Source: Review copy
Publication: 18 March 2021 from riverrun
My thanks to Riverrun and Midas PR for the opportunity to read and review this book
In a sleepy French village, the body of a man shot through the head is disinterred by the roots of a fallen tree. A week later a famous art critic is viciously murdered in a nearby house. The deaths occurred more than seventy years apart.
Asked by a colleague to inspect the site of the former, forensics expert Enzo Macleod quickly finds himself embroiled in the investigation of the latter. Two extraordinary narratives are set in train – one historical, unfolding in the treacherous wartime years of Occupied France; the other contemporary, set in the autumn of 2020 as France re-enters Covid lockdown.
And Enzo’s investigations reveal an unexpected link between the murders – the Mona Lisa.
Tasked by the exiled General Charles de Gaulle to keep the world’s most famous painting out of Nazi hands after the fall of France in 1940, 28-year-old Georgette Pignal finds herself swept along by the tide of history. Following in the wake of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as it is moved from château to château by the Louvre, she finds herself just one step ahead of two German art experts sent to steal it for rival patrons – Hitler and Göring.
What none of them know is that the Louvre itself has taken exceptional measures to keep the painting safe, unwittingly setting in train a fatal sequence of events extending over seven decades.
Events that have led to both killings.
The Night Gate spans three generations, taking us from war-torn London, the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, Berlin and Vichy France, to the deadly enemy facing the world in 2020. In his latest novel, Peter May shows why he is one of the great contemporary writers of crime fiction.
The Night Gate is a sweeping historical novel with a dual timeline, France in the present day (2020) and Scotland, Berlin and France in the early 1940’s.
This is the 7th and, we are told, final book in the Enzo Files, the series about the somewhat flirtatious pony tailed lover of women, wine and good food, Enzo McLeod – one time Professor of Forensic Science at Toulouse University and now retired. Enzo lives in rural France with his wife Dominique, and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his daughter Sophie’s baby. He is called in by his friend, forensic archaeologist Professor Magali Blanc, when a body is discovered in a village that neighbours Enzo’s own. The body is dated back to WW2 and Enzo is intrigued. He does love to work on cold cases but this one suddenly becomes a deal more urgent when a prominent art critic is murdered in the same village.
Peter May’s story is an epic tale which weaves together apparently separate stories but which contain one important link. Taking us from Germany to occupied France in the 1940’s via London and The Outer Hebrides, May delivers a passionate story of art, love, murder and betrayal set around the safeguarding of the most famous painting in the world, La Joconde – the Mona Lisa.
There are many points of view in this book, but the main strands focus on Enzo’s contemporary investigation and on the story of Georgette Pignal, a young woman personally tasked by De Gaulle to prevent the Mona Lisa falling into enemy hands. Georgette is at character you can really root for. Young but with a well-developed sense of self; she has massive courage and determination. She is full of gumption and determined to do her bit for her country.
As always May’s sense of place is strong and his knowledge of this part of France – Carennac in the Dordogne – shines through. His research is meticulous and the strength of the historical veracity adds to the authentic feel of the book. Rose Valland, for example, who features in the book as Georgette’s boss, was the curator of the Jeu de Paum, and she saved a lot of art from the Nazis after the war by listening to their conversations when in the gallery about where they were having it sent.
He easily mixes past and present as the past carries the clues to the present murder and Enzo has to use all his knowledge and research to get to the truth of what happened in the past in order to solve the present killing.
It is the mix of history, thriller; characters that you root for intermingled with historical figures and references that that make for a heady mix which carries this book through. At almost 500 pages it is a little sprawly, but May knows how to tell a big tale and carries it off with aplomb.
It feels strangely natural too for Enzo, at his age, to be taking the French Co-Vid protocols especially seriously and after the initial surprise of reading about these, the freshness slipped into the background and became as natural as breathing.
Though you can easily read this book as a stand-alone, there’s plenty, too for followers of this series and – as is fitting for the final book in the series – some previous strands are closed off.
Verdict: A fine conclusion to the Enzo series and characters we have come to know and love. The thriller element works well and the background of Vichy France together with Hitler and Göring’s ambitions lends scale and weight to an epic story.
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PETER MAY was an award-winning journalist at the age of just twenty-one, winning ‘Young Journalist of the Year’. He left newspapers for television and screenwriting, creating three prime-time British drama series and accruing more than 1,000 television credits. May is published in 32 languages, has sold several million copies worldwide as well as winning numerous awards. His novel I’ll Keep You Safe (2018) was no.1 and his next novel, The Man With No Face, no.2 in The Times charts. His most recent novel Lockdown was in The Sunday Times bestseller lists for 6 weeks. In recent years, Peter has won the Best Crime Novel Award for The Blackhouse at Bouchercon in the US, Entry Island won the Deanston Crime Book of the Year and Specsavers ITV3 Crime Thriller Book Club Best Read Award. @authorpetermay