In this series, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to showcase an excerpt from one of their books. This week, Chris Lloyd introduces us to the grime and fear of Occupied Paris.
The extract below is from Chapter One, Page One of my new book, The Unwanted Dead, published on 17 September.
For me, the opening few lines and the first chapter are among the most important parts of a book. They set out your stall, they’re there to intrigue, and they’re often what makes a reader decide to carry on reading. That’s why it’s one of the toughest bits for me as a writer to be satisfied with. It’s also why it’s usually one of the last parts of the book that I write.
When I start the story, I don’t always know what the first chapter has to do or say. I often – but not always – have a first line, and I have an idea of the scene and the setting, but not much beyond that. So I put in a few lines of text to set a tone, some random dialogue that I think should go in there, and quick notes about how I imagine the chapter will pan out. But then I pretty much forget about it until I’ve finished the first draft. It’s only when I’ve written the whole story that I know the role that the first chapter has to play – what has to be previewed, what the tone should be, who should appear, the seed of what questions to sow.
So when I write ‘The End’, I’ve still got to go back and write the beginning.
Two things happened on June the fourteenth, 1940.
Four men no one knew died in a railway yard and a fifth man stepped off a balcony.
There were other things that happened on June the fourteenth, 1940.
The soldiers of the 187th tank destroyers wanted to look their best as they invaded Paris, so they took a wash in the muddy waters of the Ourcq Canal, six kilometres outside the city. In a race to grab the best beds, General Bogislav von Studnitz set up shop in the Crillon Hotel, while all around him, German officers spread their dusty uniforms on the city’s finest bed linen. And in the summer sun, Wehrmacht bands honked endlessly up and down a deserted Champs-Élysées until finally a giant swastika was unfurled over the tomb of the unknown soldier just in case there was anyone left in Paris who didn’t yet know we’d lost.
But in my world, four men no one knew died in a railway yard and a fifth man stepped off a balcony.
‘Christ, what a stink,’ Auban cursed.
‘Show some respect, Detective,’ I told him. A bruiser in the right-wing leagues who’d brawled his way through the thirties, Auban was tough and muscular. Even in the growing heat of a summer morning, he dressed in a way that wouldn’t let you forget that, a heavy leather jacket over a white shirt so tight as to show off his chest. He glared at me and turned away.
‘This way, Inspector Giral,’ he said through gritted teeth. His usual cocksure insolence was now suffused with a fear he couldn’t hide. I glanced to either side of me and knew why.
Lined up along the railway embankment were row upon row of German soldiers. A gauntlet of faceless figures that had watched me pick my way along the soot-greased sleepers of the marshalling yard to where Auban was waiting for me. They hadn’t shifted a centimetre in all that time. The ones on the right partially obscured the low sun, their long shadows curling across the oil and grime of the railway yard, picking us out as we walked. To the left, hard young faces in bitter contrast stared impassively. I could make out an officer barely fifty metres away looking intently at me, his face expressionless. They were the first Germans I saw that day, some of the first to enter the city. They watched us now in silence, their machine guns pointing at the ground, the grey of their battle dress soaking the black clouds out of the sky.
‘They been here all the time?’ I asked Auban. He nodded.
We set off towards a group of half a dozen uniformed police waiting for us by some goods trucks. The normally bustling railway yard to the south of Gare d’Austerlitz was unnaturally quiet. No trains moved in or out. We picked our way through rubbish strewn along the tracks. In the streets nearby and all over the city, it had lain uncollected for weeks, left to rot while the Germans advanced on Paris and refuse was the least of anyone’s worries.
Auban was right. It did stink. A smell of death and decay in the air. Whether it was the scene that I knew awaited me or the city itself, I couldn’t decide. Under the scrutiny of the German soldiers, we walked past a dead dog lying on the jumble of tracks, its tongue swollen and lolling, its eyes wide open in panic. Flies rose and fell in a putrescent murmuration. I faltered for a moment. There was another smell, faint but acrid, lying underneath – like bitter pineapple doused in black pepper. Only it was different from how I’d remembered it. I shook my head to get rid of it.
I looked away from the dog to see a police sergeant hurrying towards us along the track. My breath caught in my throat and I almost stumbled. I glanced at Auban but he hadn’t noticed. I looked back at the figure running at me and fought down my panic. His face was disfigured by a heavy gas mask and the smell that had been lurking outside my senses finally engulfed my memory.
His voice muffled, the sergeant held out a gas mask each for me and Auban. ‘You need to put this on, Eddie.’
Fighting to stop my hand from shaking, I reached out for mine. It was standard army issue. Not much better than the ones we’d been made to wear the last time Germany went to war with us. Trying to keep control of my breathing, I struggled not to relive the same dark panic as when I’d last worn one a lifetime ago. I recalled another morning when I’d briefly felt the gas burn my nostrils and eyes before getting my mask on in time and peering through the yellow fog at the unlucky ones who’d left it too late slowly dying in the bottom of a trench.
‘It’s just a precaution,’ I heard the sergeant say. ‘The gas will have dissipated by now, but better safe than sorry.’
He led us towards half a dozen uniformed cops huddled in a tight circle, each one wearing a mask.
‘Good morning, Eddie,’ the only civilian there said to me. ‘Not every day we have an audience.’
Bouchard, the forensic doctor, was only a couple of years older than me, but he always wore an old-fashioned cutaway suit and kept his salt-and-pepper hair combed back like a Belle Époque philosopher. Despite the mask obscuring his face, his presence calmed me.
‘Tough crowd, I reckon. I’ll let you take the hat round after.’
Read more about Chris Lloyd
To discover more of Chris’s books, follow the link here to his Amazon page