Colonial Thinking: The Moment Before Drowning


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Review: The Moment Before Drowning, by James Brydon
Akashic, 2018. 224 pp. $26

When Captain Jacques le Garrec returns to his native Brittany in December 1959, his arrival creates a stir, as a former Resistance hero and police detective, a local boy who made good. But the wrong kind of notoriety trails him too, because he’s been brought back to France to face accusations regarding his interrogations of suspected terrorists in the colonial war in Algeria. In the days preceding his legal hearing, a local lycée teacher has asked him to investigate the death and mutilation of a brilliant girl, a student of his. This is a distraction for le Garrec, to be sure, but that’s what he needs.

It’s a small town, where everybody knows everything about everyone else, or thinks they do, so it’s somewhat surprising that the police haven’t solved the crime. However, they haven’t tried hard, a mystery in itself. Another puzzle is why le Garrec has returned in apparent disgrace. Did he torture one too many civilians, and is that really considered a crime by the French forces pursuing this increasingly savage, unwinnable war? Or is his crime something different?

Brydon handles both narratives with skill and an elegant simplicity I admire. The whodunit part, the standard, expected tale, remains tense to the end, though the number of suspects is small, and the evidence is in plain sight. But the greater pleasure of this fine debut novel derives from the parallel narratives of the torture cells in Algeria and the murder investigation, a terrific juxtaposition that asks what purpose law and its enforcement actually serve. And that’s why le Garrec’s in trouble, because he dared pose that question in Algeria.

Consequently, the conflict occurs in le Garrec’s head, as his memories of Algeria deny him sleep, and in his investigation. Not only does the dead Breton girl recall a young woman he interrogated (the event prompting the charges against him); the police inspector, a brutal bigot, reminds him of his superior in Algeria. Lafourgue, the inspector, is a well-drawn character, and as a petty ego inflated with barely repressed rage and unsatisfied desire, he makes a good foil for le Garrec. The contempt that Lafourgue expresses for the murder victim shocks le Garrec and perhaps explains why the inspector has felt no particular urgency to find the killer. But Brydon’s accomplishing much more than thematic development here. He’s linked his protagonist’s inner and outer journeys, a winning combination every time, if done right.

And Brydon does a lot right, starting with the vivid prose:

As I walk from the bus stop along familiar, deserted streets the sky seems enormous, bloated, and infinite, billowing over everything. I lose myself in swirls of gray; great, bulbous streaks of darkness; every possible permutation of impending rain. After two years in Algeria I feel the Breton damp seeping into my body, chilling me, and the ice carried on the wind settling in my blood. Out by the sea, which I can perceive only as a howl frustrated by the rocks, the beam of the lighthouse flashes its warning into the encroaching dark: a fragile blade of light that swings away and is lost, only to return each time and abide in the blindness of the night.

Where he goes wrong, I think, is to rush. Sometimes, the characters don’t speak so much as they expound, which sounds canned, intended to reveal essential information or a person’s trait in a single passage. I notice this especially in the beginning and whenever le Garrec interviews witnesses for the first time. What’s the hurry? Engage the reader emotionally, and you can write at Tolstoyan length. What creates tension isn’t information about le Garrec but who and what he loves, his feelings about himself and his situation, his struggle to redeem himself. Brydon conveys that, of course; if he didn’t, his novel could be half the size it is, yet not work. It seems like a lack of trust (or poor editorial advice) that has led him to sprint through emotional changes as if the words were on fire, which then requires him to move on to what comes next to put it out. But those are actually the moments in which the reader wants to insert him- or herself into the narrative and ask what he or she would do under the same circumstances. End that connection abruptly, and the novelist breaks the mood, yanking the reader out of the narrative.

Nevertheless, I think that The Moment Before Drowning is well worth reading (with the caveat that there are many scenes of torture, so be warned). I look forward to seeing what the author can do once he gains more confidence in his readers and, perhaps, himself.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, where this post first appeared in shorter, different form.

Racetrack Mayhem: A Stone’s Throw


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Review: A Stone’s Throw, by James W. Ziskin
Seventh Street/Prometheus, 2018. 295 pp. $16

Ellie Stone, the heroine sleuth of this engaging, clever mystery, is a reporter for an upstate New York newspaper. It’s August 1962, height of the racing season in nearby Saratoga Springs, when Ellie happens on a fire at the abandoned Tempesta Farm, once a quality breeding place for Thoroughbreds. A barn has burned, which should have no particular significance, since it’s been years since Tempesta operated. However, Ellie finds human remains in the ashes and a bit of racing silk that suggests the victim was a jockey. A bullet hole through the head confirms that it’s murder, which leads the police to suspect gamblers as the criminals.

