Do you know about the catacombs of Paris in which piles of human bones make striking designs? Those bones lend a ghoulish backdrop to Laurie R. King's absorbing mystery set in 1929 Paris.
Harris Stuyvesant is an American in Paris. He is an at-the-moment downtrodden private investigator who fortuitously receives a commission to find the niece of a wealthy American. Pip Crosby had come to Paris to have a good time, but now she is missing.
As Harris investigates, he runs into an old flame, a woman he had hoped to marry, Sarah Grey. She is currently working for a wealthy Parisian aristocrat with an interest in the bizarre. She is also engaged to a Paris policeman, Émile Doucet. So much for any hope Harris might have had of one day being reunited with her. Of course, as fictional irony must run its course, Harris needs to work with Doucet to solve a problem that is growing by leaps and bounds.
Although the main characters are fictional, King peppers her story with many of the famous visitors to Paris and the resident artists and creative minds of the time. Man Ray makes a notorious appearance. Ernest Hemingway (of course), Josephine Baker, Cole Porter, Sylvia Beach, Coco Chanel, among others, make sometimes brief, sometimes important, sometimes silhouetted appearances.
King does a splendid job recreating that time in Paris between the wars. The story begins during a heat wave in September. Stuyvesant broods: "It had been a long summer, in all kinds of ways. He'd begun to feel as tired as Paris, a city worn down by the heat, as used up by foreign invaders as an aging femme de nuit. Maybe even Paris had a limit to her charms. Maybe in another generation, the social and cultural center of the country would shift south, to Lyons, or Marseilles. … His thoughts were broken by a loud voice. 'Hey, mister, you mind taking our picture?' 'I'spreche kein English.' he snarled."
Harris is a bit of a lunkhead at times, imbibing a little too much, mouthing off a lot, choosing action when words would have been better. It is from his perspective, however, that we see most of the action.
When Sarah Grey's brother, Bennett, enters the picture, the interest quotient rises. In contrast to Harris, Bennett is almost Sherlock Holmes-like in his ability to determine a person's truthfulness and character, he senses the subtle emanations of an object or person that bypass 99.9 percent of us. He is the actor in King's play whose entrance the audience has been awaiting. Harris meanders through Montparnasse and Montmartre a few times, entangles himself in distracting relationships, bumps up against the luminous figures mentioned above, setting the stage until Bennett arrives.
However, that does a disservice to the deductive powers that Harris brings to the story -- after all, it is primarily his story -- and over-emphasizes what Bennett does, but Bennett's character is so captivating that the story really took off for me when he came on board.
Laurie R. King has produced a great homage to Paris in the '20s. The mystery is tantalizing, the quirky, creepy stuff is enough to give "a frisson of visceral excitement," and the ending was worth the wait.