except, in self-defence as they were targeted by the Resistance, this militia expanded its activities into the Zone Occupée. They were more feared than the SS because they knew the lay of the land and, by definition, spoke the language. Obviously, once the war was over, there were injuries and deaths as the members of the Resistance and local citizens took their revenge. Many of the Milice went into hiding or left the country but, with memories still fresh, their influence remains real. As is always the case, there’s also money at stake. As the de facto government in the south of France, people were in a position to acquire wealth. With the war over, there’s a race to either recover the money or deny the money to the other side. The combination of the desire for revenge and greed are powerful motivators.
So here comes the catalyst Bacon, a completely unashamed homosexual who makes no secret of his orientation. The situation could not call for someone more likely to stand out no matter what the size of the crowd. Walking into the village, asking which house is occupied by the widow, broadcasts his identity. The villagers cannot fail to report this foreigner to the police. No matter whether the police are corrupt, they cannot fail to suspect him of every possible kind of criminal behaviour. Now there are two priorities for him. First he must survive. Then he must engineer his return to England with the least possible damage. Fortunately for the reader, the second priority inevitably requires him to begin working out who’s on which side. Not, you understand, so that he can join any of the sides. But simply to know whether they are friend or foe or swing both ways. When a retired member of the Sûreté comes on to the scene, things heat up. In the old days, he was driven by the need to obtain evidence. Now he’s no longer a policeman, he can be more flexible. But with great flexibility comes great danger. Thank the Gods somethings like the Tour de France are eternal.
Insofar as it’s relevant, the sexuality of the protagonist is handled sensitively, drawing on the then prevailing demimonde for lifestyle and some of the characters. Although it’s slightly formulaic, The Prisoner of the Riviera manages a successful combination of mystery and thriller elements to produce an enjoyable read.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.