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Review: Death at the Paris Exposition, by Frances McNamara
Allium, 2016. 253 pp.

The Paris Exposition of 1900 was a landmark, a great show of scientific, artistic, technological, and cultural marvels. It marked the turn of what many people believed would be a century of unheard-of progress, peace, and inventiveness. Its great engineering feat, the Eiffel Tower, has become an internationally known symbol, and the exhibit halls built for the fair remain among the city’s finest.

Lucien Baylac's image of the 1900 Paris Exposition, digitized in 2007 (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lucien Baylac’s image of the 1900 Paris Exposition, digitized in 2007 (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

So any novel titled Death at the Paris Exposition has much thematic material to draw on, a milieu tailor-made for fiction, and enough potential characters to fill every café on the Champs-Elysée. Unfortunately, McNamara makes little use of the resources available, and the result, at times, reads like a primer on how not to write a mystery–or any novel, for that matter.

The premise works well enough. Bertha Palmer, a Chicago socialite, has been named to the American commission to the exposition, the only woman to hold that post. Mrs. Palmer names Emily Chapman, a university lecturer, as her social secretary, so that Emily, her physician husband, Stephen, and their three children occupy part of the splendid house the Palmers have rented. More to the point, you can’t attend the formal luncheons, dinners, or soirées without the proper clothes, so Emily gets a new wardrobe at the world-famous House of Worth, on Mrs. Palmer’s dime. I like how McNamara conveys the couturier’s way of doing business, and the complex etiquette involved in fitting a client for a dress.

It’s at Worth that Bertha’s splendid pearl necklace disappears, and from there, the crimes multiply. Before long, a young woman is found strangled, and the French police suspect Mrs. Palmer’s son, Honoré, for the theft and the murder. Emily, who has solved cases in Chicago (this is McNamara’s sixth novel about her), sets about finding the truth. And the first place to look seems to be the confluence between fortune-hunting Europeans and Americans hoping to land an aristocratic marriage partner, a time-honored theme straight out of Henry James.

But Death at the Paris Exposition fails to deliver. Not one of the characters has angles or edges; everyone behaves true to form, which subverts any mystery. Honoré lives up to his name–respectful to ladies, dutiful to his parents, moderate in habits–so he can’t possibly be guilty, no matter how many times McNamara has Emily pretend to consider it. Conversely, another character acts and sounds like a fake–he’s clearly not an aristocrat–yet nobody seems to notice. And when he’s finally exposed, he drops the mask and reverts to “criminal” type, showing a “feral” expression, a cliché that thuds almost as loudly as the group scene convened for the purpose.

As a detective, Emily repeats rote, clunky phrases like “I needed to make the inspector turn his attentions away from Bertha and her family”; and whenever she mulls the case, she goes in circles, restating facts the reader knows. I’ve always thought that the pleasure of reading a mystery is matching wits with the sleuth. But if she doesn’t have any, where’s the challenge?

Nineteen-hundred was historically rich, and Paris is, well, Paris. Yet here, time and place are missing in action. McNamara spends paragraphs describing the clothes, but not a word on how it feels to wear them, aside from whether the women think they look attractive in them. Amazingly, even the exposition gets short shrift. Nothing in the story says, “This is 1900,” either in daily life or current events. No one breathes a word about the Boxer Rebellion, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, the assassination of the king of Italy (one of many by anarchists in those years), the American war in the Philippines, or McKinley’s reelection, to name only a few current issues that might have gotten Emily’s attention. As for contemporary mores, I can believe that she’d buy an English translation of an Émile Zola novel, but she’d have known that respectable women weren’t supposed to, and yet that never occurs to anyone. And since when do men wear hats in a Catholic church, as one character does at Notre Dame?

But it’s the prose that gives me the strongest sense of carelessness. When McNamara’s Parisians speak English (and a surprising number do), they sound like cartoon Frenchmen who have no real grasp of their native tongue. Sadly, that linguistic misery has plenty of company in the overall narrative. The author repeatedly confuses who and whom, writes sentences whose clauses fail to connect (sometimes humorously), and uses commas as if they were taxed. If you care about the art and craft of writing, a book like this can only be painfully disappointing–and I think McNamara’s editor bears a good part of the blame.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.