Ellie isn’t so sure, and, as is her wont, she pursues the case from every conceivable angle, like any good reporter; for about a week, she seems never to get any sleep. Knowing nothing about racing, she relies on a good friend to teach her, whereupon she drops the nuggets she’s learned into conversations with gamblers, horsemen, and racetrack swells, often with comic results. Ellie befriends a beautiful, temperamental horse named Purgatorio, and crosses paths with hoods who have no beauty but plenty of temperament. Her allies in the police department worry about her, especially the closer she gets to the truth, and the more heat that results.

Ziskin tells his story with brisk economy, and despite a large cast of characters, he never loses you. That should be a given, but I’ve read many mysteries in which I’ve had to stop and say, “What just happened, exactly?” Yet the clarity never reveals too much, and the solution to the mystery comes as a complete surprise — another quality that eludes some authors.

The prose is nicely seasoned without being cute or cloying, and that helps too:

With all the grace of a punch-drunk prizefighter stumbling to his feet on the count of nine, the coroner pushed himself up off the muddy ground with both arms and a couple of grunts. Vertical once more, he coughed himself red in the face. After several restorative breaths, he wiped his hands on a cloth, which he tossed aside like a soiled tissue. Someone else would clean it up. Or maybe not. In no hurry to answer my question, he retrieved an Old Gold from a crumpled package in the breast pocket of his jacket, flicked his lighter, and puffed smoke into the air.

As for historical flavor, I would have liked more than random details of dress, popular music, or news headlines. To his credit, though, Ziskin involves social issues hovering on the mainstream horizon in 1962. I particularly like how he handles the office politics, which conveys both background and contrast. Ellie has an assistant, an older woman with a developmentally disabled child, who does a lot of the spade work, for little money and no recognition, except from Ellie. The younger woman, educated at Barnard and blessed with the more glamorous, better-paying job, realizes how unfair this is.

However, her status cuts two ways, for Ellie endures the sobriquet of “girl reporter,” symbolic of the hostility she faces on her beat and in the newsroom. Ellie never describes herself physically in her narration, but you get the idea that she’s very attractive, often more of a hindrance than an advantage. When an old-timer at the paper makes a remark about her derrière, she photographs his and posts the prints where other staffers can laugh at them. But it’s not all fun and games, for Ellie faces constant sexual harassment, and she fights an uphill battle to be taken seriously. Luckily, her editor believes in her reportorial skills— but nevertheless, she depends upon a man’s good graces.

Also, Ellie’s Jewish, and Ziskin does a fine job portraying the shades of anti-Semitism she encounters, whether from the Saratoga blue-bloods or the underworld types. The blue-bloods also have no idea how racist they are toward African-Americans, even as they raise money to aid poor black schoolchildren. Properly, Ziskin never mentions the national movements or leaders campaigning for women’s rights or against racial and ethnic prejudice, a low-key approach that avoids earnestness or exaggerated significance.

These are some of the pleasures of A Stone’s Throw, an excellent, satisfying mystery. Even readers who don’t remember the early Sixties will enjoy it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in whose pages this post first appeared in different, shorter form.

Some Enchanted Evening: The Invitation


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Review: The Invitation, by Lucy Foley
Little, Brown, 2016. 426 pp. $26

Hal Jacobs, a struggling English ex-pat journalist in Rome, crashes a soirée given by a contessa, the first time he has been social in months. It’s 1953, close enough to the world war so that the city and its inhabitants still bear wounds, Hal included. By the evening’s end, however, he’s charmed the contessa — who knows perfectly well he wasn’t invited — and a mysterious, beautiful woman who, in their moment of mutual vulnerability, hints at the scars she does her best to hide. Their brief tryst leaves such a deep impression on Hal that he believes he’s experienced the only warmth and happiness of his life — or has he simply loaded the circumstances with more emotional freight than they can bear?

Remains of the Roman Forum, 2012 (courtesy Bert Kaufmann, Roermond, Netherlands, via Wikimedia Commons)

Months later, however, he sees the woman again. The contessa has managed to fund the film she was trying to produce — that had been the soirée’s purpose, to assemble angels who might invest in it — and because Hal knows the cinema, she engages him to write a magazine story about it, an assignment he gets through her contacts. The stars, director, and others associated with the film will revisit the coastal location where it was shot, and Hal is to pen glitzy, frothy nonsense about this gathering as publicity for the release. Since much of the money to make the film comes from Frank Truss, he’s there with his young wife, Stella — the woman Hal met in Rome.

