Wednesday, August 22, 2018

James Benn discusses The Wild Purge

INGRID THOFT

One of the wonderful things about Jungle Reds is the knowledge our guests impart to us about experiences, people, and places we might otherwise miss.  James R. Benn joins us today to discuss his latest novel, "Solemn Graves," the 13th novel in his Billy Boyle WWII mystery series, which will be published on September 4th.  I am woefully ignorant when it comes to WWII and D-Day, so thank you, James, for educating me about the days immediately following D-Day and the historical context in which "Solemn Graves" is set.

The Wild Purge
During the period between D-Day (June 6, 1944) and the Liberation of Paris (August 25, 1944) those areas in France no longer under German control were—ironically—quite lawless. General de Gaulle refused to permit the installation of the usual Allied Military Government, on the basis that France was an ally, not a nation to be occupied. But he didn’t have the clout to establish his own government, not until after Paris was freed.

But that’s a story for another day.
This is the story of The Wild Purge, the épuration sauvage, carried out immediately following the collapse of the German occupation and before de Gaulle’s provisional government was in place. The French Resistance had been armed from London and by weapons taken from the Germans. The ranks of the Resistance fighters, known as the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur, or FFI (called fifis by Americans who invariably came up with their own ways to pronounce French names) grew tremendously in each town and region as the allies drew closer. Many French men and women had been part of the movement for years. Some joined in June or July 1944 at the very last minute.

Scores of young men had fled to the hills to escape the forced roundup for slave labor in Germany. They became known famously as the Maquis, after the scrub brush common in the countryside. But others joined only when it was certain they would emerge on the winning side. Some had their own collaborationist past and hoped that a furious patriotism would erase any memory of previous misdeeds.

A frenzy of killing took place in those weeks. Historians estimate these extrajudicial executions totaled over 10,500 deaths. Many of these were French fascists and collaborators who had hunted and tortured their own. No one can be sure that in the enthusiasm of Liberation, those scores had anything to do with the war, or that the death penalty was warranted. No one with any legal authority was present to stop the killings, and in some cases, old scores certainly were settled.

The wild purge included not only killings, but a wave of violence against women. It is estimated that over 20,000 women had their heads shaved as punishment for having relations with the Germans. Other abuse, including tar and feathers, was sometimes applied, along with beating, stoning, and public humiliation. Some of these women were prostitutes, and others had willing affairs with Germans. These were the women accused of collaboration "horizontale." Prostitutes were doing nothing that thousands of Frenchmen had not done in shops and cafes everywhere; take money for services rendered from German soldiers.

Of course, there were women who willingly obliged the Germans with their company. Coco Chanel, the famous French designer, lived through the war at the Ritz hotel in the company of her German lovers, while scheming to take over a perfume company owned by Jews. Her hair was never touched.

Some women were the targets of personal revenge, and it took only a whiff of suspicion for the application of the coiffure ’44 to be applied. This happened to a funeral wreath maker in the city of Toulouse. As she was working next to an open window, a German soldier strolled up and began talking to her. Their entire conversation took place at the window, and the soldier moved on. After Liberation, she was denounced for this simple exchange. A mob came for her, stripping off her clothing and shearing her hair as her daughter watched.


Looking at these pictures, I see a savagery in the air that makes me wonder if the humiliation felt by men defeated in 1940, long repressed during the Occupation, found an outlet in the treatment of these women. The sneering smiles and superior faces of the men especially are terrifying. I do wonder how many of them had taken action against the Germans.

Women who were shaved became known as "the tondues" – the shorn
Women played a huge role in the French Resistance from the beginning. One reason was that young French men were often rounded up on sight for slave labor work and sent to Germany. It was easier for women to move about and not attract attention. I wonder how much of the rage released onto Frenchwomen was a result of the emasculation of French men, forced into a powerless state by the German occupiers for four long years.Yes, French women were also traitors and informers, as were French men. Perhaps the woman in the image below is one. Was her crime one of passion, survival, avarice, or simple business? We don’t know. But we know those faces. The faces of a mob.


Although I had seen these pictures before, it was only after reading "Les Parisiennes" by Anne Sebba that I began to understand the ugly motivations behind the treatment of women during the épuration sauvage. This is a terrific book, well-written, and gives us a new way to look at this historical period. Highly recommended.

