The Enduring Allure of the City of Light

People around the world were stunned and saddened as photographs of the partial destruction of the cathedral of Notre Dame, that icon of Paris, burned. (See how laser point clouds of gothic cathedrals, which may help in reconstruction, are created.) Paris, its landmarks, its street scenes, and its culture have inspired classic literature from the popular works of Dickens and Victor Hugo (for whom Notre Dame plays a starring role) to the American expats in the 1920s to Anthony Doerr.

Crime writers too have found it a congenial home, not because crime happens there as it does elsewhere, but because to set a crime novel in Paris is to establish a contrast, a friction between the sordidness of deeds and the beauty of the setting, even as it may live only in the reader’s imagination.

The Sûreté was quick to adopt some of the early criminal detection measures developed in France, too: Alphonse Bertillon’s system of identifying criminals through body measurements—a forerunner of today’s biometric identification—and the 1863 discovery by Paul-Jean Coulier of the means to reveal fingerprints on paper, roots from which sprang stories of very French detectives, most  notably Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret.

The attraction continues. Here are four crime novels from the last year with significant Paris roots.

****The Long Road from Paris by Kirby Williams – In the late 1930s, a New Orleans octoroon jazz prodigy is making a success of his nightclub with the help of his Jewish girlfriend. Then the fascists appear. 

****A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon – an Israeli mistakenly murdered at Charles de Gaulle airport triggers a desperate investigation in Paris and Israel to find the real target.

*****Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin – A gentlemanly aging cellist plunges well outside his comfort zone to help the people he loves.

****Number 7, Rue Jacob – by Wendy Hornsby – A Parisian couple is pursued around Europe in a deadly game, as shadowy persons ask cell phone users to “find them,” then “stop them.”

****The Horseman’s Song

By Ben Pastor – This book is one of Ben Pastor’s six detective novels featuring German intelligence officer Martin Bora and a prequel to novels covering Bora’s activities during the Second World War.

As the book opens, it’s summer 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Two tiny encampments located high in the rocky sierras of Aragon overlook a valley, a cane-lined brook, and the small town of Teruel. Bora heads one of these camps, comprising about seven Nationalists; the other, near enough for occasional sniper-fire, is similarly sized and led by American volunteer Philip Walton. Walton is a World War I veteran, a couple of decades older than Bora, and has joined the Republican side less because of conviction and more because he can’t think of anything better to do.

The men in both camps are a ragtag bunch and more prone to follow their own inclinations than any official orders. Neither unit is interested in attacking the other, preferring to save their energies for a big battle rumored to be coming soon. The proximity of these two encampments is illustrated by the fact that both Bora and Walton both visit the same prostitute high on the mountaintop. For Bora, the encounters with this young woman are life-changing; for Walton, they’re a painful reminder he’s aging. Yet they inspire destructive sexual jealousy.

Bora finds the body of a stranger shot in the head on the road below his encampment and wonders how this stranger ended up there. Walton also knows about the corpse, plus he knows who the man is: his friend Federico García Lorca (pictured), the revered poet and playwright, homosexual, and staunch Republican. Walton and his men bury García Lorca’s partway up the mountain; Bora’s scouts find the grave, remove the body, and bury it elsewhere. The official story—in the novel as well as in real life—is that García Lorca was murdered in 1936 outside Granada. The authorities on both sides would prefer that Bora and Walton let the official story stand unquestioned.

Separately, they conduct a somewhat clandestine investigation of the events of the fatal night and the motives of various people who might have been involved. It’s slow going, because Walton and Bora are mostly otherwise engaged. The times themselves dampen progress further. If Bora wants to send a message to Teruel, someone has to get on a donkey and take it. A response won’t arrive for hours. If Walton wants to investigate an event in the village of Castellar, he must climb the mountain to do so. The overall impression is of a hostile environment that’s dusty and hot, hot, hot. Author Pastor does an admirable job evoking the landscape, the conditions, and the way things got done (or not) eight decades ago.

