Chris Lloyd won the HWA Gold Crown Award in 2021 for The Unwanted Dead, a tense thriller set in Paris at the start of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Detective Eddie Giral, still traumatised by his experiences during the First World War, is helpless in the face of this menace. There’s one thing he still has control over: finding whoever is responsible for the murder of four refugees. Dealing with the Germans, though, is even more complex. Chris speaks to Historia about writing his book, historical fiction, and history.
Congratulations on winning the 2021 HWA Gold Crown Award! What does it mean to you?
Thank you! Over a week after the announcement, I caught myself one day with a big smile on my face, and I realised that I was still walking on air at having won the award. It means so much.
When I saw the longlist, I already felt extremely proud and privileged to be counted among such great books and great writers. To then make the shortlist with writers whose work I admire an enormous amount was a dream. That’s why winning is still only really sinking in.
I feel immensely grateful to have been considered in the first place, so receiving this honour from my peers is simply the best it gets.
It’s also given me renewed expectations of myself to try and live up to the honour shown me and to make sure I write as well and as honestly as I can and show the same support to other writers.
The Unwanted Dead impressed the judges with its originality: the occupation of Paris from the viewpoint of a city cop trying to do his job in impossible circumstances. How did the idea come about?
I think that like many ideas, it’s the result of a jumble of patterns and thoughts that eventually found their way to each other. Years ago, I wrote my degree thesis on the factions within the French Resistance, and my shock at the level of disparity and distrust between the various groups has always stayed with me. At the time, I also met two former Resistance fighters who were deeply unpleasant men – I wanted them to be heroes and, of course, they were; they just didn’t fit in with the classical idea of a hero.
That was a moment that lay dormant in my head all this time – the idea that heroes don’t necessarily have to be nice people, and vice versa. That was perhaps the kernel of what became Eddie and his story. Parallel to this, I’ve always been more interested in the social history of an era rather than battles and treaties. I read a statistic that claimed that during the Occupation, three per cent of the French population actively resisted and three per cent actively collaborated. We’ve seen the heroic films and read about resistance and collaboration, but I wanted to know what life was like for the other 94 per cent, who simply tried to survive and get by, queue for bread and keep their job.
And perhaps an extreme form of that is a police detective under Nazi rule – how do you reconcile yourself to investigating everyday crime when all around you, people are being killed in their tens of thousands, cities are being bombed almost out of existence and in your world, everything you know is turned on its head? You’re forced to do your job to the Occupier’s tune, including turning on your own people, so how far do you go along with it and how far do you dare react to it
And then, of course, resistance and collaboration themselves are not clear-cut concepts. If you’re a waiter in a café and serve a German soldier a coffee, does that make you a collaborator? If, like Eddie, you take orders from the Occupier, does that mean you’re collaborating, or make you feel that you’re collaborating? It’s those blurred lines between what constitutes one or the other that I wanted to explore through Eddie – and through how he reacts to it – while telling the stories of ordinary people that often go unnoticed.
Your story couldn’t have been set in any other time or place; we’re immersed in those terrifying, morally ambiguous times. Was such intensive research a duty or a pleasure?
It was perhaps too much of a pleasure, as I constantly had to force myself away from ‘just a bit more’ and get on with writing the story. It’s too easy to convince myself that I needed to find out if it was raining on such-and-such a day and what exact colour the bread ration tickets were that month (they changed colour every month). But the real pleasure of the research was finding out just how little I knew about the period – discovering new things is always a fascination, and it contributed so much to my understanding of Paris at that time and to how I approached the characters and the story.
As for duty, there was a duty to the research but in perhaps a nuanced meaning of the word. While researching, I came across a plaque in a primary school in the Pletzel that listed the children that were sent to Auschwitz and never returned. It was one of those moments that stopped me in my tracks and gave me a greater sense of what I was trying to do. I increasingly felt that I had a duty to maintain a respect for the period and its history and people, to explore it as honestly as I possibly could from this distance, and to make sure that their story is always heard.
Did your research for The Unwanted Dead turn up anything unexpected?