The invitation to a Mediterranean setting, themes of sexual passion and emotional honesty, and lost souls searching for what they’ve never had reminds me of The Magus, one of John Fowles’s early novels. Another similarity is a parallel narrative, but this one goes back several centuries rather than decades, which Hal reads about in an old diary. But Foley does better than Fowles, I think, in two crucial respects: Her female characters are fully drawn, not merely sex objects, and there’s less literary artifice.

What there is, I could do without — the prologue adds nothing, and I skipped the parallel narrative of the diary. The real action, between Hal and Stella, needs no mirroring or adornment. Foley not only takes love at first sight and makes it credible, she skillfully uncovers layers of past and secret hurts for both principal characters. I’m not sure why Stella’s sections are first-person, whereas Hal’s are in third; does that difference accomplish anything? But two unspoken questions lurk constantly within the narrative, and it’s amazing how much tension they create: What will happen between Hal and Stella, and what will result?

That tension emanates from the characters themselves, much less so the antagonist. Frank Truss lives up to his name as Stella’s sole support, but she pays a heavy price. It’s not so much that Frank likes to get his own way; it’s that when he’s around, there is no other way. He’s menacing enough to serve his narrative necessity, but as a character, he’s too one-sided, the only flawed portrayal in the book. Foley tries to rescue him somewhat at the end, and though I like the shifts in perspective that she creates, they don’t go far enough. You know Frank’s a bad guy from day one, and the pretense he has of altruistic commitment is so obviously pasted on, it’s no surprise when it’s proven a sham.

By contrast, though, Foley does a terrific job with the lesser characters in attendance. I particularly like the film director, Gaspari, a lonely man, humble in his artistic gifts, and the contessa, whose warm-hearted, tolerant approach to life is very appealing. Foley also sets her scenes with care, as with Hal’s crashing the contessa’s soirée:

Torches have been lit in brackets about the entrance, and Hal can see several gleaming motor cars circling like carp, disclosing guests in their evening finery.… He is not prepared for this. His suit is well-made but old and worn with use, faded at the elbows of the jacket and frayed at the pockets of the trousers. He has lost weight, too, since he last wore it, thanks to his poor diet of coffee and the occasional sandwich.… When he first wore it he had been much broader about the chest and shoulders. Now he feels almost like a boy borrowing his father’s clothes.

With prose like this, Foley delivers her keen psychological insights, connecting closely with the reader on every page. The Invitation is well worth reading.

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

Escaping a Predator: The Widow Nash


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Review: The Widow Nash, by Jamie Harrison
Counterpoint, 2017. 373 pp. $26

It’s 1904, and Leda Cordelia Dulcinea Remfrey has just buried her grandmother in the East and wants nothing more than to retrieve her bearings. But a summons comes from Seattle, one she can’t ignore: Her father, Walton, is losing his mind to tertiary syphilis, likely dying. More importantly to the two men who send for her, Walton has misplaced or hidden or spent a fortune reaped from the sale of African mines, and part of that money is due them. Dulcy, as she’s known, is essential to the task of deciphering Walton’s notebooks and figuring out what he did with the money, for she’s traveled the world with him and knows his secrets. Or so they believe.

Their conviction brings much misery to Dulcy, and here lies the biggest flaw of this often splendid, engaging novel. Victor Maslingen, her former fiancé, imprisons Dulcy in Seattle, and his henchman, Henning Falk, immediately welches on the promises he made to keep Victor in check. Surprisingly, Dulcy never even protests, only sets out to care for her father, living up to her second name, Cordelia.

Moreover, if she’s ever regretted breaking her engagement, all you need to know is that Henning has furnished Victor’s office with objects that don’t break if they’re thrown. Unfortunately, people aren’t as sturdy; and Dulcy’s first name, Leda, suggests what Victor has done before and keeps threatening to do again. In fact, Victor is such a completely unappealing, unbalanced character, he could fill a page in the DSM by himself. And the strange part is, nobody who knows him (other than Henning) can understand why Dulcy threw him over. To a degree, her reticence to share the story is quite understandable. As Harrison shows, a woman may be the soul of virtue, but society will still condemn her for lodging such an accusation.

