Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler, and Arno Breker on Trocadéro in front of the Eiffel Tower. A crouching cameraman films Hitler for the cinema newsreel. Paris, 23 June 1940.

On June 14, 1940, the German army marched into Paris beginning an occupation that would last for four years.  The arrival of the Germans was the culmination of a six week invasion that saw French forces melt away in defeat and the French government agreeing to an armistice on June 22, 1940.  The French government would move to Vichy in the south where they set up a collaborative regime under World War I hero, Marshal Philippe Petain.  The new government would defer to the Nazis who set up their occupation regime in the north, beginning a period of limited freedom for Parisians, greatly reduced food supplies, and an overall sense of fear as to what would come next.

With the occupation serving as a backdrop British author Chris Lloyd who held a lifelong interest in World War II, including resistance and collaboration in occupied France has embarked on a series of novels centering on French Investigator Eddie Giral.  The first in the series is THE UNWANTED DEAD set in Paris which earned the HWA Gold Crown Award. Giral would spend the war trying to navigate the occupation, seeking a road between resistance and collaboration, all the time transforming himself into becoming who he needs to be to survive.

Lloyd begins the novel with the arrival of the German army in Paris on June 14.  Immediately the German High Command orders all French citizens to be disarmed and to remain in their houses for the next few days.  Giral, has other concerns as a sealed railway car is discovered with four dead bodies probably killed with chlorine or some other gas.  Giral decides it is his obligation as a “French cop” to investigate the deaths and determine who was responsible.  The four dead bodies turn out to be Polish refugees, one of which is from the Polish village of Bydgoszcz.  The situation becomes even more complicated when Fryderyk Gorecki, another Polish refugee from the same village jumps from the roof of his home with his young son Jan committing suicide as the Nazis enter Paris.

Jewish men wearing the mandatory yellow badge in the Jewish quarter of Paris.

(Jewish quarter of Paris, 1941)

For Giral the smell of the gas returns him to the trenches of World War I and introduces a character reminiscent of the late Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, oozing with attitude and a conflicted morality that powers a complex, polished plot.  At the same time Lloyd develops the Giral character he successfully frames the French experience under the Nazis.  The Germans who have just conquered most of Europe in a few weeks mostly are haughty, arrogant, and have little respect for the French.  Lloyd accurately conveys the internal politics of the Nazi occupation including the competition between the German army, the Gestapo, and SS for controlling Paris.  The duplicity and infighting among the Germans is on full display in Lloyd’s rendition of the early Nazi occupation and it appears quite accurate.

The Parisian ambiance is clear as Lloyd takes the reader into the underside of Paris and the conflicting feeling of the French many of whom are right wingers like Detective Auban who works with Giral that believe the French government was weak and led them astray fostering a deep respect for German efficiency and in some cases racial beliefs leading to French collaborations to the detriment of the French resistance.

The desperation of the French people is evident through suicides, attempts to escape the city, locking themselves in their homes, and abandoning their previous lives by fleeing the Germans.  As the Germans arrive 2/3 of Parisians flee the city, leaving only the poor, the old, and the police.  As Giral puts it, “Paris was still there, but it was no longer Paris.

Lloyd has created an interesting character in Giral, a man with tremendous personal baggage dating back to WWI.  Giral survived the war but did not survive the metal anguish of life in the trenches.  Unbeknownst to him he develops post-traumatic stress disorder which will destroy his family as he leaves his wife, Sylvie, and their five year old son Jan-Luc to survive on their own.  Giral is also guilt ridden because his parents blame him for his older brother’s death as he joined the French army in 1916 following in his brothers’ footsteps and was killed at Verdun.  Lloyd integrates the year 1925, at times alternating chapters dealing with 1940 to dig into Giral’s personal issues which seem to percolate throughout the novel.  For Giral, once a respected policeman, his methods and own baggage at times reduce him to a weak figure who in 1925 seeks refuge in an American jazz club and cocaine.  Giral manifests his personal issues with a nasty habit of “putting his foot in his mouth” especially when it comes to his son who he is trying to protect from the Germans at the same time he is trying to make amends for deserting his family.

Places where you can still find evidence of World War II in Paris: Hotel Lutetia

(Nazi Command Post at French Hotel, June, 1940)

Lloyd’s grasp of history is strongly exemplified by Giral’s conversations with former Black Harlem Hell fighters who fought for the United States in World War I.  Giral is shocked that these men do not want to live in their home country, but he understands when they describe the racial situation in the United States and how they were better off in France. Another interesting example is Lloyd’s description of the French surrender to the Germans at Compiegne using the same railway car used by the allies in 1918.  This time with Hitler present.

Lloyd’s plot lines are well conceived.  What does the gassing of the refugees and the suicide of a man and his son have to do with each other.  When American reporters become involved Giral’s eyes are opened to a larger issue – how to get across to the world the atrocities the Nazis have committed in Poland and other areas in order to convince the United States to join the war and for the Soviet Union to break its pact with the Hitlerite regime.  More and more Giral becomes obsessed with learning the truth and balancing that truth with the larger goal of defeating the Nazis.  In so doing an interesting series of characters become important.  Major Hochstetter, an Abwehr Nazi officer who is the liaison to the French police who plays a duplicitous role throughout.  Lucja and Janek, members of the Polish resistance whose main goal is to tell the truth to the world.  Katherine Ronson, a freelance American journalist looking for a Pulitzer Prize.  Hauptmann Karl Weber, an officer in the 87th Infantry Division of the Wehrmacht, and a series of others.

How these diverse personalities and storylines come together make the novel an excellent read.  For Giral how many sacrifices must he make as he navigates the Nazi obstacle course in his quest for the truth, while at the same time holding onto his moral compass and seeing the larger issues that may be more important than his own murder investigation.  For Giral it is a constant question as to who he can trust.  Journalists, colleagues, certain Germans, union workers, but in the end he must rely on his own instincts.  The next book in the series is PARIS REQUIEM and I look forward to continuing to follow Eddie Giral’s career and life story.

Galesburg Register-Mail

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s