Posted by: billpurdue | December 3, 2009

77 Two Kinds of Light

This time I want to talk about murder in the far north and the life of a blind hero in the French Resistance during World War 2. First though, a quick mention of my column in next week’s Chad (Dec 9th) which will offer suggestions for books as Christmas presents. If you make a careful choice, books can make ideal Christmas presents: I hope you will approve of my list.

Now though, to the Shetland Isles. This is perhaps a rather unlikely setting for a series of detective novels, but Anne Cleeves has done just that with her “Shetland Quartet”. This began with Raven Black [Pan £6.99 978-0330512947 – new ed. due in February] and will end  – unless it becomes a quintet, or sextet(!) – with Blue Lightning [ Macmillan £16.99 978-0230014473] which is due out in hardback next February . I’m not a regular crime reader, but I’ve just enjoyed number two in the series called White Nights[ Pan £6.99 978-0330448253]. The “star” of the series is Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez (good Scottish name that, but there’s a reason for it, too detailed to explain here)who sometimes has to call in help from the mainland and even gets help, in this book at least, from his girlfriend.

It’s midsummer in Shetland, when there is hardly any total darkness and in a tiny hamlet a world renowned artist, Bella Sinclair, is having an exhibition. For some strange reason far fewer people turn up for the show, due probably to someone wearing a clown’s mask handing out leaflets in Lerwick which claimed that the show had been cancelled. During the evening a stranger appears who studies the paintings and suddenly bursts into tears. Jimmy Perez, being a friend of the artist, is on hand and finds that the stranger appears to have completely lost his memory. Shortly afterwards the stranger is found hanging in a shed near the quayside. It’s quickly proven that it wasn’t suicide and the search is on for the killer and the identity of the stranger who had no documents with him. Then another body is found at the bottom of a cliff – suicide or was he pushed? And then what happened to the man who at one time was tipped to marry Bella, but suddenly left the island?  I’m not going to spoil the story, but I can tell you that you’ll be kept guessing to the end, but take note of the clues.

I couldn’t help comparing the style of Ann Cleeves with that of Stephen Booth, Nottinghamshire’s own bestselling crime writer. Their styles are very similar, but I do think that Stephen Booth has the edge over Ann Cleeves. Possibly it’s because I felt more at home with the setting of Stephen Booth’s series of detective novels set in Derbyshire – the Cooper and Fry novels – , but I really think it’s more than that. Something I can’t put my finger on.

Well, that was one kind of light – the sort you get in Shetland in the summer when it never really gets dark – here’s another , which I suppose is best described as inner light. Jacques Lusseyran was a leading figure in one of the French resistance organisations, in spite of the fact that he was blind. In fact , blindness was an advantage sometimes.  In his book And there was light [Floris Books £9.99 9780863155079] he tells how he lost his sight in an accident at the age of eight. In spite of being totally blind, he never became downhearted and spends a lot of time in the book explaining how he overcame his difficulties and  how he was filled with a kind of inner light, which only disappeared on the rare occasions. It’s hard for a sighted person to understand how a blind man can “see” in this way, but Lusseyran does his best to explain.

Lusseyran was born in 1924 and by the time the war started he was in his mid-teenage years. When France was occupied by the Germans, he resolved to start a resistance movement.  Jacques put his skills to good use as an interviewer of prospective members of the movement, judging by the sound and tone of their voices as to their suitability, weeding out the weak and the traitorous. His movement’s main task was the publication and distribution of an underground newspaper . Eventually he and many of his comrades were betrayed to the Germans and transported to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He was one of only about thirty to survive .

I enjoyed reading this autobiography, though the first half of the book is rather slow in pace: it speeds up to an almost frenzied pace at times when the resistance movement begins. Jacques Lusseyran was probably one of the “lucky”ones after losing his sight, since he was able to more than compensate for his sightlessness by recognising the light within himself. How tragic then to note that he died in 1971 in the United States in a car accident.

Next time: Pick of the Year 2009.

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