Review: The Unwanted Dead by Chris Lloyd
This novel by the Cardiff crime writer Chris Lloyd recently won the HWA Gold Crown Award for Best Historical Fiction and it’s easy to see why. Set in Paris, just after the German occupation has started, it oozes authenticity and abounds with local detail such as the apiary in a quiet corner of the Jardin de Luxembourg or knowing the best way to give chase through Montparnasse.
But this is not the Paris of the tour guides, but rather is a place where nerves are jangling: a jittery city which has just been taken over. Extravagant rumours abound about the atrocities the Germans have already perpetrated on their way here adding to the general paranoid air and apprehension. Truth, of course, is the first casualty of war.
At the dark, almost septic heart of the book is set detective Eddie Giral, a man who takes so many beatings you imagine half his body mass must be scar tissue. He’s a veteran of the First World War who carries a heavy burden – memories of terrible things he has seen and done.
When he was a young soldier he was ‘gassing and shooting and bayoneting other young men across a field of wire and mud because I’d been told to.’ In a curious echo of that past he’s now trying to find out who killed a group of Polish refugees – trying to get out of the city – by gassing them in a railway truck.
Life, not being a buddy movie, means Eddie doesn’t know who he can turn to for help. One of his colleagues is the archetypical bad cop straight out of central casting while Giral’s boss, Dax shares with him a terrible secret, meaning they’re both morally compromised right from the off.
Then Giral is given an extra case to solve, this time the suicide of a man who comes from the same Polish town as those gassed on the train. What makes this death worse is that when he jumped to his death, he carried his young son with him.
The Unwanted Dead cleverly splits the chronology of Eddie Giral’s life, freely cutting back and fore between 1940 and 1924, showing how he was a very bad father to his son Jean-Luc, indeed pretty much abandoning him.
It conjured up the free jazz spirit of smoky bars and showgirls in rhe 1920s, where there would be cannonades ‘of music hitting you ‘like velvet bullets fired from a silver gun.’ We also get the the decay and repression in the selfsame places twenty years on, as the war bites and the drinks get watered down.
When Giral’s son shows up unexpectedly it’s as a defeated French soldier, a young man shamed by his own and his country’s defeat, a powerful feeling that mingles with the resentment he feels towards his dad, not least when he sees him seemingly hob-nobbing with German officers.
It’s a plot full of twists and turns as entangled as spaghetti, not least when it comes to knowing which Germans are which. There are fake Gestapo officers and real ones, members of the Wermacht, the SS Intelligence and the Geheime Feldpolizei, a small group of the real Gestapo smuggled into Paris at a time when they were proscribed by Hitler from doing so. All of them, of course, are up to no good.
In order to get at the truth, which in this city at this confused time is simply a nominal concept, Eddie gets drugged, framed for murder and punched repeatedly. Mind you he brings his own ready fists into the fray whenever he can, and on one occasion an oxy-acetylene torch which he uses to extract some info from a man who might not otherwise fess up. People dupe and deceive, duck and weave. The plot threatens to entangle Eddie, who at one point sees himself as nothing more than a tethered goat, a trap for others.
As of that wasn’t enough going on, Adolf Hitler himself pays a visit to Paris, keen to see the city he has commandeered. He arrives pretty much unannounced, adding yet another almost hallucinatory element to this City of Lights very much on the edge of darkness.
So lavishly weird are things that at one point Eddie finds himself in agreement with the Fuhrer, when he suggests that Sacre-Coeur is an appalling piece of architecture:
It was a symbol of oppression and reprisal and humiliation, imposed on the city after the failure of the Communard rising. It was discordant with the wishes of the people, built of bright white stone and resembling a gaudy wedding cake that jarred with everything else about Paris, the result of one set of values riding roughshod over the other.
Giral is a compelling creation, not least because he’s a very dark soul, seemingly unburdened by redeeming features. His existential fears, or burden of guilt about what he’s done in the past, lead him to play Russian roulette every often with a German pistol and when he’s not doing that he’s downing whisky in some of the seediest drinking clinics in the city or in the cold comfort of his flat.
He has also been through periods of cocaine dependency, which all accords with the feeling of strung steel running through him, or, perhaps, lying beneath his feet like trapeze wire. There is also a strong cast of other characters to complement him, including some of criminals Eddie has to deal with.
One, ‘the runt of a criminal litter’ has a ‘thin black tie to match his thin white lips and dark-rimmed pale eyes. He was like a faded Pierrot from an unimaginative child’s nightmare.’
The pace of the novel speeds up as we progress, moving through the gears towards a dizzying ending, with literal fireworks as Eddie finds himself playing people off against each other so hectically that things threaten to spiral and spin out of his control.
As your head will be as you put down this big, suspenseful novel, one which is also hugely atmospheric, morally troubling and masterfully told.
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