With their murder investigations limping along, there is ample opportunity for exploring the characters of both Walton and Bora, as well as several of their underlings. Pastor’s writing style is dense and full of psychological insight. Her short scenes feel almost like an hour-by-hour bulletin on camp activities. And, of course, writing about García Lorca gives the opportunity for pithy epigrams from his wonderful poems.

Ben Pastor is the pseudonym for Maria Verbena Volpi. Born in Rome, she holds dual citizenship in Italy and the United States. Though Martin Bora is fictional, he was inspired by Claus von Stauffenberg, best known for his leading role in the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

A Trio of Fascinating Reads

*****The Surfacing – literary fiction

Cormac James tells the story of the dangerous 1850 voyage of the Impetus, which sailed north of Greenland to find and rescue men who’d been lost while searching for the Northwest Passage. The story is told from the viewpoint of Impetus’s second in command, Mr. Morgan, and his doubts about the judgment of their captain are growing. Captain Myer has a monomaniacal desire to push on, even though it’s late in the season, and his ship risks being trapped in the ice.

It’s ice and snow and wind and water and more ice everywhere. Such conditions might seem likely to become rather tedious, but James surprises with his inventiveness and acute perception, expressed in beautiful prose.

Despite conditions, there’s good humor among the crew, especially between Morgan and his friend, the ship’s doctor. The woman with whom Morgan had a dalliance in their last port-of-call has been smuggled on board, pregnant, and he must contend not just with an incompetent captain and implacable weather, but with the unexpected pull of fatherhood.

The conditions so far north put everyone to the test. As the darkness of another winter descends, they must each face their fate in their own way. Order from Amazon here.

****No Happy Endings – comic thriller

I won Angel Luis Colón’s novella at an event where he did a reading, and I have mixed feelings about recommending it. Readers may have trouble with a couple of disturbing scenes in a crazy sperm bank. Those aside, protagonist Fantine Park is funny and engaging. She’s a thief, a safecracker, and a good daughter. To protect her father living in a nursing home, she agrees to steal some of the sperm bank’s “product.” So much easier said than done. As Joe Clifford wrote for the book jacket, Colón “takes the time-tested trope of retired robber on a final heist, and delivers one of the most weirdly original, satisfying, and unexpected capers of the year.” Order from Amazon here.

****The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial – non-fiction

Fifty years ago, the murders of seven young women rocked Ann Arbor. Maggie Nelson’s book tells the real-life story of one of those deaths. Her aunt, Jane Mixer, a law student at the University of Michigan, put up a bulletin board request for a ride home. She found one. Though at first believed the third of the “Michigan murders,” her death did not fit the pattern of the others.

In November 2004, 35 years after Jane’s death, Nelson’s mother received a call from a Michigan State Police detective who said, “We have every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion.” DNA evidence had at last identified Jane’s killer. This is the story of the family’s reaction to reopening these old wounds, of attending the trial of a now-62 year old man, of seeing the crime scene photographs, of dealing with the media. It traverses the landscapes of grief, of murder, of justice, and the importance, even after so many years, of bearing witness. Order from Amazon here.

Photo: maxpixel.net, creative commons license.

*****Hell Chose Me

By Angel Luis Colón – Just when avid crime fiction readers might be tiring of low-life protagonists, seedy surroundings, and grimy situations larded with expletives, along comes a novel that upends expectations. Angel Luis Colón’s new thriller certainly is filled with reprehensible characters and actions, but he has made it so interesting that it rises far above the type.

Author Dennis Lehane has described noir protagonists perfectly: “In Greek tragedy, they fall from a great height. In noir, they fall from the curb.” Colón’s protagonist, Bryan Walsh, has teetered on the curb for some time. He was raised Irish Catholic in the Bronx, with his grandfather Mairsial, his mother—“an awful, manipulative monster”—and his younger brother Liam. Bryan fled these unpromising surroundings at age 18, going straight into the U.S. Marines. In Iraq, he led a mistimed assault on a house that killed a child, and he can’t shake the memory.

