What We're Reading
Claude Izner (Paula)
Sitting here in our apartment on the Left Bank, I have to remind myself that it's Paris, 2015, not the Paris of Claude Izner's wonderful series depicting the turn-of-the-century City of Light.
I started with the first, Murder on the Eiffel Tower. "The brand new shiny Eiffel Tower is the pride and joy of the 1889 World Exposition. But one sunny afternoon, as visitors are crowding the viewing platforms, a woman collapses and dies on this great Paris landmark. . ."
Izner's colorful descriptions make me feel like I'm there. Well, I am, give or take 126 years. Our apartment here in Paris is literally in the shadow of the grand tower, only a block away.
The books--so far, six have been translated into English--follow the exploits of Victor Legris, a late 19th century bookseller, who happens to be there on the tower the day of the woman's death. Appalled by the newspaper coverage of the incident, he's determined to find out what really happened.
The Disappearance at Pere-Lachaise--book No. 2 featuring the famous burial ground--is just as evocative of the period. (Two blocks from our apartment I can catch the #69 bus and be there in 30 minutes, albeit a century late.)
The other titles that make up the series--The
Montmartre Investigation, The Assassin in the Marais, In the Shadow of Paris, and Strangled in Paris--are equally fascinating and fun reads. Several more await translation.
I should point out that Izner is actually the pseudonym of two sisters, Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefévre, both experts on 19-century Paris and secondhand booksellers on the banks of the Seine.
Cara Black (Paula)
What Izner's historical series does--evoking the spirit of late19-century City of Light--Cara Black does in spades for contemporary Paris.
Black has shepherded readers through the avenues (not to mention back streets and alleys) of Paris since introducing PI Aimee Leduc in Murder in the Marais (1999). Book No. 15, Murder on the Champs de Mars, comes out this month.
Paris is no ordinary city. Aimee Leduc is no ordinary PI. She's young, stylish, gutsy, fearless, with a weakness for bad boys--in short, a danger-seeking missile. Daughter of a police detective killed on the job, she knows the danger; hence, her ever-present resolve to stick to high-tech, non-criminal investigations.
Still, more often than not, Aimee finds herself digging up wartime secrets, investigating illegal immigration, unmasking corrupt government officials, tracking down dirty police, or penetrating a terrorist cell.
From the beginning, Black's series has had a gritty, edgy feel, taking the reader to the darkest places in the City of Light.
Peter May (Ann)
Best known for his popular Lewis Trilogy starring Fin Macleod, one of his earlier series features Enzo Macleod, a French forensic science professor and Scotsman/Italian determined to solve seven French unsolved and presumably unsolvable murders. (His quest, in fact, is the result of a bet with a friend.)
This Macleod is not especially humble, and he generally fails to endear himself to those in authority. But he is funny, and often kind.
With the first five books recently reissued in Britain and the sixth and final book in progress, it is now possible to find the books without spending a fortune and enjoy our hero's journey through various parts of France.
In the first, Extraordinary People/Dry Bones, and third, Blacklight Blue, he starts and ends in Paris after visits to the countryside. In The Critic/A Vintage Murder (second), the death of a powerful wine reviewer takes Enzo into the countryside as does Blowback (fifth), about the death of a famed French restaurateur. Freeze Frame (fourth) is set on an island off the coast of Brittany.
In no case do very many people want the case solved, rather the reverse. And the attempted murders are quite inventive, as in being run over by an automated grape picker. Still, while Enzo is older, he's not quite ready to go. And he does want to solve these cases.
A fun series with a complex hero.
Allan Massie (Ann)
The actions of French officials under German occupation remain controversial to this day. Is an official carrying out his duties a collaborator or a loyal Frenchman, trying as best he can to serve his fellow citizens? It's this question that's the focus of the four books of Massie's Bordeaux series starring police Superintendent Lannes.
Massie, like his compatriot John Banville, is primarily a "serious" novelist who came to mysteries late in his career. But a policeman is certainly an effective vehicle for studying duty, especially a policeman with two sons of military age and friends across ethnic/religious lines, and the tendency of policeman heroes to ignore instructions from above.
In Death in Bordeaux, the first book, the rapid collapse of French defenses leaves many French adrift, wondering what happened and who is to blame. Bordeaux, like Paris, is occupied by the Germans, though most administrative duties, including policing, are left in the hands of the French. But not without interference, of course. So when Lannes looks into the death of a homosexual and then is warned off, he begins to think there's more than a sex crime here.
In the next three books the settings of the crimes are used to illustrate different stages of the occupation and of the resistance. It's a really masterful job of bringing to life a difficult time in French history. Highly recommended (for a certain segment of our readers).
Brief Notes (Ann)
While on the topic of France in the 20th century, it's worth mentioning Paul Grossman's series featuring Willi Kraus, a war hero and famous Berlin detective, who by 1933 is forced to escape Germany and become a refugee in Paris. While it's better being Jewish in Paris than in Berlin, being a refugee without the right of domicile means there's no way for Willi to work legally. So he does so illegally and gets drawn ever deeper into a world he can't really understand. Be warned: The French here are remarkably untrustworthy, but their food is very, very good. And it's fun to travel around Paris with Willi, especially after he develops a phobia about the Metro.