All the time, and it often sent the story waltzing off in a completely different direction. The initial idea for Eddie and for The Unwanted Dead came to me thanks to research, but it was the deeper research that I had to do to develop the story that turned up the surprises
In a couple of cases, that meant having to change the story that I’d originally planned. One of these was the bizarre tale of how the Gestapo came to be in Paris – they just rocked up in two jeeps and checked into a plush hotel despite being forbidden by Hitler from going there. That discovery sent me back to the drawing board, but created a whole new thread that was just too fascinating to ignore.
The unexpected discoveries were also extremely useful for adding atmosphere to the story: the Parisians who believed they were observing the blackout by turning all the lights out but leaving a candle in the window so they could find their way home at night, or a series of rumours doing the rounds in the first days of the Occupation that became increasingly more outlandish, which meant that I had to create a character, Eddie’s neighbour, who constantly waylays him on the stairs with the most bizarre stories. And it keeps on giving – the central story in Paris Requiem is based on an unexpected find while researching for The Unwanted Dead.
What’s next for Eddie Giral? Can you give us a clue or two?
All writers are fundamentally cruel to our favourite characters. We put them in impossible situations and challenge them to get out of them. Eddie’s story is inextricably linked to the history of the Occupation and the cruelty and hardships that it entailed and the various stages it went through, from false courtesy to the most savage persecution, so I think you can be certain that he’s going to have a tough time of it and will be pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions.
In Paris Requiem, the second book, Eddie investigates the disappearance of a number of prisoners from a Paris prison, which leads him to uncover an astonishing conspiracy, while an old flame begs him to find her missing son. Both strands are based on real incidents. In the third book – set at Christmas 1940 and which I’m just starting to write now – Eddie comes up against a black marketeer gang (that has terrifying allies) and is tempted by the easier life that working with the Occupiers might allow.
Were you conscious of any modern-day parallels when writing your book?
This is a huge question. I think that when you write historical fiction, it’s hard not to find parallels with the present. Or at least actions, attitudes and events that have a resonance today.
The Unwanted Dead deals with Nazism and refugees, and we’re seeing far too many instances today of the rise of the far-right and refugee crises not to see parallels. To use the case of refugees as an example, the reaction to refugee crises by the developed world – and our part in creating them – is not something we can be proud of. The scapegoating and demonization of refugees by populist politicians and media, and the lack of empathy for people who have been forced to flee their homes – which takes immense courage – is something that should concern and anger us all.
And that doesn’t matter what age you are talking about. When you look at the historical period I’m writing about, you see the same polarised patterns of attitudes towards refugees as we see today.
In the 1930s and 1940s, when there were refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation of countries across Europe, there were politicians and newspapers – and ordinary people on the streets – who felt they had no obligation to help or welcome them, who would happily turn their back on them. Seeing the same patterns continue to exist eighty years later is deeply distressing, and yet another example of our inability to learn from history.
Having said that, there are also specificities of the past time that need to be recognised and respected. It’s very tempting to comment on present-day issues from a past perspective as it provides a good yardstick against which to compare how we do, speak, act and think today. And there is definitely an element of that in The Unwanted Dead, especially when there are attitudes that were present then that are still around – or even on the rise – today.
As writers, we use the past as a mirror to reflect the issues of today that we maybe find disturbing or worrying, but I think there comes a point where you have to know where to draw the line and be wary of looking for parallels. Ultimately you have to remember that you are writing about the past. It’s sometimes too easy to put today’s values onto the historical characters to make them acceptable to modern-day readers, so there is a balance to be found in remaining true to the era you are writing about while still respecting the values of readers today.
Historical crime is extremely popular at the moment. Why do you think that is?
It possibly harks back to the parallels I talked about above. Setting a crime novel in a historical period is a way of trying to understand and explain an unfamiliar era through a familiar type of narrative. By turning a global history into an individual story, it becomes more manageable, more relatable today, and possibly easier to comprehend.
In my specific case, I write about WW2 and Nazism, the Occupation of Paris, and Resistance and Collaboration, which bring their own unique issues. I think we all cannot help feeling a morbid fascination with the worst excesses of human nature, as long as it’s vicarious – the crime genre plugs into this while the historical era provides a ready-made world and reveals an aspect of history that is maybe not known to the reader.