He deserts the Marines, bolting to Ireland, to the only family member who may be able to protect him, his uncle Sean. Sean Shea is the son of one of the original members of the Irish Republican Army, a hard bastard whom Sean seems determined to outdo. Bryan works his way up in Sean’s loose criminal organization, learning to make bombs, killing people Sean has fingered.

When Bryan learns some of Sean’s mates doubt his loyalty—a situation unlikely to promote longevity—again he splits, returning to the U.S. illegally a year before 9/11. Liam has a diabetic stroke that leaves him in permanent intensive care—“all vegetable,” as Bryan’s boss, a gangster middleman named Paulie Gigante, so sensitively puts it. The work Bryan does for Paulie is mostly as a hitman, killing people Bryan considers losers and nobodies.

But Paulie keeps cutting back on Bryan’s take, and Bryan desperately needs money to pay Liam’s interminable hospital bills. He mistakenly kills the son of a big crime boss, who’s determined to get revenge. The hunt for Bryan is on, and blood in great quantities begins being spilled.

Several aspects of this story make it a stand-out. First is Colón’s wonderful use of language. It’s elegant, evocative, and economical. Most distinctive is the indelible way he describes what’s going on in Bryan’s head. The man is haunted by the ghosts of his victims—dissolving, reassembling, their margins fluid—who follow him in a growing and inescapable train. They repeat the words they uttered just before death, a macabre Greek chorus that oddly enriches the novel’s events. Bryan’s living, breathing companions here in the real world doubt his sanity.

While the question of whom the protagonist can trust is a hallmark of thriller fiction, in this novel, the layers of deception and betrayal expand geometrically. Though just under 200 pages, this book packs a wallop and is one you will have a hard time forgetting.

Photo by SuperHerftigGeneral for Pixabay

****The Long Road from Paris

By Kirby Williams – A book with Paris in the title two weeks in a row? It’s enough to make you stock up on croissants. While the title of this one echoes Dov Alfon’s contemporary crime thriller, A Long Night in Paris, the similarity ends there.

This is Kirby Williams’s second thriller featuring New Orleans jazz prodigy Urby Brown, an expat living in Paris as the dark clouds of Naziism spread over Europe.

Author Williams, an expat himself, effectively conveys his love of the city where he has lived and worked for many decades in real life.

The book begins with Brown’s early years in New Orleans as a white-skinned octoroon, son of a woman named Josephine Dubois and a white Frenchman who skedaddled back to France after impregnating her. In 1895, Josephine left her newborn in a Moses basket on the doorstep of Saint Vincent’s Colored Waifs’ Home. She later pleaded with Father Gohegan, the priest in charge of the Waifs’ Home, to contact the baby’s father who she claimed was a Count. The priest refused, and Josephine committed suicide.

As a teenager, Brown played his clarinet at Madame Lala’s Mahogany House (flaunting both Louisiana law and Father Gohegan’s rules), an infamous bordello that brought together top jazz players. These connections were renewed once he moved to Paris, joining the many musicians escaping U.S. Jim Crow laws.

Along with his mentor and fellow clarinetist Stanley Bontemps and his live-in girlfriend, Hannah Korngold, Brown lives in Paris in relatively peace and prosperity into the 1930s. Hannah helps Brown run his nightclub, but she is an American Jew whose future under the Nazis will be just as precarious as his own.

Williams writes Brown’s first-person story with an emphasis on what happens, not why or how. He doesn’t engage in lengthy descriptions of people, places or events and will even slide past significant dramatic opportunities. This spareness is both bothersome and energizing—bothersome because you don’t always know why Urby Brown does what he does. At the same time, it establishes a powerful narrative energy. The author apparently assumes readers have a pretty solid mental picture of the fascists and the threat they pose his characters and of Paris between the wars, and he relies on our imaginations to fill out the picture.

