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by Laurie R. King
Bantam, September 2013
362 pages
ISBN: 0345531760

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This is the second historical mystery featuring Harris Stuyvesant, now newly reinvented as a private detective after his previous role as an FBI agent in TOUCHSTONE, the first novel of the series. Although THE BONES OF PARIS stands on its own, this new adventure features some of the same characters, particularly Sarah Grey, his lover in TOUCHSTONE, and her brother Bennett, who possesses a peculiar gift for detecting other people's thoughts.

King sets the action in Paris, 1929, and the city and some of its artistic celebrities are as important to the atmosphere of this novel and the story as is the disappearance of an American girl, Philippa (Pip) Crosby, whom Stuyvesant has been hired to find. His search immediately plunges him into the Bohemian world of artists and their models and a disturbing connection with the Gothic world of le Théâtre du Grand-Gringnol renowned for its vivid and shocking enactments of murders and sexual perversions. Its patron and owner is Le Comte de Charmentier. He is also intimately connected with the art world, particularly as a patron of a grim artist, Didi Moreau, whose compartmentalized boxes often feature animal bones and a hint that some contain human bones.

In reference to the title of this novel, we learn about the Catacombs of Montparnasse, still containing millions of human bones on view to the public,and the ancient burial grounds of The Holy Innocents' Cemetery (Cimetière des Saints-Innocents), no longer in existence. The latter featured a famous wall painting in the charnel house of the Danse Macabre and Le Comte is commissioning various artists, including Dali, to create a modern Danse Macabre for the walls of his chateau.

Stuyvesant eventually reports Pip as missing and through his encounter with Inspector Doucet of the Paris police, he learns that there is a long list of missing women already under investigation.

In following various leads about Pip's activities, Stuyvesant discovers that his former lover, Sarah Grey, is actually working for Le Comte as a kind of manager for productions at his theatre and as a hostess for his many parties. He falls for her again but is disappointed to discover that Inspector Doucet is her fiancé.

Stuyvesant is a true 1920's noir detective, a drinker given to brawling and sometimes sleeping with prostitutes. In fact he had had a brief affair with Pip in Nice. In Paris, we find that his latest bedmate has been murdered and he can barely remember her name. Since Sarah is unavailable, he takes up with Pip's roommate Nancy.

I found Stuyvesant unlikable as he lumbered through his interviews with the likes of Man Ray, Moreau, Le Comte and Kiki of Montparnasse. For the most part, his character was too much of a cliché to be sympathetic.

Interesting as the information is about the Paris of 1929 and both the real and fictional characters of the era, it takes much too long for the plot to develop through the first three-quarters of the book. When Bennett appears on the scene, having reacted to Stuyvessant's letter asking his opinion about the enclosed photographs of four terrified women, the action heats up.

In any historical novel which blends real and fictional characters, the question arises as to how much of it is historical fact. Yes, there was a Théâtre du Grande-Gringnol but no, the character of Man Ray in particular is not true to life and as a photographer I feel I have to come to his defence!

As always, I found the writing engaging and fans of Laurie R. King will probably have the patience to wade through this book, especially if they have little knowledge of the period. It will all seem new to them, unless of course they viewed Woody Allen's film, Midnight in Paris. If readers visit King's website they can view a rather interesting animated video clip called "A Conversation" between Hemingway, Kiki, Dali and Man Ray. It starts with some very good photographs of Paris, circa 1929.

§Ann Pearson is a photographer and retired college Humanities teacher who lives in Montreal

Reviewed by Ann Pearson, December 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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