The era that I write about was one that plumbed the depths of inhumanity, one that saw unrestrained populism, hate and discrimination win over logic, empathy and kindness – it produced the most atrocious act of evil in recent history. The conditions that gave rise to it are always there, so we like to look back on it from the relative safety of today’s perspective.
But there also has to be hope – in life and in fiction – and the period provides that too. We know how it ended – ultimately, notionally at least, good triumphed over evil. And that, I think, is what we look for in historical crime fiction: the perfect story, evil overcome by good – in all the nuances that that means – and a taste of a period that we maybe know little or nothing about and want to know more.
What advice would you give someone starting work on their first historical novel?
Research, research, research.
Then stop researching.
By my first piece of advice, I mean immerse yourself in the time and place you’re writing about. Look at the macro and the micro – the big historical events that may be the backdrop to your story and that colour your narrative, and the small stories, the everyday feeling of what it was like to live through that time. Read history books, diaries if you can for the day-to-day life of people who experienced the age, online PhD theses for detailed views of highly specialised aspects, find out what people ate, drank, read, listened to.
If you’re writing about the modern era, watch films or hunt out photos or engravings from the time to see how people dressed and looked. Devour everything you can find about your era. It will provide you not only with your main stories and themes, but also with vignettes and details that will make your treatment of the period come to life.
And then stop. My second piece of advice is to know when to stop doing all of the above before you disappear down a rabbit hole. It’s hard but there comes a moment when you have to shrug off the comfort blanket of research and get on with the writing. I’ve learned to set myself a deadline for when I stop researching and start writing, otherwise I know I’d put it off forever.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to our understanding of the past?
The historical novelist is often the gate-opener. As a reader, I know that there are a lot of periods in history that I know next to nothing about. I also have to admit that I’m unlikely to tackle a very learned non-fiction book about an era I don’t know – I’m not sure how much I’d glean from it without prior knowledge or how much I’m prepared to commit to it.
This is where the historical novel opens up this age to me. At the very least, I know I’m going to enjoy a story, and beyond that, it’s more than likely that I’ll discover a time and place I didn’t know and develop an interest in them. There are countless times that I’ve read a historical novel to then go on and want to discover more about an era or a historical figure.
That, for me, is the strength of the historical novelist – perhaps we’re among the few left who embody the Reithian spirit in that our purpose is to inform, educate and entertain. We write about a past that can easily be forgotten in a way that engages and entertains and keeps it alive.
Besides this, we can also add to the debate about history and challenge perceptions and misconceptions that exist – the most sublime example of this for me is Josephine Tey with The Daughter of Time, which questioned the historical record prevalent at the time of Richard III and the murder of the princes in the Tower.
The other area where I feel that the historical novelist adds to our understanding is that as novelists, we focus on individual stories. Whereas most of mainstream history deals with the big story – kings and queens, battles and treaties – we have a strong tendency to look at the lives of ordinary people, the everyday stories turned on their head by an exceptional event, the ultimate universal tale told through a story that could only have happened in that place at that time. It’s often those areas that engage with today’s reader as we question how we might have fared under those circumstances.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
This is, by far, the toughest question of all. Having to write a synopsis for a novel is a challenge, so describing it in five words is the stuff of nightmares! I originally thought of something rather cryptic, like Eddie solves crimes Nazis don’t, or a list of related words – Detective, Paris, Nazis, refugees, railway – but in the end, I’ve gone for: Shell-shocked cop in Nazi Paris. I hope that about sums it up.
The Unwanted Dead by Chris Lloyd was published on 17 September, 2020. Chris’s next Eddie Giral book, Paris Requiem, is out on 21 July, 2022.
See more about the three books which won HWA Crown Awards in 2021.
Win Chris’s book and the five others shortlisted for the HWA Gold Crown Award in our giveaway (ends on 15 January, 2022)..
Photo of Chris Lloyd: supplied by the author
Photo of Chris with his award at the celebration in November, 2021: Fran Hales
Two German soldiers at a cafe in the Boulevard Saint-Germain: Deutsches Bundesarchiv
German soldiers in Paris hail a taxi-velo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv
Hitler and companions after visiting the Eiffel Tower, 1940: Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia
German soldiers with two women at the Moulin Rouge, June, 1940: Deutsches Bundesarchiv
German soldiers at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, 1940: family/John N via Wikimedia