Within that general atmosphere of risk are the very specific risks to Urby Brown. His father, to whom he bears a remarkable likeness, is indeed a count, a confidant of Marshal Philippe Pétain, and leader of the Oriflamme du Roi, a group of right-wing thugs who parade around like stormtroopers in advance of the real thing. Murder, blackmail, and spying are their stock-in-trade.

With the arrival of the Nazis, Urby and Hannah desperately attempt to escape back to the United States, but every indication is they’ve waited too long.

St. Patrick’s Day is Nigh

Excuse me a sec, while I run into the kitchen and check the corned beef brisket.

Ahh…

Now, as the last year has whirled by and St. Paddy’s Day once again approaches, here are my three most recent dives into the wellspring of inspiration, imagination, and experience that is Ireland.

Earlier this year, we saw on Broadway, The Ferryman, which many reviewers said was “the ticket” for the winter’s season. From the promotional pictures (below), it looks like a multigeneration family sitting around the supper table, telling rollicking Irish tales, no? It turns out the IRA is involved, and, as everyone knows, the IRA is not The Clancy Brothers. Acting was super, especially the elderly Republican aunt who can’t give up her threadbare politics.

An Irish theme turned up unexpectedly in Angel Luis Colón’s Hell Chose Me (which I reviewed here). The American protagonist, Bryan Walsh, is AWOL from Afghanistan, and the only person he thinks can help him is his difficult and uncle Sean back in Ireland. IRA legatee Sean does give him a job for a while, as an enforcer and assassin, before Bryan returns to the United States (illegally). Lots else happens in this excellent thriller, but Uncle Sean’s menacing presence haunts Bryan evermore.

At the moment I’m reading (actually listening to) Tana French’s Dublin-based best-seller, The Witch Elm. I’m only a short way in, and while I know the book has received raves, am waiting for it to pick up steam. One of the characters is a genealogist, a profession I can relate to, who says that in the old days, people came to him out of curiosity about their Irish ancestors, and now with DNA evidence in hand, they come to him to find out who they really are.

Posts for past March 17s have focused on wonderful books from Irish writers, including the fantastic Irish crime/thriller writers, not only Tana French, but Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville too.

But, excuse me, the corned beef is done. Now have to spread a mix of brown sugar and dry mustard on top for a final twenty-minute bake while I stir the potatoes and cook up the onions, cabbage, and sour cream. In delicious anticipation . . .

And, check out Janet Rudolph’s list of St. Patrick’s Day Mysteries.

Graphic by Barbara A. Lane from Pixabay.

****Amsterdam Noir

Edited by René Appel and Josh Pachter – Fourteen of The Netherlands’ premier authors of crime and literary fiction contributed stories to this collection, with the editors—top-rated crime authors themselves—providing the fifteenth. Amsterdam Noir is the latest in Akashic Books’ long-running series of place-based crime anthologies.

If this enterprise is in part intended to impart a vision of the locale and its residents through the lens of crime, this collection is another success.

Whenever a story purports to represent a certain place, you can fairly ask yourself, could these events have unfolded this way anywhere else? Geography, history, and culture all affect what can and does take place in a city and the official and unofficial reactions to events.

Appel and Pachter assigned the stories to four broad headings inspired by classic film noir, and below I briefly describe a story or two under each of their headings. The collection includes both well established authors, like Theo Capel, and writers new to the scene, like Karin Amatmoekrim. Meet some of the very best Dutch crime writers, right here in these pages.

Out of the Past

Welcome to Amsterdam by Michael Berg is a story of revenge—a revenge the wronged man never thought he could achieve. It’s pretty strong stuff. Berg was the 2013 winner of the Golden Noose, the award for the best Dutch-language crime novel of the year. Herman Koch, who wrote 2013’s best-selling crime novel, The Dinner, contributed Ankle Monitor, which launches with a brilliant first line: “Maybe it was a mistake to go back to my old neighborhood on the very first day of a weekend leave.” No stopping reading there.

