Making Civil Hands Unclean
Violent religion in Barbara Corrado Pope’s Blood of Lorraine
How to behave, how to love, how to judge, how to grieve — and how to deal with injustice. All human questions, some connected to where those humans live, and what they believe.
Barbara Corrado Pope’s new mystery concerns itself as much with terroir as any issue of Wine Spectator. This terroir equals the soil of France, specifically the land of Lorraine, a disputed area retained after the Franco-Prussian War while Alsace went to the German winners.
Questions of nationhood and religion intertwine in this second book in the series begun two years ago with Cezanne’s Quarry, in which readers met Bernard Martin. Martin’s experiences in that book meant that he had to move, along with his wife Clarie, to the city of Nancy. It’s the late 19th century, and France still hasn’t recovered fro m its defeat at the hands of Germany in 1871, not to mention various other traumas of the century. Who’s French — who’s really a citizen? The question comes up time and again because a worker accuses “a wandering Jew” of killing her baby.
Then wealthy, powerful Jews in Nancy start to die.
Martin, the magistrate in charge of the investigation, must deal with many competing and powerful interests in his city. He’s an ardent republican (small-r) who approves heartily of educating girls and keeping religion separate from the state. But as the murders play out against the all too real backdrop of the Dreyfus Affair (accusations of spying against the Jewish French Army officer Alfred Dreyfus) and hate-filled anti-Semitic propaganda, Martin also sees parts of his personal life unravel.
Both Cezanne’s Quarry and The Blood of Lorraine concern Martin’s inner life, his awareness that he’s from a class far below that of most of his investigating colleagues and his commitment to republican principles — along with his unwillingness to act decisively in certain situations. He’s a good man, and he’s not a weak man, but his decisions have consequences beyond what he might expect, and they weigh heavily on him as he attempts to succeed at his job in Nancy.
This time, Martin also has to deal with personal tragedy and his wife’s increasing dependence on über-Catholic, anti-republican friends. But he knows he has to pull it together, learn to act and not wait for someone else to make things right. That means he must question his own beliefs about Jews, about religion and about what community means; he must ask what motivates the anti-(Jewish)-immigrant fury and anti-Semitism that pervades every level of society.
Pope, who knows how to do her research, bases all of this on actual historical documents, ones that might not sound so antiquated to those who know what’s happening to immigrants in the U.S. or those who can link the madness of anti-Semitic rants from that time to the dreck motivating white supremacists and neo-Nazis today.
Yet any obvious answer to who’s killing the Jews of Nancy turns out to be the wrong conclusion; the slightly more complex, unexpected reality echoes with certain developments in our own, much more heavily immigrant society.
One misstep mars the generally fine pleasure of reading this second effort: The last few lines seem tacked on in order to anticipate not only future books but also the then-future of France, filled with broken storefronts and dead Jews. But really, anyone reading a mystery so suffused with specific history no doubt already knows that anti-Semitism didn’t end when Alfred Dreyfus received his pardon and knows that, oh, a couple of world wars and the Holocaust lie between the end of the 19th century and 2010.
That ending aside, the book’s mixed currents clearly resonate with life in the 21st century but are grounded securely within the upheavals of the their time. Bernard Martin’s struggles remain compelling enough (though I hope to have a clearer understanding of Clarie in book three, which I presume will be set in Paris). And relationships among people of different classes and religions and backgrounds, co-workers and friends and family make The Blood of Lorraine a compelling read about humans dealing with the bloody birth of the 20th century.
Pope will be reading and signing The Blood of Lorrane at 2pm Saturday, July 10, at the UO Knight Library