Once de Gaulle’s government was installed following the Liberation of Paris, a “legal purge,” or épuration légale, replaced the wild purge. A series of trials were held from 1944 to 1949, meting out justice to collaborators and officials of the Vichy regime. Nearly seven thousand people were sentenced to death, but in the end, less than eight hundred sentences were carried out.

The myth of wide-spread participation in the Resistance quickly took hold, and the collaboration with the Germans and the Vichy regime became buried in the collective unconscious. The men of the Resistance were glorified and the women, for the most part, forgotten. After the war, Charles de Gaulle awarded 1,038 Resistance members with the coveted medal “Compagnons de la Libération”.

Only six went to women.

Do you have questions for James?  He'll be joining us today so fire away!



Solemn Graves
US Army detective Billy Boyle is called to investigate a mysterious murder in a Normandy farmhouse that threatens Allied operations.

July, 1944, a full month after D-Day. Billy, Kaz, and Big Mike are assigned to investigate a murder close to the front lines in Normandy. An American officer has been found dead in a manor house serving as an advance headquarters outside the town of Trévières. Major Jerome was far from his own unit, arrived unexpectedly, and was murdered in the dark of night.

The investigation is shrouded in secrecy, due to the highly confidential nature of the American unit headquartered nearby in the Norman hedgerow country: the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, aka, the Ghost Army. This vague name covers
a thousand-man unit with a unique mission within the US Army: to impersonate other US Army units by creating deceptions using radio traffic, dummy inflatable vehicles, and sound effects, causing the enemy to think they are facing large formations. Not even the units adjacent to their positions know what they are doing. But there are German spies and informants everywhere, and Billy must tread carefully, unmasking the murder while safeguarding the secret of the Ghost Army—a secret which, if discovered, could turn the tide of war decisively against the Allies.

James R. Benn
I divide my time between the Gulf Coast of Florida and Connecticut, with my wife Deborah Mandel, a psychotherapist who offers many insights into the motivations of my characters, a good critical read, and much else. We have two sons, Jeff and Ben, and seven grandchildren (Camille, Claudia, Emma, Luke, Nathaniel, Noah, Oliver).

I'm a graduate of the University of Connecticut and received my MLS degree from Southern Connecticut State University. I am a member of the Mystery Writers of America, and the Author's Guild. I've worked in the library and information technology fields for over thirty-five years and quit the day job routine in 2011 to write full-time.

I've learned two valuable lessons since I started writing which have helped me greatly. The first is a quote from Oscar Wilde, who said "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one's pants to a chair." The second is from novelist Rachel Basch, who told me "the story has to move down, as well as forward." Both sound simple. Neither is.

57 comments:

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  2. I’m always excited to hear about a new Billy Boyle book, James . . . my husband and I are both fans so we’re looking forward to reading “Solemn Graves” . . . .

    This horrific story of the French and The Wild Purge, with the violence against women, is something I had not heard before. How terrible for the people after so many years of war. I wonder, didn’t any of these twenty thousand women fight back? They just sat or stood there and let the men shave their heads? This had to be just as frightening for them as the war had been . . . .

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  3. I had never heard of this before. So scary and sad, yet fascinating too. And I agree with Joan. This sounds just as frightening as the war itself.

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  4. The Wild Purge seems like a modern, and less violent, version of The Reign of Terror. Thank you for sharing this, James, and particularly the commentary about men's rage at their own powerlessness leading to violence against women. Civil behavior is sometimes a thin veneer.

    Your last comment is a killer. Six women honored as Resistance fighters. Quel dommage.

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    1. The role of women in the French Resistance was deliberately whitewashed immediately by de Gaulle's new government as soon as Paris was liberated. It conflicted with the myth of the widespread Resistance movement that was already being built. I cannot recommend Anne Sebba's book too much for anyone interested in this period.

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  5. Thanks, Joan and Marla. Yes, this must have been terribly frightening. The face of the mob seems to be the same through the ages.

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  6. Thanks, Joan and Marla. Yes, this must have been terribly frightening. The face of the mob seems to be the same through the ages.

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  7. This is less a question and more an observation. I learned something today. Some actual history, but also the origin of a name that was used in two different Star Trek series. "The Maquis" was the name of the rebellion against Star Fleet and one of the major player alien races.

    The group and its members played a big part in two different series, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Until now, I never gave thought as to where the name came from.