Nevertheless, the central conflict of this novel results from two clichéd characterizations, a masochist and a sociopath, and during the long Seattle narrative, little changes. We get Dulcy’s sufferings and discursions into Walton’s past life and travels with his daughter, some of which is interesting, much of it simply appalling, as when Walton carelessly and unconscionably passes his syphilis to his wife, killing the children she bears subsequently and later, herself. Meanwhile, the main narrative treads water while Dulcy works up the courage to escape, and you may be forgiven for wondering when she’s going to get it.

Yet The Widow Nash is about running away, and round about page 120, Dulcy manages to rescue herself and the novel. Unfortunately, Harrison wants you to believe that Victor will pursue Dulcy if he ever traces her — that’s why he has to be a sociopath, I suppose —and that Henning, who’s far more practical and therefore more dangerous, will help. Or maybe he won’t, because he has a soul and a conscience when the narrative absolutely requires. That’s the trouble with over-the-top characters; they can’t bend, so everyone else has to, even in illogical directions.

Henry Wellge’s 1904 photo of Butte, Montana, population 60,000 (courtesy Library of Congress)

When Dulcy settles in a Montana town, assuming the name Mrs. Nash and declaring her widowhood, the novel settles in too. How she keeps her secret from the nosy matrons makes a wry, entertaining narrative, and though predators flourish here — most especially the chief of police — there’s good-heartedness that Dulcy drinks in and wonders whether she’s dreaming. Most fiction about the American prairie that I’ve read stresses how plain and boring life can be, but where Dulcy lives, there’s never a dull moment.

One reason Harrison can get away with a few mistakes and still come out with a good novel is that her prose evokes not just a setting, but a way of life:

Walton packed an India rubber bath, which liked to collapse suddenly, and his medicines often shattered, the fumes poisoning fellow travelers. Travel meant being wet and cold or dry and hot;… Pushy, mustachioed men in uniform, demanding imaginary paperwork at sudden borders; dusty telegraph offices and banks with wayward hours and false coinage; mysterious meat, leathery fruit.… insects skittering over mattresses or rappelling down at high speed from dark ceilings, the flutter of bats and whisper of mice.… He’d opened the wide world for her but sluiced away her joy.

And though the world of this novel is a very violent one, the people Dulcy meets in Montana have a zest for life, or many do, and that’s just what she needs, having been beaten down so long. I think that Harrison could have gotten to that point much sooner and more directly, and if that meant jettisoning discussions of Walton’s pseudoscientific theories about volcanoes and earthquakes and the interconnection of all human events, so much the better. I think the themes of The Widow Nash are well established without that. But if you can get past these excesses and the clunky narrative machinery before Dulcy’s escape, the novel offers rewards.

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

Master Sleuths: The Bag of Tricks Affair


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Review: The Bags of Tricks Affair, by Bill Pronzini
Forge, 2018. 254 pp. $26

Grass Valley, Nevada, isn’t the loosest mining town John Quincannon has ever seen, but it has its share of conmen, quick-tempered fortune-hunters, and card sharps, as befits any Western burg of the 1870s. But John and his partner, Sabina Carpenter, of the Professional Detective Services agency of San Francisco, are on hand to thwart the latest con game about to happen, and they plan on a successful conclusion, bringing their firm more business. The key seems to be a high-stakes game of five-card stud:

The Saint Louis Rose cut a slimmer and far gaudier figure. Too gaudy by half, in Quincannon’s judgment. She wore a fancy sateen dress of bright green, fashioned below across the bosom and high at the knee so that a great deal — a great deal, indeed — of creamy skin was exposed. A red wig done in ringlets, a little too much rouge and powder, false eyelashes the size of a daddy longlegs, and mouth painted the same rose color as the wig completed her image. She laughed often and too loud and was shamelessly flirtatious with the kibitzers.

However, before John and Sabina can expose the grifters, a murder takes place, to which Sabina is the only witness in an otherwise crowded room. A third party who has an interest in the upcoming murder trial has all but told her she’d do well to forget about testifying. But no one scares Sabina Carpenter. Very little eludes her, either, which is why she’s a formidable witness. John wishes she took the threat more seriously, and not just because he’s sweet on her. Former Pinkerton and first-rate detective she may be, and more than able to take care of herself in a tight spot, but John knows a ruthless bad guy when he sees one, and that’s who she’s up against.

