Top positive review
What a marvellous blend of history, espionage, mystery and politics. Beautifully written, too!
23 September 2018
What a marvellous book! I bought it as a bit of a punt during a post-payday book spree, largely on the basis of a very favourable review in The Times. I have been sold the dummy by those reviews before, of course, but I am glad I heeded this one.
It moves between the present day and various points during the Second World War and the years immediately following it. It opens in the present day with the grim discovery of the corpse of an elderly woman, killed in a car in the parking lot of the main railway station in Orleans. Police Captain Inès Picaut is called to the scene, and immediately recognises the killing as a professional assassination, rather than a random theft-driven crime. Picaut and all her colleagues are also struck by how beautiful the victim had been.
It is not easy to identify the victim, although Picaut and her team eventually establish that she was using the name of Sophie Destaville. This doesn’t advance their investigation very far as Ms Destaville seems to have left no computer footprint, suggesting that it was merely a pseudonym, or perhaps more appropriately a nom de guerre. They do, however, find a business card sewn into the lining of the dead woman’s jacket. Picaut is additionally concerned because the killing has all the hallmarks of a terrorist act: significant enough in France in these sombre days, but more poignant still as a major conference of senior international security service personnel is currently in progress in Orleans itself. The business card leads Picaut’s team to a film company that has been making a documentary about the Maquis, the Resistance Forces that led the fight against the German occupation of France during the War.
Meanwhile, the narrative flits back to the Second World War, focusing on various French members of the Resistance, and on their close contacts among the British intelligence services and the newly created Special Operations Executive. We see them going through commando-style training in the Scottish Highlands and receiving intensive initiation onto the world of cryptology. The chapters set in the war paint a fascinating picture of the grim nature of life for the Resistance, and for the people living in the areas in which they were active. It has seemed all too easy in recent years to talk about rampant collaboration in Vichy France, but this book shows how much more complex the issue was. In many ways this was reminiscent of Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From the Sky and Sebastian’s Faulks’s Charlotte Gray, although though I think it was even better than either of them.
All the key ingredients of a great novel are here: a gripping plot, a mystery story, and a cast of immensely plausible characters, complete with an enigmatic protagonist in Picaut. As if all that were not enough, Scott writes with great elegance, too
All in all, a very serendipitous selection, and one of the best books I have read all year.