*****Paris in the Present Tense

Paris

pixabay, creative commons license

By Mark Helprin, narrated by Bronson Pinchot – On those days when you just can’t face another serial killer and would like a crime novel more akin to eating a warm and soothing dish of crème caramel, this literary novel, which includes crimes great and small, may be just the thing.

It’s pleasantly reminiscent of the best-seller A Gentleman in Moscow. In both books, an elderly man of old-school culture is coping quite well, thank you, due to the habits of a lifetime and despite the political shifts that destroyed his world and continue to threaten it. These same habits have unexpectedly prepared both books’ protagonists for a brave enterprise on behalf of someone they love.

With the audio version of Mark Helprin’s book, there is the additional pleasure of Bronson Pinchot’s narration, his French accent as musical as the book’s hero, Jules Lacour.

Lacour is a cellist, a Jew, living and teaching in Paris and nearing the end of his career. He has a daughter and a seriously ill grandson. His time of life and an impending domestic disruption prompt many reflections on his past life—his happy marriage to Jacqueline and his unhappy early childhood. Born during World War II while his parents were hiding in an attic in Reims, his first years were lived entirely in whispers. After years of hiding, the family was discovered just as the Nazis were fleeing, and the young Lacour saw his parents shot to death in the street.

While Lacour’s reflections on present-day Paris are like a love letter to the city, his shattered childhood is never far away. One evening, he sees three young man attacking a fourth man wearing a yarmulke and shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Lacour doesn’t hesitate to intervene. To their surprise, the spry old man manages to kill two of them, while the third runs away, as does their intended victim.

The story now becomes something of a police procedural, with two mismatched detectives trying to figure out how to work together. Narrator Pinchot captures their distinctive accents and the humor in their cobbled together, if dogged partnership.

Meanwhile, Lacour is presented with the opportunity to write a jingle for a big US financial services company (telephone hold music), and the way he and the American who recruits him talk past each other is highly entertaining.

But the situation does not evolve as Lacour expects, the police are suspicious, and he must devise a clever new crime that is both undetectable and foolproof in order to get his last wish. Although the novel moves at a stately pace, Pinchot’s narration never flags. Treat yourself!

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****Number 7, Rue Jacob

cell phone camera

photo: rocksee, creative commons license

By Wendy Hornsby –Maggie MacGowen is an almost-forty-year-old American, dedicated to her documentary filmmaking career and engaged to delightful Frenchman Jean-Paul Bernard, about a decade her senior. Though he says his job is “in business,” she realizes it is something far more consequential and lets him keep his secrets.

She’s in Paris to rendezvous with him and look for some documentary film work there, as they plan to marry. She’ll stay at number 7, rue Jacob, in a flat inherited from her biological mother, a Frenchwoman she never really knew. After her mother died, she learned she has a half-brother, a grandmother, an uncle, and nephews in France, still practically strangers.

Her inheritance isn’t just the flat. Maggie and Jean-Paul now own all three buildings of a former convent, including a mysterious basement library. Many people want the library’s contents, including officials from the diocese, the Vatican, and the Louvre, whom Maggie’s mother believed should have the religious books. The library also contains a number of illuminated manuscripts created for 17th c. Russian regent Sofia Alekseyevna. These are of almost inestimable value, since most such treasures were destroyed during the Revolution.

Almost before Maggie can unpack, Jean-Paul sends an urgent summons and a request for her to meet him in Italy. She follows his ominous instructions—burner phones only, cash, no credit cards—to the letter. When she finds Jean-Paul, he’s been injured. A drone dropped a bomb in front of his vehicle. This is an exciting set-up for the cat-and-mouse game that takes the pair from Venice to Ravenna and across Italy.

Hornsby’s novel is a cautionary tale about how easily people’s location can be tracked these days. First, a simple tracking device was attached to Maggie’s coat. Then someone uses social media to broadcast a call to “find this couple!” Photos of them are posted by dozens of casual passersby, as if Maggie and Jean-Paul are targets in some terrifying Pokemon Go universe.

The instructions change from “find them” to “stop them” with a reward attached, and the risk goes through the roof. Anyone with a cell phone can potentially expose them. Whether all the technology can be used exactly as Hornsby uses it here, the story bears the stamp of “Oh yeah, I can believe some idiot would try that.”

But what do their pursuers want? Are they after Maggie, with her film exposé about unexploded landmines? Or is Jean-Paul the real target? Or is it 7 rue Jacob itself, and its hidden library of precious illuminated texts? My questions about the initial attacks on Jean-Paul weren’t ever satisfactorily answered, but in the thrill of the chase, I set them aside. Again, though, the motivation is weak.

From the streets of Paris to the canals of Venice, to the several other locales in this story takes, Hornsby establishes an alluring sense of place. She has a clear writing style and creates significant tension around the threat to Maggie and Jean-Paul, as well as a warm and sexy relationship between them. At the same time, she pays attention to the ties to Maggie’s new French family that complicate whatever she decides about her unexpected, many-strings-attached inheritance.