Kiss Me Deadly

All three of these stories are about ill-conceived love and all are written by women, interestingly. Silent Days by Karin Amatmoekrim proves that just because a woman is old and alone doesn’t mean she is helpless.

Touch of Evil

Here you have Satan himself, a pedophile, an alcoholic fratricide, and a man channelling Ted Bundy (for an international touch), plus a hard-working police detective who unexpectedly comes out on top in Theo Capel’s entertaining Lucky Sevens.

They Live By Night

Echoing that film’s theme of inescapable tragedy, most of these stories are from the victim’s point of view, but Abdelkader Benali’s The Girl at the End of the Line is told through the eyes of a Moroccan police officer assigned to find the killer of a Muslim girl. Winner of a top literary prize, Benali opens this story, “A farmer found her with her head facing southeast, toward Mecca, as if in prayer.” It’s an effective reminder of the pluralistic culture of Western European cities today and a strong intimation of the layers of social complexity the story will probe.

30-Second Book Reviews

****The Death of Mrs. Westaway

By Ruth Ware – It was a big house, with big grounds, supervised by a noisy tiding of magpies. Harriet Westaway, barely eking a living as a psychic advisor on the Brighton Pier, receives a letter from faraway Penzance inviting her to the funeral and will-reading of her grandmother, the wealthy Hester Westaway. Trouble is, her grandparents are all dead.

Curiosity wins out and she shows up for the event. What starts as something she could explain as a misunderstanding draws her in deeper and deeper, and the search for her real family takes off. Liked it. The Death of Mrs. Westaway

****The Bolivian Sailor

By Donald Dewey – Sometimes a book arrives unexpectedly in the mailbox, or “over the transom,” as publishers used to say, as this one did. To my delight, there were many things to like about this book. Poor P.I. Paul Finley finds himself enmeshed in a deadly plot when a Bolivian seaman is murdered in a seedy motel. He keeps his sense of humor, though, if not his part-time gig teaching a college course in Practical Problems in Law Enforcement. Alas, quite a few of those problems are playing out in front of him. Fun! The Bolivian Sailor

***Low Down Dirty Vote

Edited by Mysti Berry – A timely collection of eleven crime and mystery stories on the theme of fighting voter suppression. Women, blacks, the elderly—in these stories, various groups are discouraged from voting because of presumptions about how they’ll cast their ballots. Most unexpected and amusing use of the vote appeared in Catronia McPherson’s tale about the comeuppance of a man in a crowded commuter train. Good job, all! Low Down Dirty Vote

***A Deadly Indifference

By Marshall Jevons – Harvard economics professor Henry Spearman travels to Cambridge, England, to help a friend wanting to buy the former home of economist Alfred Marshall and establish a foundation there. Marshall may be dear to some economic theorists, including Spearman, but the university faculty is dominated by leftists opposing Marshall’s legacy. Soon, intellectual sparring is replaced by violence and murder. Spearman engagingly calls on economics theory (sometimes a lot of it) to explain these events. Secondary characters, not required to trot out their supply-and-demand curves, are nicely drawn too. A Deadly Indifference

Magpie photo: AdinaVoicu, creative commons license

Three Minute Book Reviews

Tarot cards

You can read that headline two ways and either works. I enjoyed all three of these books, out of my usual crime fiction lane.

****The Immortalists

Chloe Benjamin’s accomplished 2018 novel details the lives of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune teller who reveals the date they will die. We follow them then, in turn, and the question is, did her predictions engage them as accomplices in creating self-fulfilling prophecies, or was she simply right? The career of the younger daughter, Klara, who becomes an accomplished magician, was the most intriguing to me. Named “one of the best books of the year” by many sources.

