Tuesday, 29 November 2022

The art behind the story...

... in Mazargues, Book six in the JacquesForêt mystery series set in the Cévennes.  Read on...

I’ve always been interested in art.   I actually grew up in a household with artists.  Both my brothers could draw and paint and so could my dad.  Me?   I have a keen eye for colour and design but that’s about it.  I don’t seem to have the required gene.  So, I’ve made up for the deficit by visiting art galleries whenever I could.  My particular interests are the Renaissance - because that period saw the then revolutionary introduction of perspective - and the Impressionists and some more modern artists such as Georgia O’Keefe.
About five years ago, when I realised I had more than just the first four Jacques Forêt stories to tell, I came across an article in the newspaper about the theft, over one weekend, of some precious artworks.  That set me thinking.  How did the theives do that?  How did they get around the alarm system?  For weeks afterwards my brain just would not stop circling that issue.  The customary notes were made in a number of my many notebooks and, although I had no idea of what the story would be, I knew there was a book in there somewhere.
Come forward to 2020 and the pandemic hits.  Being confined, as we all were, gave me the opportunity to indulge in my love of art from the comfort of my own library/home office.  I signed up for all sorts of lectures online.  And I was so glad I did.
Mazargues is not just a crime story involving art it’s also about the life and work of an artist. Yes, my story is something that developed in my imagination, but creating the life and body of work of my imaginary artist really stretched the brain.  How could I have my central character Jacques discuss the case with his colleague Didier, if I didn’t have any clear idea of the actual picture that they had been commissioned to find?
That meant research.  A lot of it, but it was a fascinating journey.  I looked up the Impressionnists. Monet, Renoir, Matisse I already had some books about, but others, Pissarro, Morisot, Caillebotte, Singer Sargent, Hopper, Merrit Chase and Sisley, were complete strangers to me.  Whilst not all of those artists get a mention in the text, examination of their work enabled me to invent some works of art that I hope come across to the reader as credible.
So, it is William Merrit Chase’s work Child on a Garden Path that provided the inspiration for one of the pictures that comes up during the investigation.  Similarly, the missing painting of the investigation is based on At the Seaside also by Chase.
For the portraiture mentioned in my story I used some of John Singer Sargent’s work as my models.  The monochrome portrait that Jacques spends time gazing at is actually an amalgam of two of Sargent’s paintings - Madame Pailleron and Madame Gautreau.  I took specific elements from each actual portrait in order to create in my imagination the one that Jacques comes across in his research.
Similarly with the other pictures that are mentioned.  They are either amalgams of real land- or seascapes or they are complete fictions based on an actual sketch or panel by one of the artists mentioned.
It would have been wonderful to be able to illustrate this post with the works that are named in the book.  Sadly, the best I can do is to tell you to click the link behind the title of each of the paintings above.  It won’t take you on the amazing journey of research that I encountered, but it might give you a hint about how enjoyable my search was.

You can read more about the book Here  Here and  Here

You can read about my visits to the Georgia O'Keefe exhibition Here or the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition Here

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Publication Day is almost here...

 ... and I have a special offer for you.  Read on...

Mazargues, the sixth book in the Jacques Forêt mystery series set in the Cévennes in south central France is about to hit the streets.  Way back in 2007, when I first had an idea about a murder taking place in one of my favourite places, I never envisaged I would be sitting here typing this blogpost.  Although I had the idea, I had no clear understanding of how to write a book, let alone consider whether I had a stand-alone story or the beginning if a series.
And yet - here I am, with my weekly blog, six books to my name, along with a number of short stories in various other publcations.
If you've been following the news and updates on my website, (www.angelawren.co.uk), you'll be aware that Mazargues has taken me quite a while to write.  There were a number of reasons for that, but one of the most important was the background research that was required.
The story is about a missing painting.  Although I have a long-held interest in art, I quickly realised the my knowledge was not detailed enough and I needed to enhance it significantly in order to properly create some of the scenes in the book.  So, I spent quite a lot of time attending on-line lectures about art and artists.  Did I perhaps spend too much time on the research because it was so fascinating?  Very probably.  Do I regret doing so?  Not in the slightest.  It was an amazing journey and you can find out more about that here on the blog hext week.

For now, the blurb for the new book is below, along with details of a special offer that I hope you will agree is an opportunity not to be missed!.

With his private investigation business in a slump, Jacques Forêt rashly accepts a commission to find a missing painting.The mysterious owner of the artwork remains in the background, and Jacques and his partner, Didier Duclos, are left to piece together the life of the artist and the provenance of the painting.
Jacques’ unrelenting search leads him to discover a network of secrecy and lies – and a dead body.  Who is the victim?  And who is the killer?
A difficult case that takes Jacques into the dark, and sometimes money-laundered, world of art.

