PETER MAY on the research & inspiration for ‘The Night Gate’

Written by Peter May

The Night Gate
         by The Times no 1 bestseller

PETER MAY
Published by riverrun

 on 18th March 2021 at £20


 


THE PANDEMIC

“The Night Gate” is a child of the Coronavirus pandemic, born out of cancellation, necessity and confinement.

I had spent most of the latter part of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 researching and developing a story for my next book, which was to take place on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. My research trip to the Arctic had been booked for months - flights from Paris to Oslo, and onward to Longyearbyen on Svalbard; hotels on the archipelago, sailing trips taking me past rapidly melting glaciers to the international research station at Ny-Ålesund, and the abandoned Soviet coal mining town of Pyramiden.

I was due to go in May, returning in June to start writing the book, which I hoped to finish by the end of the summer to meet my contractual delivery deadline.

Then Covid-19 entered all our worlds. The trip to Svalbard was cancelled, and I was forced to put my story on ice. But I still had a delivery date to meet, and a hungry readership who had been promised a book in early 2021.

I had to begin again, from scratch.  But there was an additional complication. I live in France which, like most places last Spring, was in lockdown, or “confinement” as it is known here. So like everyone else I was confined to quarters - unable to travel for research. And I NEVER write about a place that I haven’t been to.

So I was forced to think of a story set somewhere I knew, or indeed at sometime in the past which I could research online. And I got the first inklings of an idea.

THE MONA LISA

My mind rewound to a post I had made in March 2019 on a photoblog that I subscribe to called Blipfoto. The photo I posted was a mock-up of the Mona Lisa in a replica of the wooden crate in which she had been evacuated from the Louvre during the war. It was taken at an exhibition in the town hall of a village just along the road from where I live, the subject of which was the mass evacuation of almost every artwork held by the Louvre in the months before the German invasion in 1940. For the next four years they were moved from château to château, from the Loire to the Aveyron, to the city of Montauban, to the Valley of the Dordogne - always just one step ahead of the Germans.


And the reason the exhibition was being mounted locally? Almost all of the most valuable paintings and artworks ended up right here, where I live. Most, including the Mona Lisa, were housed in the nearby Château de Montal. But because it wasn’t big enough to hold everything, other paintings were stored in smaller buildings in the area.


To my astonishment, when visiting the exhibition, I found myself staring at an old black-and-white photograph of a building I owned - a double garage with an apartment above it that I was in the process of converting into my personal creative workspace. Which was when I discovered that some of the world’s most famous paintings had been stored there - huge canvasses removed from their frames and rolled around long wooden poles for transportation. Paintings which I had in fact seen hanging in the Louvre during a fairly recent visit:

The Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese, The Coronation of Napoleon by David, and several other priceless works. They had been laid on the floor along the length of the apartment where I am sitting writing this account right now. I also posted it on my Facebook author page, and on Twitter, and received an overwhelming response from readers who thought it would make a great book.

THE NIGHT GATE

At the time, I didn’t see what the story might be. But the cancellation of the Svalbard trip a year later focused my mind, and the first story elements began to crystallise in my imagination. A story in which the competing egos of Hitler and Göring set their own art hounds on separate missions to procure the Mona Lisa. Hitler wanting it for his planned super museum at Linz in Austria. Göring for his own private collection. The pre-war art dealers inducted into the armed services sent to steal the painting would find themselves in competition not only with one another, but with a young female art student tasked by de Gaulle in London with keeping the Mona Lisa safe.

Of course, I needed a contemporary theme as well, since the genre I have embraced is one of contemporary crime fiction. So my tale begins in the autumn of 2020 with the body of a man shot through the head being disinterred by the roots of a fallen tree, and a famous art critic viciously murdered in a nearby house. Both deaths having occurred more than 70 years apart.

I decided to call on the services of my now retired forensics expert, the character of Enzo Macleod, who is asked by a forensic archaeologist in Paris to take a look at the site of the former, only to find himself being embroiled in an investigation of the latter. Thus setting in train two narratives - one historical, unfolding against a backdrop of real events in Occupied France in the 1940s; the other contemporary, set in a France going back into Covid lockdown. 

I know that some writers during the past year have avoided the issue of the pandemic, either by setting their stories at some point in the past, or by simply ignoring it altogether. I decided to meet it head on, and the contemporary element of “The Night Gate” is very much set against the backdrop of a world fighting to come to terms with a second wave of Covid-19.

Then began the complex process of research.


LOCATIONS

For my contemporary locations, I was able to use places I had been and knew well. The village of Carennac, where much of the action takes place, lies just across the valley from where I live now, and was home to the first house I ever bought in France. It was a place I had got to know very well across nearly ten years. The house in which the murder takes place is based on the home of a dear, departed friend, Maud Taillard, who provided the inspiration for a major character in one of my earlier books, “The Noble Path”.