****The Book Thief

Probably you read Markus Zusak’s 2005 best-seller when it first came out, but I missed both book and movie. Children (again) in a small town outside Munich face the coming of World War II—the paranoia, the excitement, the vicious militants. Liesel’s mother has left her nine-year-old daughter in the care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann. The deepening relationship between Liesel and her foster parents—both kindly Hans and foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Rosa—is a joy.

They take in someone much more dangerous too. There’s a Jew in the basement, son of the man Hans owes his life to. Just as I’d become immersed in the story, Death, a 20,000-foot observer of the book’s events, would intrude and pull me out again. I came to appreciate him as a character, though not these constant interruptions.

***Midnight Blue

Another historical novel is Simone van der Blugt’s 2018 book, her first published in the United States. In 1654, the young widow Catrin leaves her small village to seek her fortune and leave behind the suspicions about her role in her husband’s death. In Amsterdam, she finds work as housekeeper to the wealthy Van Nulandt family. Madame Van Nulandt takes painting lessons from a local master, Rembrandt van Rijn, but Catrin, it turns out, is the real artist in the household. The secret of her husband’s death returns, however, and her struggle to make a successful life despite all shows plenty of pluck and talent. Translated by Jenny Watson.

Photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

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***The One That Got Away

By Joe Clifford – Clifford has an innovative premise for this crime thriller about a woman who turned out to be the last kidnap victim of a serial killer plaguing a dreary upstate New York town called Reine. Alex Salerno was 17 when she was kidnapped, then rescued, and the murderer brought to justice. The town celebrated her and the end of its reign of terror for only a short while until another girl, Kira Shanks, disappeared and was believed murdered.

That was a dozen years ago, and now Alex has made a rare trip back to Reine because a reporter wants to hear her story. This is the first time anyone has shown a flicker of interest in her in a very long while, and Alex wants to believe her story’s worth telling. Maybe the reporter will even pay for it. She soon learns he’s no reporter, just a journalism student needing dirt for a class project that might—or might not—become a story for the college newspaper.

The student takes hardly a moment before bringing up the name Sean Riley, the detective who rescued Alex from that basement bunker, starving, dehydrated, terrified. Riley was the one bright spot in that time, the one person who could evoke her tender feelings. And did. Too bad an affair between a married detective and a 17-year-old victim could only end badly. Though it was a long time ago, it still hurts.

The police identified the person they believe took Kira Shanks, a mentally challenged young man named Benny Brudzienski. When word got out, Benny was badly beaten and has spent the years since in a mental hospital, unable to speak. In that condition, he will never go to trial.

Alex has tried to forget her life in Reine, and author Clifford does a good job describing the dismal town. She pretends—to herself, even—that she’s helping the student with his story and visits Benny in the mental hospital. Something in his eyes suggests more going on inside his brain than people believe, though the chapters told from Bennie’s point of view didn’t ring true to me.

After that insightful look, Alex is determined to find out what really happened to Kira. Meanwhile, plenty of people want her to leave it alone. Someone is following her. She’s attacked. Riley resurfaces. Because their past relationship is never far from the mind of either of them, they teeter between attraction and hostility.

Clifford plausibly describes Alex’s initial feelings, but never lets her develop further, replaying the same emotional notes. She’s unpleasant and hostile in her dealings with people. It’s puzzling her people-skills are so weak and that anyone would cooperate with her pseudo-investigation. Yet Alex has caught the eye of one young man determined to find a soft spot in her shell.

Occasionally, Clifford constructs a too-obvious and unnecessary cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter, even though what’s coming follows the predictable plotting of thrillers—the false starts, the red herrings, the apparent threats that evaporate, the climactic confrontation.

The unwanted role of victim was Alex Salerno’s only and brief claim to fame. You can only hope her most recent experience in her home town will finally let her move on. She’s already come a long way from that dark cellar.

photo: xusenru on pixabay

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