Eadweard Muybridge’s panorama of San Francisco, taken from the Mark Hopkins mansion, Nob Hill, 1878 (courtesy Collection of the Society of California Pioneers, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Meanwhile, though, duty calls, and once the detectives return to San Francisco, each pursues a separate case. The plot zips along faster than the Southern Pacific Railroad, but much more reliably, subject to no delays. Pronzini didn’t get to be a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America for nothing, and he connects his stories with ingenuity and economy, wasting no words, yet setting the scene so that you see it vividly. He also gives you all the clues and puts you in the role of Dr. Watson, as you try to figure out how things happen (the who is less mysterious, sometimes because the narrative tells you, and once because there’s really no other choice). Yet the how is invariably marvelous and unexpected, and the manner in which our hero and heroine put their puzzles together recalls Holmes at his lightning best — especially Sabina, who’s the better detective. More intriguing yet, these mysteries are of the locked-room variety, so it’s pretty special to find two of those in the same narrative.

Their relationship is my favorite part, though. They work together, but don’t let that fool you; they compete as well, and John pretends to understand Sabina’s conclusions before he actually does. He’s quick to catch on, but she teases him about it afterward. He’s more impetuous than she, quicker to anger, but his sense of honor forbids him to ask for more money in fees when he might get it. She has no scruples about that, which makes her less of a pushover in business dealings, precisely what the male clients don’t expect — and, perhaps, the reader.

As for any hint of romance between the pair, John keeps looking for it, and his occasionally flirtatious banter annoys her, as well it should. Over their years in partnership, she’s grown fonder of him, but she keeps her distance. Not only is she unsure of her feelings for him, she’s holding on to the memory of her husband, dead five years. So during the course of The Bags of Tricks Affair, sexual tension percolates under the surface, increased by the secrets that each withholds from the other, for professional and personal reasons. Consequently, as they set about solving the criminal mysteries before them, they attempt to decipher one another. The mixture makes for an entertaining, fast-paced narrative, and I wish I’d discovered Quincannon and Carpenter before now.

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

Seekers: The Wanderers


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Review: The Wanderers, by Tim Pears
Bloomsbury, 2018. 366 pp. $28

In this beguiling, gorgeous, yet frustrating novel, we first meet Leo Sercombe in 1912. The young teenager is on the run through the Devon countryside, bearing the wounds of a severe beating, and near faint with hunger.

The boy stumbled in the night over dark earth. The land was silver. His steps were heavy. At first light in the waters of a stream he cleaned the charred red mud off his boots, and limped on in a kind of crouch that seemed best to allay the pain that racked many parts of his body. He saw where the sun rose and headed in the opposite direction, hunched over like someone with secrets from the light.

Gypsies take him in, but he receives little kindness, and not only because he’s an outsider, what they call a gentile. They sense his weakness, his ache for friendship, and, with few exceptions, treat him cruelly because they can, even after he shows his usefulness. Leo has a way with horses, a valuable skill, and he’s curious, quick to learn, eager to please. Theirs is a hard existence, however, with little room for sentiment, and Leo’s reminded at every turn that he owes them his life and had better not try to run away.

North Devon, near Croyde, 2018

Meanwhile, Charlotte (Lottie) Prideaux has just lost her mother, and she too is rootless, without friends, though in a very different, coddled context. She’s a lord’s daughter, and her father lets her do more or less what she pleases, with one crucial exception. The narrative hints that because Leo and Lottie became too friendly, the boy and most of his family were banished from the estate, which also presumably explains the beating he took. (Since The Wanderers is the second book of a planned trilogy, these events may be more explicit in the first volume, The Horseman.) In protest, for months, Lottie refuses to say anything to her father except, “Yes, Papa,” or, “No, Papa,” and tells him he did wrong to punish the Sercombes.

With great subtlety, Pears shows that Lottie and Leo care deeply about one another, though neither spends much time thinking about it, and both outwardly pretend no connection exists. This understatement makes you want all the more for the two to find one another again. But that’s not how the real world or this novel works, and Lottie and Leo have learning to do.

They’re both empathic, lonely, see beyond surfaces, and love the natural world, about which they have an abiding curiosity. But where Lottie dissects animals to study them and borrows anatomy textbooks from the local veterinarian, Leo helps butcher animals for food and assists a ewe through a breech birth because that’s his job, for which he receives neither thanks nor payment. Pears never underlines the comparison; he doesn’t have to. You only need to watch Leo make his way, suffering physically and emotionally, whereas there’s always someone looking out for the daughter of the manor. Nevertheless, you see Leo gain knowledge that Lottie may never have. I love this juxtaposition, simple and elegant like the prose, which creates a coming-of-age story unlike any other I’ve read.

