I am new to the work of Peter May and for that I am somewhat embarrassed. Until the re-publication of his 2005 novel ‘Lockdown’ last year I had read none of his novels. That one book sort of defined him last year he fears, and at the time when he wrote it publishers dismissed it as they could never believe a major city would be emptied and locked down because of a pandemic. But last year of course his book became our ‘new normal’.
This award -winning journalist and screen writer in his early years, is now a regular in the best seller lists and ‘The Lewis Trilogy’ which began with the widely acclaimed ‘The Blackhouse’ is now he says not only on every bookshop shelf and library but greets tourists crossing on the ferry in the Outer Hebrides or in the cosy log burning guest rooms in that part of Scotland too!
I listened to him in an excellent webinar with that other great crime writer William Shaw (of ‘The Birdwatcher’ and DS Cupidi series fame) hosted by Jarrold bookshop in Norwich. Peter was speaking from his creative studio at his home in France. Not only was this a brilliant way to link everybody up for a wonderful evening but gave the author the chance to explain why ‘The Night Gate’ came to be written.
As a French resident Peter and his wife had visited a local exhibition about the stolen Nazi art that had been hidden in France. A black and white photo showing a garage over which was a dwelling drew their attention. It was their garage! Little did Peter realise but the very room in which he had worked (and from where we saw him on screen) was the place where famous masterpieces of art had been rolled up or stored in boxes to escape possible bombing and (so the Nazis and particularly Hitler hoped) become future artefacts that they would display in an art gallery after a German victory.
Parts of the novel are completely based on real facts and an intriguing character Rose Valland, curator at the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris was integral in not only transferring paintings from the Louvre to safely store, often in chateaus across France, but wrote down the history of each painting and where it was sent. Her work was vital after the war in restoring art stolen by the Nazis to their rightful place or owner (especially those Jews whose art had been taken whilst they were sent to be killed). I will want to read more about this special lady.
The author weaves the character of Georgette Pignal into this story linking her journey from London as she is firstly trained by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Hebrides (old stomping ground for the author which is described wonderfully) as she has been sent by President de Gaulle (now is exile in England) to ensure Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’is not lost or destroyed by the Nazis. She is also just a step ahead of two other male art experts seeking the same information – one employed by Hitler and the other by Goring. Hitler did in reality want to place ‘Mona Lisa’ in his Austrian art gallery base but Goring’s plan was pure personal greed. The scenes where imagined dialogue between the experts and the two famous and appalling Nazi leaders take place are both brilliantly written and somewhat terrifying.
Then into the mix comes Enzo Macleod, a past hero of a series of earlier books by Peter May in which the Scottish/Italian forensics expert, now living and retiring in France becomes embroiled in the investigation which links a death from WWII alongside a more recent murder of an art expert in the same town. What is the connection of the deaths and how is the stolen art involved in the whole story?
The author is brave to place the contemporary strand of the novel in lockdown with all its restrictions imposed on characters just like the rest of us. Readers will judge whether he succeeds in a tricky balancing act that of course is very much of this time of pandemic. To me the most interesting part was the story set in the war, that moved across Europe at war, with France under invasion and then Nazi defeat by the Allies and then to Berlin, where a family link was to harbour the hatred from many years past into present day danger. The novel spans three generations, taking us along the journey from war-torn London, the Outer Hebrides, Berlin and Vichy France to the present day. After all we need travel again….in our minds at least.
As a personal read I was fully immersed in the plot. There are some wonderful characters especially Georgette and Enzo – though is he too old to do ALL that physical chasing!? I had heard the basics around the story of stolen Nazi art and seen the film ‘The Monuments Men’. But this novel is in more depth and you become as scared for the future of the enigmatic small painting as you do for the humans trying to save it. I think book groups will love this tale and if they are previous fans of Enzo Macleod will be glad to see him back on the trail of criminals as he delves amongst bones and blood.
The landscape and architecture of France in beautifully described and with a trip involved to see the Louvre and its famous painting you will be so wanting to get on the Eurostar again! I feel I have given myself a treat now to delve into Peter May’s past novels and can assure him I wonder, as he does, why for many years he was rejected by numerous UK publishers until he found a book deal – and a home- in France.
Review by Philipa Coughlan
Published by Riverrun, (18 Mar. 2021).
Hardback, ISBN 978-1784295042