The Night Gate, by Peter May
Once again, Peter May has produced a layered and tense thriller which delivers in spades. The book’s title could be considered a distraction, given that it takes a while for its significance to be realised, but this is a very minor concern: overall, the narrative is well constructed, and it is bang up to date, embracing, rather than avoiding or ignoring the inexorable tide of infectious illness which has swept the world over two years, and is only now showing signs of abating. The protagonist, Enzo Macleod, is slightly unusual, in that he is a Scot by birth, with an Italian given name, but living & working in Cahors, south west France for enough years to allow him to become established, but without necessarily considering himself entrenched, in his chosen profession, forensic criminal investigation. His past personal life is somewhat complicated, and doesn’t really require exposition here, but suffice to say that he is now happily married to the significantly younger Dominique, who worked as an investigating officer in the Gendarmerie, and he has, in addition to a Scottish adult daughter, Kirsty, an adolescent son, Laurent, and another adult daughter, Sophie, who is currently in the late stages of pregnancy, hoping for a safe delivery after two previous miscarriages.
While on tenterhooks about the forthcoming birth, Enzo is invited, via an erstwhile almost-lover, a Gendarme named Hélène, by an old acquaintance, a forensic archaeologist named Professor Magali Blanc, to assist in investigating a very ‘cold’ case: a recently unearthed unsolved murder in a village, Carennac, situated on a bend of the Dordogne river, roughly an hour north of his home in the Lot valley. Enzo is initially reluctant to get back ‘in harness’, given that he is “retired from all that these days…Five years since I packed in my position at Paul Sabatier.” His former position is unspecified, but Paul Sabatier is a prestigious university in Toulouse, and he is revered as having “forensic talents”, so it is likely that he would have specialised, and probably lectured in one of the Life Sciences. When he learns that the seventy-five years old, or possibly more, remains are those of “a ranking officer of the Luftwaffe with a bullet hole in his skull, shallow-buried in a tiny medieval village…[which] wouldn’t exactly fit a conventional wartime scenario”, he is sufficiently intrigued to make the trip. When he & Dominique get there, they are informed by the local Gendarmerie Capitaine Arnaud, who happens to be a fan of Enzo’s skill, that the reason he is there is because there was a murder in the vicinity the previous day and, given his reverence for Enzo, persuades him to also take a look at this crime while it is still fresh.
There is a suspect for the new murder, but he has absconded, and thereafter, when Enzo starts investigating, the narrative broadens out to encompass events which took place in the early years of world war two, contemporary participants in these events, and how it becomes clear that these two murders are inextricably connected. The narrative alternates between the present, and wartime France, with the earlier events partly narrated by a current resident of the house where the latest murder occurred, and partly in third-person exposition; this could be a recipe for confusion, but May holds these temporally distanced threads together well. The main premise of the story is a proposition which is plausible, given the circumstances of the war in question, but which is impossible to prove, given its audacious nature; more cannot be revealed here! There is also added jeopardy as the hunt for the perpetrator intensifies, because a new lockdown was imposed in France at the end of October 2020, so Enzo only had a limited time in which to resolve the case, before his freedom of movement was curtailed. The description of the landscape in which the case unfolds is quite enticing, and I found it helpful to have a good map of the country to follow the characters’ movements. I can happily recommend this book, and the paperback I read was published in 2021 by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-78429-508-0.