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  8. Welcome Jim! what a terrifying description of a period we might have imagined was joyful. I'm so struck by the quote at the end of your bio: "the story has to move down, as well as forward." Can you say a little about how you think about that in your series?

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    1. Roberta, that is one of the most important things I learned (from novelist Rachel Basch). In writing a series that has to do with violence, as all mysteries do, I think it's vital to keep the emotional and psychic toll in mind for your protagonist. It's called moral injury these days, and anyone dealing with murder (and of course war) will feel the effects. I believe there are two types of protagonists in crime fiction - those who move through the story changing the world as they go, and those who are changed by the world as the story progresses. I am so much more interested in the latter than the former.

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  9. I'm fascinated by the time period of your book and look forward to reading it. Shaving a woman's head not only shames her, but makes her look like a prisoner of her own society.

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  10. Emasculation, or the perception thereof, is a poor excuse to commit violence on those who are physically less able to defend themselves from it.

    I guess it was ever so.

    I've read some of Coco Chanel's war shenanigans, some of which were nothing more than sheer survival for her. It was amazing that she never really suffered outward consequences, isn't it?

    My question, Jim, is how do you write these emotionally wrenching scenes without turning into a dripping dishrag of emotions? It must take so much out of you. Or is it cathartic, especially in these times of great stress?

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    1. Karen - great question. It is a bit cathartic, knowing that I have a chance to portray a true event and bring it to light. But I often find myself shaking my head at the cruelty of these times and our own. As for Coco Chanel, she was unscrupulous, as in her take-over of a Jewish competitor during the Occupation. And smart, in her rapid transformation during the Liberation. She opened a shop to give away small bottle of Chanel perfume to American GIs - a small price to pay for the goodwill she earned.

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    2. Wow, it sounds as though she played all three sides of the street, doesn't it? How mercenary of her, to hedge her bets so thoroughly.

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    3. Yep. Probably in her mind there was only one side of the street - the Chanel side.

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  11. What a lifechanging post— we can barely imagine the fear and terror and possible decisions that were made at that time. So many terrible things happen out of fear— it is so disturbing. Jim, how did you decide to write Billy Boyle in the first place?
    And you must get some incredible lettes from readers.
    Thank you so much for being here today! .

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    1. Hank, you're welcome!
      When I first thought of "Billy Boyle from Boston" (the alliteration popped suddenly into my head) there were few historical mysteries set during WWII. The idea was to combine my interest in military history and crime fiction and set a series in the heart of the Allied high command; making Billy Ike's nephew allowed him to go places and get away with things a lowly lieutenant (now captain) could never do on his own.
      I do get fascinating communications from readers, especially those who have had relatives who served in the war. It is a touchstone experience for so many.

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  12. Good luck with the new book! I've already ordered it and cant' wait. Thank you for this fascinating essay. I did not know much about this, but it did remind of an old short story with same setting. I read it a whole lot of decades ago (as an older child or teen)by Paul Gallico, a once famous writer of popular fiction. So it would have been written in maybe early '60's and published some place like Sat Evening Post. Sorry for digressing. And congrats!

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    1. Triss, I remember Paul Gallico, but not that particular story.

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    2. Happy to know someone else does. It was in a collection of stories, and I have no idea of either title. He wrote a few that stuck with me. I had a better memory in those days!

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    3. Thanks Triss. I will have to search out that story.

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  13. I hadn't heard the time period named, or of De Gaulle's transformation of it/those men into the mythic resistance fighters--but I was aware of the role women played--and again, not their erasure from history afterward. Doesn't surprise me. Just makes me mad and sad. Billy Boyle is such a careful creation of an honorable American, doing the best he can in terrible times--it's always a pleasure when a new mystery comes out--reminds me that there were thousands of soldiers then, trying to hang onto their humanity in the face of horrifying circumstances.

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    1. Flora, you've hit upon something important. Billy does the best he can, and I always wonder at how I'd react when presented with the tough choices he and other characters face. I think we all wonder about that from time to time...

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  14. I did not know about the épuration sauvage after liberation or the role of women in the Resistance. Interesting. Horrifying. And so hard trying to imagine what one might do, swept up in it. And what meat material to write about. Congratulations on the new book!

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  15. I just finished a biography of Dwight Eisenhower that touched on this issue. There was a lot more going on for the French than the myth of the "noble French Resistance" wasn't there?

