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Review: The Man upon the Stair, by Gary Inbinder
Pegasus, 2018. 252 pp. $26

On the day before he accedes to the chief inspectorship of the Paris Surêté, Achille Lefebvre witnesses the execution of an anarchist assassin. Colleagues warn Lefebvre that the dead man’s friends will seek revenge the first chance they get, so why not have them “taken care of”? No, Lefebvre says; he believes in the rule of law, and stooping to criminal methods would undermine that and reputation he wishes to maintain.

It’s an unusual viewpoint among the Parisian law enforcement of 1890, but, then again, Lefebvre is no ordinary detective. He’s studied the Japanese warrior code, martial arts, pistol marksmanship, the latest methods in criminology that his superiors scoff at (such as fingerprinting), and reads Jules Verne as if the master’s works predicted tomorrow’s news. Lefebvre knows and keeps good relations with Toulouse-Lautrec, cabaret singers, stars of the demimonde, the king of the rag pickers, and every important figure in the judicial and police world, with a few diplomats on the side.

Paris, circa 1890, from A Photographic Trip Around the World, John W. Illiff & Co., Chicago, 1892 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain, expired copyright)

So it is that when Mme. Mathilde de Livet, wife of a nouveau riche baron, approaches the detective’s wife, Adele, at the watering hole of Aix-les-Bains and seems strangely agitated, Mme. Lefebvre’s social antennas quiver. Well they might, for Mme. de Livet is soon telling the police that her husband has disappeared. Questioning the missing man’s valet reveals that the baron was holding hundreds of thousands of francs in a Gladstone bag, said to be gambling winnings that prompted a duel. Before long, the case will involve possible espionage, a poisoned maid, Russian diplomats, and several swindles. A few of these problems may pose serious international implications, it seems.

Inbinder has written a clever mystery that keeps the pages turning; just when you think there can’t be another twist, he gives you three more. Lefebvre is an appealing character, if hard to believe, but his heart’s in the right place, and he earns his subordinates’ loyalty by praising them and giving them chances to succeed. (Everybody deserves a boss like that.) As a family man, Lefebvre wishes he could do better, for some days he hardly comes home. One of my favorite scenes is when he has to beat a quick retreat, leaving Adele to administer her own form of law enforcement to their young daughter.

Another pleasure of The Man upon the Stair is fin-de-siècle Paris. Inbinder spends few words on it, but they all count:

Achille sat on a slatted wooden bench on the open upper deck of the Rue Caulaincourt tram. The horse-drawn car ran up from the Place de Clichy and over the iron viaduct that crossed the cemetery. He grabbed the brim of his fedora as a gust whipped over the elevated roadway. Wind rustled the reddish-golden-leaved treetops lining each side of the thoroughfare. The breeze carried smoke from dead leaves smoldering in piles gathered around the graves and sarcophagi; the fumes irritated his eyes and nostrils, making them water. He removed a handkerchief from his breast pocket, coughed, and blew his nose.

For all that, I find The Man upon the Stair a contrived, frustrating mystery to read. There’s never any doubt that Lefebvre and his minions will handle whatever obstacles arise, before the tension can stretch its legs or the reader’s nerves. It’s as though the author, through his detective, were saying, “Don’t worry. We’ve got this covered.” For instance, we’re told that the diplomatic complications could provoke a war, but we don’t actually see that in play, so there’s no reason to believe it. No amount of explanation that the French government is courting Russia as an ally raises the stakes. It’s historically accurate but involves no drama, for Lefebvre massages everything behind the scenes and then narrates his success after the fact.

He should at least break a sweat. But, as he says himself, he’s very lucky, and his infinite sources of information never fail. Moreover, that information is most often relayed to him (and the reader) in dialogue that reads like declarations or pronouncements rather than ordinary speech. This stilted feel pervades the novel, in which there are too few surprises. Minor characters have one overriding trait or concern, which the narrative describes or explains, and which the dialogue then reinforces, so you often have the impression that you’ve just read something twice.

So though I enjoyed The Man upon the Stair, largely for its glimpses of a city I love, I could take this novel or let it alone.

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