Review published on December 17, 2017.
After the War is a fantastic read, a blockbuster of a novel that could have been even longer as far as I was concerned. For me the mix of murder, politics, buried secrets and a faultless setting make it a real winner. I had previously read and enjoyed the only other novel by le Corre in English, Talking to Ghosts (2014). It was far less ambitious than After the War, which is intricate and involved but easy to read – a combination of smooth style and sharp clear prose.
The premise is based on a nasty truth about nations occupied in war which no one wants to talk about – collaboration. The worst aspect of that collaboration in After the War is that it’s not about the ones who go along with the occupying German army but those who pursue their policies zealously. Bordeaux police chief Poinsot and many of the men who worked for him did the work of the Nazis with unbridled enthusiasm. The brutality and murder they committed on their own people left scars long after the war. This novel is a clever mix of real events and people and invented characters who embody the corruption and criminality of the times. Much as he is a terrible man Commissaire Darlac is a wonderful creation.
So After the War is a superb crime thriller but it is also a sweeping epic of post war France. What starts as a simple tale of revenge becomes more complex, drawing in not only the aftermath of WWII but also the French colonial conflict and the fight for independence in Algeria. The way the ‘new’ conflict is covered is integral to the story but also helps to make a more general point about what war does to people and the depths a person may sink to or rise above. This novel pulls no punches in exposing the worst betrayals men make.
Bordeaux, 1952, the scars of WWII still haunt the city, the divisions between the collaborators and the resistance have hardly softened. Everyone has a memory of the tragedy and yet France is embroiled in another war in Africa. After the War opens with a man tied to the chair. He is beaten and bloodied, the three men standing over him are trying to decide whether more torture will get him to talk, they decide it will. Of course, when they get the information they want they take him for a drive in the country he doesn’t come back from. The three policemen are now armed with the location of Crabos’s bolt hole, the man they are chasing. Police Chief Albert Darlac takes his men on a hunt, the Commissaire is a fascist, a man with no moral centre, a man who still behaves like the war never ended. For seven years he has acted with impunity but his war record is about to come back to haunt him. Someone remembers Darlac and wants revenge. When Darlac’s daughter Elise is nearly strangled by this mysterious avenger he begins to understand how personal this revenge is going to be. Then three people are burned alive in an arson attack and Darlac’s methods involve fighting fire with fire.
Daniel is up early, he is at the dock, he sees the soldiers depart and he wonders what it will be like in Algeria, the rumours of atrocities make him fearful. He will be posted there in a few weeks. Daniel has barely had time to come to terms with losing his parents during the last war and there are still dark secrets in the family vaults. As Daniel’s story unfolds we begin to see how it connects to the terrible chain of events recently set off in the city.
What Darlac learned to get away with working for the Nazis is still the way he conducts his business now – with brutality and corruption. His investigations have rarely had anything to do with justice, more likely they are motivated by greed and power but now it’s about self preservation. Something he is good at, his boss Poinsot was arrested after the war but Darlac still thrives in his job.
After the War is a brilliant mix of fictional storytelling set in a very real historical setting exploring the people, streets and even the smells of post war Bordeaux. It’s edgy because no character can be trusted, no motive believed until the final truth emerges.
After the War is a really satisfying fast paced thriller with a heart stopping ending that will glue your eyes to the last fifty pages no matter how late at night it is. This is a hard hitting dark affair populated by larger than life villains; beautifully drawn and genuinely evil. It’s a juggernaut, full on, packed with action and excitement and loaded with intelligent insight into the French psyche in the post war era.
One of my favourite thrillers of the year, a terrific read.
Paul Burke 5/5
After the War by Hervé le Corre
MacLehose Press 9780857053893 pbk Jun 2017