Yet The Wanderers, though superbly written with brilliant characterizations, lacks a plot to speak of, a climax, or resolution. Having recently torn apart Charles Frazier’s Varina for that failing and others, it’s only fair to ask what Pears does to overcome this deficit, and to what extent he succeeds. He does ask implied, powerful questions, and though nothing happens in the usual way of novels, everything also happens, because it all matters. Partly that’s because Pears offers a view of life on the margins that few writers attempt, but it’s not just the content. Here, the episodic chapters open the characters to the reader, and the small moments establish a constant emotional connection.

Even so, I still feel cheated at the end. I don’t want to wait for the third volume to know what happens, and I’m especially worried that the First World War, to which the novel metaphorically refers as the year 1914 approaches, will deny Leo and Lottie any chance of happiness. Leo in particular is just the type of person to be destroyed in the conflict, and one theme of The Wanderers is how people who embrace violence and dishonesty have a tremendous advantage over everyone else.

So does it matter how many questions Pears leaves hanging? Yes and no. If you’re the type of reader who prefers to have everything wrapped up, then this book may not be for you. If that uncertainty doesn’t faze you, the narrative offers a breathtaking ride.

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

Tidy Mystery, Messy World: The Man upon the Stair


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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.

Occupation Confection: The Baker’s Secret


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Review: The Baker’s Secret, by Stephen P. Kiernan
Morrow, 2017. 308 pp. $27

By June 1944, the German Occupation weighs heavily on the Norman coastal village of Vergers. The Germans confiscate whatever food the villagers grow or catch, deport men of working age to their armaments factories, and delight in summary executions. One person they shoot is Ezra Kuchen, the baker; the villager who takes his death the hardest is his assistant, Emmanuelle, known as Emma.

Emma would never dream of joining the Resistance, whose activity she blames for other losses, and who believes the Allies will never invade, so what’s the point? But willy-nilly, Emma becomes the prime mover in a complicated barter arrangement whose weblike strands encompass the whole village, and which the Germans would certainly call resistance. Her treason centers around baking bread for the occupiers, which she cuts with enough straw to make extra loaves for neighbors in need. In each loaf, she carves a subtle V.

Each morning required every gram of Emma’s skills, all of her artifice, to bake loaves containing straw and have neither the Kommandant nor his officers notice. Yet this was only one of five hundred deceits, all conceived during the long strain of the occupation. She learned to sow a minefield and reap eggs. She could wander the hedgerows pulling a rickety cart, and the result would be maps. She could turn cheese into gasoline, a light bulb into tobacco, fuel into fish. She could catch, butcher, and divide among the villagers a pig that later every person who had tasted it would insist had never existed.

I like this part of the novel the best, and not only because of Emma’s ingenuity. Every fiber of her duplicity exists to satisfy someone else’s wants, which she at first resents, because they leave no room for her own. But over time, she realizes that throwing herself into feeding others gives her a reason to live despite her pessimism, and keeps her from dwelling on her repressed desires, which would drive her mad. When someone tells her to have hope, she snaps, “Can that be eaten? What does it taste like?” But since the novel opens on June 5, 1944, the reader knows what’s coming before she does.

Having written about military occupations and traveled Normandy, I was looking forward to The Baker’s Secret. (My fondest memory of the many French walking trails I’ve followed is of Calvados, where a group of local hikers pressed wine and food on me and told me how grateful they felt to Americans for having liberated them.) I gobbled up this confection of a novel in just about one sitting, which says something about its excellent pacing, but I felt hungry soon afterward. The story pleases, but, except for Emma, the characters have no depth, and the fable-like tone makes it hard to tell whether to take the narrative’s real tragedies seriously.

I took this photo in 2015, near the Norman village of Thury-Harcourt, an area that saw heavy fighting several weeks after the invasion.

One weak link is the German soldiery. Unlike the case with All the Light We Cannot See, to which this book will inevitably (and wrongly) be compared, Kiernan’s occupiers deal out plenty of brutality. But they’re stiff, utterly predictable marionettes who act like no soldiers I’ve ever read of or seen, let alone like the Wehrmacht. They are easily fooled, spout racial and political prejudices like windup toys, seem not to understand their own weaponry, and even invite Emma to a place where she can see their fortifications, which they then boast of to her. They’re not buffoons, exactly; more like a collection of bumbling neurotics with guns.

