Wednesday, 16 September 2020

When history taps you on the shoulder by Chris Lloyd

There was a moment when I was researching for The Unwanted Dead that stopped me in my tracks.

For me, one of the most important parts of research is walking the streets where my characters walk. I need to experience all the sights, sounds and smells that they do, the light at certain times of day, the sense of place that they take for granted and that I can’t. And even though the book is set in Paris in 1940, the city stays the same, a witness to its own past, and the streets and squares all resonate with that history. So I’d spent days losing myself in its heart. I’d wandered around the Fifth Arrondissement, where my protagonist, Eddie Giral, lives and I found his street and his apartment block. I’d walked to and from Thirty-Six, the police station where he works. I’d looked into the windows he’d have looked out of. I’d tracked down all the hotels and buildings that had been requisitioned by the Germans and where Eddie might have been summoned. I’d found the now-gentrified parts of town that would have been the unloved and ragged refuge of villains and rascals in Eddie’s day. I’d even had an unexpected moment of calm in the apiary in the Jardin du Luxembourg, which ended up as the setting to a few key scenes in the book. 

And throughout all this time, I’d come across unassuming plaques on nondescript walls, marking the place where a Resistance fighter fell or where a gun battle took place during the battle to liberate the city. I came across the building where poet Robert Desnos was living when he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 – he survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Flossenburg only to die of typhoid in Theresienstadt a month after the camp was liberated. Bullet holes still mark the stone around the windows and doors to ordinary homes and office blocks. Metro stations and squares are named after exceptionally brave but ordinary people murdered under the Occupation. And each one left their mark on me.

But there was one moment that truly stopped me. A small grey plaque that affected me more than any other. It was in the Pletzel, the old Jewish quarter, on the Right Bank. You walk through narrow streets before coming to a bustling road, still fairly narrow but wider than any of the others in the neighbourhood. Along the way, you’ve gone past kosher bakers and halal butchers, patisseries and delis, restaurants and takeaways. Until you come to a school. A primary school. Almost hidden inside the unobtrusive entrance, a gateway like an old mews, is the plaque. High up on the wall outside the porter’s room, it’s easy to miss. It lists the names of the children from the school who were deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and who never returned. They were all aged six, seven, eight years old. And the list of names is long. I stood and stared, rooted to the spot, as shoppers and workers hurried around me. Like a freeze-frame in a movie. It was some minutes before I could bring myself to stop reading and rereading the names and move on. I didn’t take a photo, it wouldn’t have been right.

I write stories set in this city at this time. Their prime purpose is to entertain. My character, Eddie, is irreverent and cynical, mouthy and damaged. He fights the evil he finds in his work with flippant words and a dogged tenacity. His moral compass is not always how he might have wanted it to be as a young man going away to the First World War. He gets things wrong and does wrong things. Yet underneath the grim wisecracks and mocking iconoclasm is a sense of responsibility. Towards the victims and towards the vulnerable. 

And that, I think, is what I took away from my walks around the city and on the day I saw the plaque in the primary school. The job of historical fiction, be it crime or any other genre, is to entertain, but there’s another purpose, and it took history to tap me on the shoulder to bring that home to me. There’s a responsibility in writing historical fiction. In whatever story, set in whatever period, there has to be an underlying truth and honesty. It goes beyond ensuring your tale is historically accurate and your research is as painstaking as you can make it. There’s a responsibility in using fiction to give a voice to people who lost theirs long ago. To enabling a sense of justice for the victims and the vulnerable. And that, in my case, is where Eddie comes in.

The Unwanted Dead by Chris Lloyd (Orion Publishing) Out 17 September 2020
Paris, Friday 14th June 1940. The day the Nazis march into Paris. It made headlines around the globe. Paris police detective Eddie Giral - a survivor of the last World War - watches helplessly on as his world changes forever. But there is something he still has control over. Finding whoever is responsible for the murder of four refugees. The unwanted dead, who no one wants to claim. To do so, he must tread carefully between the Occupation and the Resistance, between truth and lies, between the man he is and the man he was. All the while becoming whoever he must be to survive in this new and terrible order descending on his home.

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