Today, I am also very pleased and proud to be able to say that, in support of the publication of Mazargues, for the weekend of November 25th - 27th inclusive, the e-versions of the first four books in the series will be at the reduced price of 99p/c or international equivalent.   

I hope you will take advantage of this offer and check out the books Here

If you want to read more about Mazargues and the real locations used in the book, check out my previous blog posts Here  Here  and  Here 

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Come stroll with me...

…through the streets of the city of Mende as I follow in the footsteps of my character, Jacques Forêt…

In my post last month I left you in place Chaptal, which sits to one side of the cathedral in the old heart of the city.  Today I'm picking up from there and taking you inside the cathedral.
Although there are traces of habitation here dating from 200 BC, Mende as we know and see it today, mostly dates from the Middle Ages.  As early as the 3rd Century, Mende was a village in the shadow of Mont Mimat where Saint Privat had taken refuge and lived as a hermit.  The invading Alamans tortured the Saint and left him for dead.  The Mendois recovered his body and built the first church/monument to him on the site of his death on Mont Mimat.
It wasn't until the 14th century that the cathedral was commissioned by Pope Urbain V and construction began in 1368.  The original bell towers were matched, but during the Religious Wars, when Capitaine Matthieu Merle marched through with his Huguenot soldiers and took the city, one of the towers was destroyed.  The bell that it contained - forged in Villefort and reputed to be the largest of it's time - was melted down to create ammunition by the invaders. The replacement mismatched tower dates from the late 16th century.
But let's step inside.  Photographs really can't do this fabulous edifice justice, and without a Cherry Picker, it's almost impossible to capture the beauty of the 18th century Aubusson tapestries that adorn the walls of the nave.  However, you can take a virtual tour of the catherdral Here
Out on the street again and I'm going to circle around the back of the basilica into rue du Soubeyran.  Jacques' route from place Chaptal takes him a short distance along this street and into rue de la Jarretière.  This is one of the narrowest streets in the city, it is also one of the oldest.  The name means street of the Garter as in the Royal Order of the Garter in the UK.  In the mid-fourteenth century a garter was a male item of clothing and perhaps some or most of the establishments originally on this street manufactured such items for the gentlemen of the town to wear.
What I want to show you is one of the magnificent ancient doorways that you can find at various points throughout the city.  This a 17th century gate to an Ursuline convent.  The convent was founded in 1635 with the stated purpose to provide education for the daughters of the wealthy nobleman living in and around the city.  The original building was destroyed by fire in 1905, but the gateway has been preserved.  And a good job too, because there is something quite unique about this entrance.  Just check out the stone balustrade that sits above the doorway and separates the pediment from the lintel.  I always thought balustrades were meant for leaning or sitting on whilst one admired the garden or the view beyond, so, this doorway begs a question.  Four hundred years ago, when the average height of a 17th century man was around 1.6m (5 foot 6), who would have been tall enough to lean on that particular balustrade???  Perhaps it was just a passing fashionable fad!  However, if doors are your thing, then the Tourist Office has a leaflet with a guided route to walk if you wish to meander through the streets in the hope of finding more oddities.
For Jacques, history is not on his mind when he visits this street.  He has a rogue market trader that he is determined to track down.

You can follow Jacques around other parts of the city of Mende and the surrounding countryside Here and Here

You can read more about his new case next week and on November 29th. 