Just as the Germans are unreal enemies, the villagers are improbable, idealized good guys. They’re more like a foreigner’s idea of what French people must be like, with generic, styled modes of expression, attitudes, and descriptions. Further, I don’t believe that Vergers has a Jewish baker, that Ezra Kuchen is Jewish, or that the villagers would honor him in death so fervently. He’s a cliché, a blatant device, and, incidentally, the only villager to possess a last name, whose meaning (“cake”) is no subtler than anything else in this story. Kiernan tries hard to evoke Emma’s fear that someone in Vergers will betray her, but you know they won’t; they’re too righteous. Over time, a candidate presents himself, but he’s so roundly detested that you expect his duplicity rather than fear it.

I appreciate Kiernan’s attempt to show the cruelties perpetrated during the Occupation, and to portray the violence of the invasion as a decidedly mixed blessing for the people of Normandy. But The Baker’s Secret, though it has its poignant moments, teeters between cartoonish fable and skewed reality, and leaves me unsatisfied.

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

The Sussex Ghost: Lost Among the Living


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Review: Lost Among the Living, by Simone St. James
NAL, 2016. 318 pp. $15

For three years, Jo Manders has struggled with the loss of her husband, Alex, who flew for the RAF, and whose airplane crashed in German territory in 1918. The verdict of missing, presumed dead leaves her in limbo, which is painful enough. It also leaves her without a widow’s pension, which poses financial hardship, especially since she pays for the institution where her psychotic mother resides. (Her father, she never knew.) So when Alex’s aunt, Dottie Forsyth, offers Jo a position as a companion, the distraught young woman gets rid of nearly all Alex’s belongings and accepts.

Airco D.H. 9A, part of the infant RAF, ca. 1918 (courtesy WIkimedia Commons, public domain)

What she hasn’t reckoned on is how difficult Dottie is and how impossible to talk to. She calls Jo “Manders,” as if she were a servant rather than a relative by marriage, and denies any emotion, as if it were the influenza pandemic revisited. There’s also the matter of Alex’s late, mentally disturbed cousin, Frances, who died plunging off the roof of the Forsyth manse in Sussex, at age fifteen, during the war. As happens with such tragedies among the gentry, rumors fly in town about the dead girl. To wit: She’s still alive, kept in chains, goes one story. No; she’s dead, and her ghost haunts the woods, scaring children who play there. Or it’s Frances’s dog that does the haunting, a monster more like, that can tear a human into pieces — and did so, once.

Lost Among the Living therefore sounds like Jane Eyre meets The Hound of the Baskervilles. If you like, you can throw in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, because of Jo’s employment as a companion, and because her married name resembles Manderley, the mansion in that story. So the novel under discussion here evokes famous literary bloodlines, which implies a responsibility. In large measure, St. James meets it.

Normally, I avoid Gothic fiction because so much of it relies on melodrama. I also have no patience for the supernatural or paranormal or whatever euphemism you want to use for ghosts playing field hockey in the attic. So how did Lost Among the Living rope me in and keep me reading?

Easy. St. James is a very skilled novelist, and her psychological insights, gift for characterization, and descriptive pen need no doors slamming by themselves to create suspense. She’s not afraid to linger on emotional transitions, and because she keeps the reader engaged, the narrative still moves at an enviable clip. From the first, she draws you in, creating Jo as a sympathetic character. Consider this early passage, when the young widow thinks about what returning to England will mean after she has spent a dreadful three-month tour of the continent with Dottie:

I tried to picture primroses, hedgerows, and soft, chilled rain. No more hotels, smoke-filled dining cars, resentful waiters, or searches through unfamiliar cities for just the right tonic water or stomach remedy. No more sweltering days at the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, watching tourists blithely lead their children and snap photographs as if we’d never had a war. No more seeing the names of battlefields on train departure boards and wondering if that one — or that one, or that one — held Alex’s body forgotten somewhere beneath its newly grown grass.

We get grief, hoping for the relief she senses she won’t have, and the endless drudgery she’s suffered the past three months and fears will recur–all of it subtly rendered.

As a first-person narrator, Jo is naturally the deepest character, but her memories of Alex bring him alive, and Dottie comes through in all her hideous glory without being a cartoon. I’m particularly impressed that when Jo receives a terrible shock, she doesn’t immediately do a one-eighty to accommodate the change but fights it, internally and externally, creating tension. So many suspense novelists, or those of any stripe, devote a paragraph, a summation, to “explain” why and how the protagonist must “face facts” and do what they’d never wanted to do. Not here. Call this novel Gothic or whatever you like, but these characters have inner lives. That’s the reason it doesn’t even matter that I guessed what changes were coming; the real surprise is how Jo deals with it, which feels real.

This is why I could swallow Frances’s spectral presence in the story. I would have preferred otherwise, and I believe it was unnecessary — indeed, the mystery element she adds could have come from perfectly uncontrived, utterly earthbound sources. But that’s the author’s style, and she has a wide readership, so she knows better than to listen to me.

However, I do think she overreaches in the last fifty pages, setting up a final confrontation that again is no surprise and whose mechanics are hokey, completely unlike the rest of the novel. To repeat myself, I think St. James could have written the ending another way, so the choice seems more like holding up a banner for her genre than to achieve the desired conclusion. Still, I’m glad I read Lost Among the Living. Maybe you’d like it too.

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

Murder Jambalaya: King Zeno


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Review: King Zeno, by Nathaniel Rich
FSG, 2018. 386 pp. $28

During the final year of the First World War, three narratives and a hell of a lot of dead bodies converge in New Orleans. The main story line belongs to Isidore (Izzy) Zeno, the best young cornet player no one’s ever heard of, who believes he has a new style of jass, as it’s then called, but can’t get gigs. To make ends meet, he aids a friend who’s a stickup artist, but the risks are far greater than the rewards, and that sort of sideline is destined to cause trouble.

Then there’s Bill Bastrop, a police detective assigned to deal with the stickups but switches to homicide detail when a friend and mentor on the force is killed one night in a setup. That, in turn, leads Bill to probe the rash of ax murders that the dead detective was investigating. However, Bill can barely hold it together, suffering from what would today be called post-traumatic stress from his wartime service. He received a hero’s acclaim, but he knows he’s a coward, and he lives with it every second. How Bill managed to be released from the army with the war still going on is a mystery itself. But suffice to say that he’s miserable, obsessed with breaking a case that will redeem him in his own eyes, for which he neglects the wife he loves.

Finally, there’s Beatrice Vizzini, a widow from an underworld family who wants to leave the “shadow business” and go straight. To that end, she’s managing the effort to build a canal that will split New Orleans in two and, the city fathers hope, restore the port to its erstwhile glory. Her sociopathic son and heir, Giorgio, may have other ideas about her business strategy, and to say he’s a loose cannon is an understatement.

New Orleans shantytown during the war years (courtesy National Library of Medicine via University of Michigan)

Meanwhile, with all that, influenza ravages the city, so plenty happens in King Zeno. Too much, in fact, and it burdens the novel. The three narratives coincide only toward the end, when it takes a fair amount of contrivance to make that junction. The mystery hardly qualifies as a puzzle, for the solution is pretty clear early on, though the bodies keep piling up, in the streets and at the canal excavation site. The Vizzini narrative, easily the weakest of the three because the characters are neither engaging nor sympathetic, could drop out entirely. That would also remove the tendentious, thematic passages in which Rich tries to convince you that the canal is a metaphor that links this narrative to the other two. I don’t see it.

What King Zeno does have going for it is the atmosphere of New Orleans. You get the mosquitoes, the heat, the wealth alongside poverty, the racism, sainted past that was never glorious. The vigorous prose lets you hear the music, too:

Isidore pressed the cornet to his lips and the old chemical combustion — oxygen plus metal times flesh — blew everything else out of his head. He’d heard other players describe performing as a jubilant mindlessness, a physical sensation as ecstatic as sexual euphoria, but that wasn’t quite right. He used his mind too, running through scales the way Mr. Davis at the Waifs’ Home had taught him, calculating fourths and fifths; adding crooks, slurs, and drags; scanning ahead four bars in anticipation; posing and, within milliseconds, resolving questions of harmonic density, chordal patterning, and understructure…

More importantly, the narrative conveys implicitly the crime and corruption that pervade every human interaction, the fear with which African-Americans cope constantly, and the subterfuges they must embrace. For instance, Izzy may not visit his wife, Orleania, except in secret, for she’s a live-in nanny in a white home. Even to try is dangerous, for security guards patrol the streets, looking to abuse people they consider interlopers.

Izzy’s story therefore makes gripping reading, as does Bill’s, often, but only as separate entities. As a whole, King Zeno doesn’t feel like a satisfying literary dish as much as a jambalaya of varied flavors. Some stand out, some I can do without, but they don’t go together.

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