Janice Law has picked a not-so-famous figure: Francis Bacon (the 20th-century painter of famously gruesome art, not the 17th-century philosopher) for the protagonist of her mystery series, which she began in 2012 with Fires of London, and follows up with The Prisoner of the Riviera (Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, December 10, 2013).
|A Bacon self-portrait. Yikes! And this is subdued and almost cheerful compared to most of his work.|
Janice Law sets Fires of London in 1940, shortly after the wartime blackout made nighttime London a place of misty, impenetrable blackness. She has Bacon acting as an ARP (air raid precautions) warden, walking a beat at night. One night, he learns that one of his acquaintances in London's gay demimonde has been brutally murdered in a nearby park. Not long afterward, Bacon literally stumbles on another victim. Feeling under threat himself, Bacon uses his patrols and contacts to try to find the murderer.
Law skillfully mixes wry humor with heart-thumping suspense. Bacon's scenes with his nan are a little like a comedy double act; full of charm and chuckles. The mood changes completely when Bacon stumbles through nighttime streets and alleys with only falling bombs and incendiaries as illumination to help him avoid threats from a host of attackers. I've read a lot of World War II-era mysteries, and several novels that take place during the London Blitz. I don't remember another that did such a good job at conveying the chaos, fear and exhilaration of being on the streets during a raid.
For her second Francis Bacon novel, The Prisoner of the Riviera, Janice Law jumps ahead to 1946. At first, I was disappointed that Law had chosen to leave the London-during-the-Blitz setting after just one book, but I quickly got over it. Setting stories in the immediate postwar period seems to be all the rage these days, or maybe that's just a coincidence in my recent reading. It's a rewarding period because, as Law has one character put it, in France "power was lying on the ground during the war" and it was picked up by dubious characters who couldn't just return to the plow when the war was over. These characters abound in The Prisoner of the Riviera.
There's something rotten about this setup, right? You and I know it, and so do Francis, Nan and Arnold. Aside from the imbalance between the value of the gambling chits and the going rate for in-person mail delivery, there's something fishy about that letter. Francis and Nan couldn't resist painstakingly removing and replacing the wax seal on the letter, and they suspect it's really a coded message––though one they can't crack without a cipher key. But it's cold, grey and rainy in London and the rationing means the food is even more depressing than the weather. Who can resist the siren call of the Riviera?
After enjoying a few days in the sun, Francis decides it's about time to deliver the letter to Mme. Renard. Afterward, he narrowly avoids attack from a couple of goons as he heads back to his hotel and, soon after that, he learns that Mme. Renard was found murdered later that same day––and he is the number one suspect.
Attempting to clear his name and avoid a long stretch in a French prison, Francis uses a couple of false identities to investigate the murder and figure out what this supposed farewell letter really is. He's not the only one interested, and soon it seems that the entire south of France is seething with characters who are after the letter, Francis and each other. They all seem to have had secret underground pasts during the war, but it's impossible to be sure which side they were on, if not both, and whether their current intentions are to help Francis, use him, abuse him or carve him up.
Here's an odd thing. When I read The Prisoner of the Riviera, I kept thinking about P.G. Wodehouse. In part it's because most of the story is set in the south of France, where Bertie Wooster often used to travel to get into trouble gambling and falling in love. And here's Francis, on his arrival in Nice: "Have I mentioned my fondness for sailors? I have a weakness, as Nan would say, for members of the maritime profession, for the toilers of the sea, for jolly jack-tars and also the not-so-jolly ones, who are really more to my taste." Can you see a Wodehouse-ish style in that? I can.
There's a lot more about Janice Law's writing style here that makes me think her Francis Bacon is a sort of Bertie Wooster-ish character–––if Bertie had a dozen or two more IQ points, considerably less of "the ready," liked risky sex (with men) and kept running into murders. The books are written in the first person, and even when fists are flying or guns are blazing, there is an air of Bertie describing one of his sticky wickets.
And, like Bertie Wooster, Francis is soon beset with troubles involving false identities, mistaken impressions, getting caught sneaking into other people's houses and bedrooms––and even being bedeviled by a pair of troublesome aunts. I found the book a dizzyingly improbable but delightful caper, just like a Wodehouse story. Unlike a Wodehouse story, this one does have a great deal of serious crime and danger in it, but for mystery lovers, that's all to the good.
Note: I received free review texts of the ebook versions of these titles from the publisher, via Netgalley. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.