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

I'm celebrating the life and work of Rumer Godden…

… an author of more than sixty books.  Read on…

Born in 1907 on December 10th in Eastbourne, Sussex, Godden grew up with her three sisters in Narayangangj - the sixth largest city in Bangladesh. Her father worked for the Brahmaputra Steam Navigation Company.
Initially sent to School in England, her parents brought her back to the sub-continent at the outbreak of the first war in 1914. Rumer and her sisters did not return to England until 1920 to resume their education in Eastbourne.
Godden trained as a dance teacher and travelled to Calcutta in 1925 to open a school for dance. With the help of her sister Nancy, Rumer ran the school for twenty years. But she was also writing during this time, and in 1939 she published her first best-selling novel, Black Narcissus. An iconic tale of life in a remote convent that has been serialised for TV and adapted for film.
But it wasn't that book that brought Godden to my notice. As a teenager, I remember sitting in the school playground with a friend, talking about books, and one of them was The Greengage Summer. On my next trip to the library, I sought it out and read it in one weekend. I was so taken with the central character of Joss Grey - a sixteen-year-old English girl who is required to look after her siblings when her mother is taken ill on holiday in France - that I spent far too much of my spare time day-dreaming that I could have been Joss. Luckily I did grow out of that silly little phase, but I also began working my way through Godden's other books.
As an imperious fourteen-year-old, of course, her children's books were instantly dismissed. But I remember the library assistant giving me a very old-fashioned look when she saw I was borrowing Black Narcissus!
Of all of Godden's books, I think I would have to say that In this House of Brede is the one to which I will always return. Set primarily in a convent here in England, it charts the life of Philippa, a businesswoman. She gives up everything to join the cloistered world of a group of Benedictine nuns at an abbey in Sussex. The book examines the dynamics between the characters and the minutiae of convent life. The day-to-day stresses and strains within the hierarchy of the convent are set against the gradually revealed background of Philippa's former life - a carefully mapped revelation of a terrible personal tragedy. This comes up in the very last quarter of the book as some new Japanese postulants arrive at the abbey. The writing is so intense, the death so poignant that I defy any reader not to be moved to tears. I was the first time I read the book, and each re-reading never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Although the language is of its time, the book is a masterclass in plotting and demonstrates the elegance of Godden's literary exposition.
Over the years, I have been gradually collecting her books, and I've obtained quite a shelf-full. But novels were not her only form of writing. She created almost thirty books for children, a dozen books of non-fiction, five books of poetry, numerous short stories and some translations.
After a long life, a happy second marriage, and a stunning career, Rumer died on this day in 1998 at the age of ninety.

If you enjoyed this post you may like to read about the life and work of A. A. Milne or my visit to Greenaway, the home of Agatha Christie

Tuesday, 1 November 2022

Come stroll with me...

The dense forest of the Col
… along the Col de la Tourette, an upland route through the peaks of the Cévennes.  There’s an important piece of history to be discovered here…

If you look at a map, you’ll see that the col sits on the upland between some higher peaks of the Cévennes.  As the RN88 follows the col through to the city of Mende, you are overlooked by the heights of Pelgeires at about 900 metres (around 2,950 feet) to your right.  On your left in a high valley is the village of Nojaret (birthplace of Jean-Antoine Chaptal), which sits at around 786 metres (2,770 feet) above sea level.  Whichever way you look, you will see dense forest.
As you make your way to Mende, just before you reach the village of Badaroux, you will find a small aire de repos.  And it is worth stopping to discover what happened here.
The Parc national des Cévennes covers 937 square kilometres (362 square miles) of mountains, dense forests, rivers and sparsely populated remote villages.  So, it probably isn’t surprising that this vast area became a haven for cells of resistance during the occupation of France.  Being on the southern and eastern edge of the Massif Central, the forests and the isolated villages became the perfect cover for the maquisards of the Bir-Hakeim.  Formed in 1942, they mainly operated in the Aveyron, Hérault and Pyrénées-Atlantiques.
Led by Commander Barot – a charismatic and decisive leader although he was not a career soldier – the Bir-Hakeim group undertook many acts of sabotage.  In mid-March 1944, when the scrutiny from the occupiers became unbearable, Barot negotiated with the existing maquis in the Cévennes to move his army (around 200 hundred men at that time) into the hills and valleys of Lozère.  Once there, Barot made concerted efforts to unite the disparate groups of the maquis within the area into his force.  On April 7th and 8th, 1944, the ‘biraquins’ as they were referred to locally, ambushed and annihilated a patrol of Feldgendarmerie.  This action triggered a massive response from the Waffen SS.  The maquisards managed to escape the encirclement and dispersed into the mountains.
Needing to regroup, Barot sets a rallying point on the Causse Méjean and puts plans in place to move his army towards Mende.  The trucks of the convoy were seen, warning messages were sent to Mende, and the occupying forces mobilised a counter-offensive.  On Sunday, May 28th (Whit Sunday), the attack by the occupiers surprised the maquisards.
Commander Barot was killed along with 34 of his men.  The others fled or surrendered and were taken prisoner.  The Gestapo had a dedicated interest in the men of Bir-Hakeim, and the 27 captured men were taken to Mende for interrogation.  On the morning of Monday, May 29th, the prisoners were loaded onto a truck and brought out to Col de la Tourette and executed.
As a reminder of that tragedy, all that remains is a stela beside the RN 88.  The front of the tall stone faces the road, but as I stand here watching the traffic, I wonder how many people actually know what it says or why it is here.  The translation is below.

so that you can live freely, in this ravine on the 29th of May, 1944, 27 maquisards from the group Bir Hakeim were tortured and shot after 33 of their comrades had been killed in battle at La Parade

It was late September when I visited, the workers at the oil refineries were on strike, garages had their forecourts closed off and the roads were quiet because fuel was so hard to come by.  Standing there on the Col, in the silence seemed the only appropriate thing to do...

There will be more about the locations in and around Mende that are used in my books in a couple of weeks.  In the meantime if you want to read more about the history of the city and the area, click Here