    Mary/Liz

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    1. Yes, it was very complicated for the French. When they surrendered, Great Britain stood alone, and there were not many who expected anything but a Nazi triumph. So many French people decided that was that, and went about their lives, accommodating and collaborating when necessary. It was only when the Germans began rounding up able-bodied young men for forced labor that Frenchmen took to the hills and became known as the Maquis (it was the best recruiting tool the Germans could have given the Resistance). By the time of the Liberation, the myth of the widespread Resistance had to be created.

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  16. Jim, can you tell us how you do research for the series? Did the plot for this book grow out of the historical context?

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    1. Ingrid, I'm always on the lookout for the little-known events, such as the Wild Purge. I also ran across mention of the Ghost Army (part of the plot of this book as well) and immediately knew it would be in the narrative. I did start out wanting to write about the fighting after D-Day, when the Allies were stuck in the hedgerow country; I was struck by mentions of how wary the French in Normandy hade become after the initial euphoria of the invasion. They expected a rapid advance, and as that didn't happen, they had to worry about a return of German forces. It seemed to be the perfect ambivalent and uncertain setting for a murder mystery.
      As for the plot itself, I did something different this time - I set up the murder scene and populated with an array of characters. I had no idea who the killer was; I just let the characters flesh themselves out until a motivation revealed itself to me. About a third of the way through, I shouted to my wife "I know who did it!". It was fun, and a bit scary.

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  17. I'm struck with how history lessons end with,"we won" and so little is taught regarding the cost of winning. We talk about the lose of life and economic impact, things we can tally and count. Is there anyway to evaluate the cost to whole societies? Probably not. So, thank you for the history lesson. Thank you for reminding me that things do just "pop into your head". And, thank you for passing on the quote from Rachel Basch. Now I'm going to jump over to the electronic bookstore and order up some Billy Boyle.

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  19. Hi, Jim, and welcome. I'm such a fan and am always thrilled when there is a new Billy out.

    Fascinating topic today. I only learned about The Wild Purge a few weeks ago, reading The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah, a novel that is set in contemporary France but has a backstory set during the occupation and its aftermath. One of the novel's threads is that the shame felt by the families of collaborators--or those accused of collaboration--has carried down through generations.

    And I just recently read a piece about de Gaulle's time in London and thought, "Now there's a great setting for a mystery..." Can't wait to read the new book!

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    1. Yes, that was a travel piece in the NYT, I think. Sounds like a research trip to get the feel of the watering holes the French frequented in London!

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  20. Fascinating topic, and what a setting for a mystery! I knew bits and pieces of the story - the myth of the widespread Resistance, the shaving of women's heads, but I didn't know there was a whole period of mob violence following the liberation. Purge is a good word for it - both getting rid of "enemies of the state" and purging the collective guilt and rage of the men involved.

    It feels as if all of WWII is so well documented - I'm impressed by your ability to find such a riveting but little-known event in which to set a novel!

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  21. It sounds like Salem, Massachusetts all over again. And the French revolution. And the Balkans. It seems wherever there is war and upheaval there are people to take advantage of it to settle old grudges. So very human and so tragic. Was there anything similar in Italy when it switched sides from the Axis to the Allies?

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    1. Pat, Italy was certainly riven by factions fighting against each other - the fascist diehards who stuck with Mussolini and the partisan bands who fought them and the Nazis. But it seems that Italy accepted its role, first as an Axis member and then as an Allied partner. The Italians didn't seem to need to reinvent their story the way the French did.
      Interestingly, my mother's cousin was a German soldier in Italy. He was on the convoy retreating north to the Alps at the end of the war, with Mussolini and his party in tow. They were stopped by partisans who said they didn't want a fight, they just wanted Mussolini, and if the Germans gave him up they'd let them continue. Uncle Willi said his officers conferred for about twenty seconds and then basically said, "He's in that truck."

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  22. Hello, James! First let me say, howdy as a fellow alum from SCSU with a degree library science! Go Owls! Sadly, I am woefully ignorant about the history of WWII beyond D-Day. This blog post was fascinating and horrifying. It reminds me of the Salem witch trials and the mob mentality that was unleashed upon anyone at any time, but, of course, this was on a much bigger scale. Of course, I am not surprised that the Frenchwomen were not recognized for their efforts. *sigh*
    Solemn Graves sounds very timely and I am really looking forward to reading it. Thank you for bringing "the wild purge" into mystery fiction - it is so important to remember the past, especially now.

