New York: Mysterious Road Integrated Media Inc, 2012, 2013. $14.99

Janice Laws protagonist is Francis Bacon. No, not that Francis Bacon, not the Sir Francis Bacon of the Scientific Revolution, but the the other one, the one who was a 20th century Anglo-Irish painter, noted for his abstract figures and raw emotional power. Francis Bacon the painter mayve been a collateral descendent of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Sir Franciss older half-brother. Both were real, historical figures of import, both were homosexual, and both possessed logical minds. Our Francis Bacon tends to become logical when hes of a mind to be naughty.

It’s always a danger to use a historical person as a character. Outside of painters and art historians, Bacon isn’t well known. Law has done the smart thing—she keeps to her protagonist’s nature and creates narratives where less is known of Bacon’s actual life. Francis Bacon lives with his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who pinches things despite deteriorating eyesight. He acquires an older, late Victorian, respectable lover who, during THE FIRES OF LONDON, is living two lives. Inspired as a painter by Picasso, Bacon is a gentleman of odd education—he loves the Greeks, but never got bogged down in the scholarly criticism—with a taste for Champagne, roulette, and rough trade. 

In THE FIRES OF LONDON, Bacon is an air raid warden at the beginning of the Blitz and, for a little frisson of excitement, also running an illegal roulette table with his lover. While he’s out one night, he hears a gay boy, Damien, bought it, his head beaten in. Bacon finds out more, finds a detective, too, DCI Mordren of Homicide. After he stumbles over a murdered RAF pilot in the dark—as a warden, his torch should’ve been working—he lands in the nick. DCI Mordren has him nicely in the frame for the murder. Or does he? Mordren turns Bacon into an unofficial sleuth, looking for a serial killer. Bacon doesn’t plays that straight, knowing what a spot he’s in—a homosexual and a murder suspect. Between dodging the police, he starts having to dodge the killer. When he comes upon a blackmail ring, worked by a theatrical gentleman who likes to stage scenes from ORESTEIA and a right piece of work from the East End, Bacon’s chances for survival “go down a rabbit hole”—even as the Blitz intensifies. Nan works her light-fingered magic more than once to rescue Bacon, who has to rescue her when the killer gets too close.

FIRES OF LONDON is tautly-written and paced. Law writes from Bacon’s perspective with a charming, insouciant lightness—“That’s how I became, thank you very much, an official police informant, a snitch, a grass, a traitor to the right thinking and free living” (47)--yet with the eye of a brilliant painter, reminiscent of Picasso—“I kept an eye on his rather high-toned colors, the cadmium red and yellows, both raw and burnt sienna balanced with cold raw umber, and an array of vivid greens and blues, the intense colors of his contingent” (57). After reading several descriptions of either bombings or the aftermath, a reader cannot help but think of “Guernica”.

Much of what made THE FIRES OF LONDON such a superb read are missing from THE PRISONER OF THE RIVIERA. The modernist painter’s eye for abstraction and savagery is muted here though not the eye for irony. Nan and Arnold are mostly missing from this tale, and Francis is less interesting on his own. In FIRES OF LONDON, Bacon has an odd innocence to his insouciance, for all that he’s an habitué of the demimonde. That innocence, along with that half world, was lost in the war. There is no surprise in that, but there is the sense that Bacon and the plot are at odds with each other.

In the immediate postwar of 1947, when everything was still rationed and much of the damage from World War II still visible and dangerous, Bacon and Arnold are back at the roulette wheel in an illegal establishment. After losing badly, they leave, only to see Victor Renard shot down on the steps of the establishment. Bacon tries to save the man’s life, but to his war-trained eyes, it looks hopeless. Putting the incident behind him. Bacon and Arnold decide to take a vacation in the south of France, with Nan in tow. Before they can leave, Joubert, owner of the gambling den, approaches Bacon to deliver a package, a legacy from Victor Renard to his widow, who lives along the Riviera, in the Villa Mimosa. In exchange for this mission of mercy, Joubert will cancel Bacon’s gambling chits. Grumbling, Bacon agrees, but ever the procrastinator, he leaves delivery off till the last minute. Once he hands the packet over to Mme. Renard, he smells something fishy and leaves. When Mme. Renard turns up dead, but it’s not the same Mme. Renard to whom Bacon delivered the packet, he’s back in the frame for murder. Conveniently, the neighbors of the Villa Mimosa saw only Bacon the afternoon of the murder. Inspector Chardin takes Bacon’s passport, but leaves him free in the town to snoop (or be a target). Bacon is hired to paint miniatures for a dollhouse made by Anastasie and Agathe Chavanel for a very special client. This commission brings him into the murky world of collaboration  and resistance, where compromised people did what they had to do to survive. Old grudges and crimes are being settled by the opportunists who profited so handsomely from the conflict. 

France had a very different war than Britain. Half occupied by the Germans, half under the rule of Vichy—France suffered civil war as much as it suffered total war, particularly between the Milice and the Resistance. Their conflicts were brutal and clandestine. After the war, either nobody wanted to talk or everybody wanted to claim they were on the winning side from the beginning. Compromised people remain compromised, they aren’t going to tell the complete truth to anyone, let alone an outsider like Bacon. For all his quick wits and charming personality, he is a naÏf in this situation. He’s too much the outsider to carry this plot; furthermore, there are too many characters with insufficiently fleshed out motivations to account for the too numerous convolutions. Like Bacon, the reader wants to escape from this snake pit where little is resolved except by Death. This revenge-soaked setting works better for St. Cyr and Kohl than it does for Bacon.

The great strength of these two novels is Francis Bacon. As a character, he has a fabulous, intriguing narrative voice. He’s a bit of a lad—not really bad, just a bit naughty with a great heart for those he loves.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst