Dark Summer in Bordeaux, By Allan Massie. Quartet, £10


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The Independent Culture

What is the nature of right action? When can the individual follow its dictates, given loyalties and other responsibilities? Given these preoccupations that figure in several of his novels set during and after the Second World War, it is not surprising that Vichy France is a subject Allan Massie has revisited. After A Question of Loyalties came a crime novel, Death in Bordeaux, to which Dark Summer in Bordeaux is a sequel.

Massie is no more a natural crime writer than John Banville (aka Benjamin Black). Plot is of limited interest to both: what the form provides is a violent crisis that puts character under pressure. Vichy is as much a state of mind as a place for Massie's Superintendent Lannes. Bordeaux itself, though southerly, is in the Occupied Zone because of its strategic coastal position. But the inner gaze of several characters is directed at Petain's capital, the sleepy spa town in central France, where a corrupt essence is distilled from a nation divided by politics and race.

Dark Summer in Bordeaux faces the problem of being an autonomous work while giving some complex information about its predecessor. Massie has not entirely solved this, but Lannes's personal and professional situation soon become compelling. His family is divided: one son is bound for a job in Vichy, the other longs to serve with the Free French. His wife, for whom only family matters, is increasingly estranged from him.

Once again, Lannes finds himself investigating a murder that the powers-that-be would like to see forgotten – of an elderly academic, Marxist brother of the Petainist advocate Labiche. The divisions ought to seem schematic, but the ordinary misery of home and the malign pomposity of Labiche are convincingly present.

A sense of horror grows. Lannes goes on with his stalled investigation, only to find that just as he crosses into active resistance, he is receiving assistance from an enemy. The further Lannes goes into the labyrinth, the more interesting his life becomes. More please, soon.