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    1. Hi Jenn - Librarians who write, unite!

      Thanks for your kind words, and you're spot on about remembering the worst of the past as we deal with what the present offers up to us. I am continually surprised at how many parallels and lessons there are for us.

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    2. hey, SCSU alums, BA in English here. Qualified me for a really fun career in audiobook publishing. I just loved the only other Billy Boyle book I've read--the one about the Tiger operation that went so badly wrong. Ok, now that I look at that sentence "loved" may not be so great for hundreds of people dead in a major c-k-up that was covered up. But such good writing, wonderful story set against this backdrop. Your characters are just wonderful. And I liked the moments when Billy just instructed us to look away and mind our own business (these were the romantic interludes). So, your latest is on my next Amazon purchase list. So much looking forward to it!

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    3. Thanks, Melanie. I appreciate it!

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  23. What a gut punching statement at the end, "only six went to women" in talking about the awarding of medals. I was aware of the head shearing of French women suspected of being involved with German soldiers, but I wasn't aware of how large a number it was. 20,000! That's a horrifying number, as, since you mentioned, James, it only took a whiff of suspicion or even a desire to settle an old score. I've seen the pictures you posted and some others, and your noting of the mob mentality and look of the mob on the faces of those doing this shaming are disturbing. I wasn't aware either of the number of people killed in "the wild purge" or that it was called that. And, I did know that Coco Chanel lived at the Ritz courtesy of her German "connections." I'm curious if there's a book you'd recommend, James, about this collaboration of hers, with her feelings about it included. I have to assume she expressed remorse at some point. Did she? And, as it is now, it was then that having money enabled one to escape the humiliations and punishments that the less moneyed suffered.

    As someone who is highly interested in WWII and novels that have it as a setting, I can't believe I've been ignorant of your books, James. I plan on rectifying that lapse in my reading. And, I'm putting the Anne Sebba book on my TBR list, too. Thank you for the informative and interesting reading today about this time period after D-Day.

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    1. Kathy - You'll find a lot about Chanel in Les Parisiennes, and I believe there are a few biographies that go into depth, especially Hal Vaughan's Sleeping with the Enemy, which provides evidence that Chanel spied for the Nazis.
      Chanel was thwarted in her attempt to take over the perfume firm owned by a Jewish couple. She claimed the company had been abandoned by the owners, unaware that they had taken the precaution of selling their company to a sympathetic businessman, who returned it to them when they returned after the war. Score one for the good guys.

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  24. Hello James, glad to hear the next Billy Boyle story is out soon. I'm on the waiting list at my local library, where I discovered your books about a year ago, and love them. Have learned so much about WW II from your books. Keep up the good work!

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    1. Thanks! I hope you enjoy it, and please thank your library for ordering it!

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  25. I had read about the Vel d'Hiv incident in France, but was unaware of most of what you touched on in your thought-provoking blog. Everything you wrote about has stayed on my mind all morning. Thanks for sharing

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    1. You are welcome. The Vel d'Hiv roundup was horrifying, so much more since the France organized it and carried it out themselves.

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  26. For those of you have may be intrigued, Soho Press has just put up the first chapter of SOLEMN GRAVES to read for free. Check it out if you want to get a head start...
    https://sohopress.com/read-an-excerpt-solemn-graves/

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  27. I've been watching X-Company about Canadian spies in WWII France and reading Susan Elia MacNeal's books about British spies, some in France. It's certainly an interesting time period to set mysteries in.

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    1. A murder in wartime is especially heinous - a life that might have been well lived if it survived the carnage.

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  28. Enjoyed your post James. Fascinating & scary.

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  29. I have learned so much about small pieces of WWII from these well researched books. They are wonderful!

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  30. It should be noted that the story of the funeral wreath maker in Toulouse came from a very informative article in Time magazine from June 2018, written by Ann Mah: http://time.com/5303229/women-after-d-day/
    She is the author of The Lost Vintage, a recently published novel which deals with the Wild Purge and French wine; looks very interesting.

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  31. Thank you, James. I read your post with great interest. As you mentioned, my new novel, The Lost Vintage, also focuses on the épuration sauvage. I am glad to see more discussion about this horrific period of French history.

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