I was fortunate in being able to revisit some of the other locations in the area during the summer, when Covid restrictions had been eased: Château de Montal, which I have known for more than 40 years; The Tours Saint-Laurent, which tower above my spiritual home of the last four decades, Saint-Céré (in whose Café des Voyageurs I wrote “The Noble Path”);

The Gouffre de Padirac, which is the most visited underground site in France, a network of underground tunnels, rivers and lakes. In fact, the authorities at the gouffre (which more or less translates as a great big hole in the ground) arranged for me to have a private visit after all the tourists had left for the day. I drank champagne

on the shores of an underground lake, lit turquoise from beneath the water. Rock formations in the shape of giant jellyfish tumbled in multitudinous colours from the walls of the cave all around me. We navigated an underground river in a narrow punt and climbed high into rock crevices on rattling metal walkways.

I drove to Montauban, where I had previously done several book events, to visit the Musée Ingres, where the artworks had resided for nearly two years, as well as the historic Place Nationale with its colonnaded arches on all four sides. It is where my heroine, Georgette, meets up with Hitler’s art dealer, Paul Lange.


I had already written about, or visited, most of my Paris locations, with the exception of the prison at Fleury-Mérogis where Enzo meets up with his former lover, who was also his would-be killer and mother of his son. But I was able to visit it virtually through a stunning series of photographs taken by the French photographer Philippe Blanchot.

REAL LIFE EVENTS


My historical research was more demanding. But just as I had decided to use real locations, I made the decision to employ actual events and real people from history in the telling of my story.

  Hitler’s dawn tour of Paris in the company of architects actually occurred.

Göring’s hunting lodge and estate, Carinhall, enlarged and enhanced at the expense of the German taxpayer, was (like The Berghof) destroyed at the end of the war, but there are substantial photographic records and written descriptions of it still in existence.


The director of the Louvre during the war, Jacques Jaujard, has a relatively minor role in the book, but it was he who organised the evacuation of the museum’s artworks, and negotiated feverishly with the Germans to keep them out of Nazi hands, while at the same time secretly communicating with the Allies.

The contents of the Louvre were moved frequently during the war, initially to châteaux in the Loire (where some remained for the duration), then on to various other locations in the south-west, before ending up at the Château de Montal. Details and dates of those removals in “The Night Gate” remain faithful to historical fact. In the book the curator, René Huygue, who accompanied the bulk of the most valuable paintings and ended up at Montal supplying arms to the French Resistance, was a real person. He had been the Louvre’s curator of paintings pre-war, and after it went on to become a successful writer.

The real life character of Rose Valland, deserves a book all to herself. A mousy woman in her forties, she was curator of the Paris art gallery Jeu de Paume, when the Nazis occupied the city. They commandeered her gallery as a depository for the art they were stealing from the French, mainly Jews, before shipping it off to Germany. Without revealing that she understood German, Rose kept meticulous secret records of every piece of art that came into the Jeu de Paume, when it left and where it was sent. So that after the war she was able to go to Germany and recover much of it. An interesting footnote is that Göring himself made several visits to the gallery during the war to select stolen items of art for his own collection. Rose would later confront him at his trial at Nuremberg.

THE FRENCH GESTAPO

Another interesting discovery that my research threw up was the existence of a French version of the Gestapo, known as La Carlingue. It had been set up in the Rue Lauriston in Paris, and run by French criminals and collaborators. Suspects were tortured there, and wooden posts sunk into the floor of the basement, where hapless victims were tied up and shot. When one of my characters finds himself taken there, he is confronted by a large woman called Violette Morris, described as a former athlete who had competed for France in various capacities, including boxing, at international events. Violette actually existed, and got her just desserts in 1944 when the car she was travelling in was ambushed by resistance fighters who shot her dead.

SAINT-CÉRÉ

In structuring my story around real events, I was able to weave in the narrow escape of 40 or more residents of Saint-Céré just two days after D-Day. I had always been aware of plaques mounted on walls around the town, marking the places where resistance fighters had been shot. But it was only in researching this that I discovered the truth.

  

SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Christian Tychsen, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Waffen-SS, was commander of the 2nd SS Panzer Regiment in the SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” when it rolled into Saint-Céré on June 8th, 1944, on its way north to counter the Allied invasion. His men summarily executed captured resistance fighters on the Pont Neuf, and opposite the hospital, before rounding up a group of more than 40 civilians - mostly women and children - and preparing to gun them down in the Boulevard Gambetta. It was only the intervention of a Czech national, Berthe Nasinec, married to the local hairdresser, who prevented the massacre. A fluent German speaker she harangued Commander Tychsen for what seemed to everyone there like hours, before final shaming him, or otherwise persuading him, to call off the killings. There is a plaque commemorating the episode to this day in the Boulevard Gambetta. My character, Georgette, is caught up in these events in the book, believing she is going to die there and then. Just half an hour earlier she had been broadcasting from one of the towers in the Tours Saint-Laurent (the photograph on the cover of the book), to warn the allies against launching bombing attacks on Germans. 

The people of Saint-Céré had much for which to thank Berthe Nasinec. For the very next night Tychsen’s men strung up 99 resistance fighters from an avenue of trees in the nearby town of Tulle. The day after that, another regiment of the SS Panzer Division “Das Reich”, committed the infamous atrocity at Oradour-sur-Glane where they murdered the entire civilian population.

Photo © Valentine Chapius

With thanks to MIDAS PR

Peter May



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