Pirate Irwin – congratulations on your latest novel, The Redeemed Detective. Could you tell us about the hero of your detective series, Inspector Gaston Lafarge – did you have any real-life inspiration?
Thank you. But no, the complex cove’s character is all on me. Maigret he is not, though one of the inspirations for Simenon’s creation features in the first of the series The Tortured Detective.
Lafarge is working his cases in during and post WW2 France. The spectre of collaboration looms large – is that what attracted you to this location and time?
Yes absolutely. I have since I was a nipper, which must sound strange given Victor and Battle did not cover such topics, been intrigued as to why Marshal Petain, idolised by many French people due to his heroic leadership at Verdun, agreed to collaborate so closely with the Germans. No one else who collaborated with the Nazis, Quisling in Norway for example, had the same stature as Petain. Then there were others who had gravitas and enjoyed successful political careers like former Prime Minister Pierre Laval, Time magazine’s man of the year in 1931, that threw their lot in with the Nazis. It posed the question for me whether lots of ordinary French people followed suit in collaborating because they were leaders they respected and whose judgement they trusted, or the appalling denunciations of Jews and Resistants is simply something rather more alarming for all of us the fallibility of human nature. There is a mix of both in the books, neither a mitigating factor in such abject behaviour.
A collaborator to a certain extent. There is no record of him denouncing people or rivals, being in the literary world it is perhaps apposite to say he struck a Faustian pact, borne out of self-interest. To keep his successful publishing business operating he had to be very selective in who he published. He was already the publisher pre-war of Celine, whose brilliance as a writer was not in doubt but he was a rabid anti-Semite, who wrote vile anti-Jewish tracts. Others in the Denoel stable were of similar mindsets if not ability as Celine including Lucien Rebatet. On the other hand, ironically the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, was awarded to Denoel author Elsa Triolet, the first woman to win it in 1944. Being Jewish and a Communist her victory pleasingly would have disgusted Celine and Rebatet. To be fair to Denoel he was far from alone. His main rivals Grasset and Gallimard struck the same deals with the Nazis. Denoel’s character is maybe best summed up by his former American business partner Bernard Steele, who remarked: “He died as he lived, a gangster.”
What was the environment in France at the time: “forgive and forget” or find collaborators and deliver extra-judicial punishment?
General de Gaulle wanted to bring the country together. The message he wanted spun was that only a minority had been collaborators which was far from the truth. Aside from trying the Vichy paladins, Petain and Laval among them, plus others based in Paris such as the writer Robert Brasillach and another journalist turned newspaper publisher Jean Luchaire, like Laval and a lot of the collaborators a man of the left, he did not wish for widespread retribution. However, outside Paris there were many cases of extra-judicial punishments especially in small communities. Just like during the Occupation many were denounced unjustly simply because their neighbour coveted their property. Women were often punished simply for ‘horizontal collaboration’ having German lovers and were dragged into the street stripped and their heads shaved, sometimes being branded with a swastika. Around 20,000 women suffered this humiliation – including the superstar Arletty – and often those shaving their heads had been collaborators themselves. Some blame de Gaulle’s diktat for why France has never really come to terms with itself over that turbulent and shameful time.
Collaboration is a difficult subject even today. Was a Bistro waiter considered a collaborator, or did it require a more active involvement and assistance to the Nazi regime in France?
So long as the Bistro waiter just did his job and served the Nazis he would not be considered a collaborator. However, if he were to pass on information compromising a client then he crossed the line. A tougher one was if you were an ordinary uniformed policeman. Instinctively they would know rounding up Jews was wrong. Many still carried out the orders but some had the humanity and moral courage to forewarn the Jews in the areas of Paris targeted what was planned.
René Bousquet makes an appearance in the novel. What sort of man was he?
Talented but a truly dreadful human being. He had been hailed as a hero when along with a friend he saved many from being drowned in floods in 1930. He was to Vichy what Jean Moulin was to the Resistance. Like Moulin he came from the left, but Laval became a mentor to him and thus the die was cast plumping for Vichy. By all accounts an opportunist he chose the side he thought would win, but Vichy also suited his anti-Semitism. He was only 33 when he was appointed secretary-general of the police. Vichy had many incompetent nonenties but sadly for the Jews in France he was not one of them. An accomplished administrator, dynamic, intelligent, dapper rarely seen without a cigarette in his hand. He was ruthlessly ambitious and insisted on Jewish children being included in the round-ups, something even the Nazis did not want. The fact he had a son of the same age of many of the Jewish children did not jar his conscience. Largely only loyal to himself two exceptions were Laval, who he stayed with on the eve of the latter’s execution, and Francois Mitterrand. That association was to serve him well later in life. He was charismatic and dominated his trial in 1949 and the Jewish issue was only discussed for three hours, him speaking for two of them. He flourished after that, was protected by Mitterrand and never expressed a word of remorse even in the decades after the war.
This is your 5th novel – did you plan to write this many when you embarked on the series?
Lord, absolutely not! Having a day job that entails a lot of writing I thought it might well stop there. However, I grew too fond of Gaston Lafarge and his complex morals. That along with being able to involve him in real life events and Lafarge’s desire for Bousquet’s victims to receive justice – even if they did not in reality historical fiction gives one the flexibility to push the boundaries of truth — prompted me to carry on. In the end it has been possible to balance both the job and the pleasure of writing the Lafarge series.
Are there further plans for Lafarge in a 6th?
Yes, for sure. There is life in the old dog yet. Mitterrand and Bousquet have not seen the end of him which should annoy them immensely and anything that provokes that reaction in those two particular personalities is extremely satisfying.