Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi is a murder mystery/detective novel set in Paris in 1899, a time of racial tensions with the Dreyfus affair at its height, and the city preparing for the universal exhibition and the new century.
James Norton, a Harvard law professor, arrives in Paris, sent by his mother to bring back his brother, Raf, and sister Ellie. Yet what is already likely to be difficult is complicated when Raf’s Jewish lover, Olympe, is found dead in the Seine. James is plunged into the investigation, trying to discover what happened to this captivating woman, and to clear his brothers name when the police turn to him.
While the bare outline of the story could be that of hundreds of crime novel, the setting of Paris Requiem is what makes it different. Not the fact that it is set in Paris, but the Paris of 1899, a different world. So much of it is recognisable as what we know of Paris today – the beautiful architecture along with incidents such as the police chief who refuses to even consider a discuss on the developments in the case until he has had lunch – yet so much is foreign, such as the murky underworld of prostitution and the discrimination against the Jewish population. It is at once familiar and different.
James is a good lead character for this novel, a straightforward American professor sent to sort out his wayward siblings. Given the high spiritedness of other characters, and the vagaries of the city, this solid man is exactly what is needed in a narrator. He keeps the story on course, and ensures that the reader is able to follow developments – which would be much harder if a character like Raf were the lead, as he is always shooting off on madcap hunches.
The characters are one of the issues I had with Paris Requiem. The main characters are easy to keep straight, but the peripheral characters, particularly those who crop up in the investigation such as several doctors, are much harder. They seem to blend together very easily, despite not having similar names. Several times I found myself trying to remember who a character was, especially the various doctors.
Another negative was that I felt the novel went on for too long. There was never really any sections of what you might call “filler”, and I did enjoy it, but it wasn’t until later in the novel that I really found it gripping. Coming in at just over 500 pages in paperback, I’m sure the same story could have been told just as effectively, and without losing any of the evocative feel of Paris, with 100 pages less.
Despite these negatives, Paris Requiem is an exciting and atmospheric read, with Paris of 1899 being as much a character in the story as the people. Appignanesi may have gone on for a bit long, but she doesn’t pad out her novel with unnecessary passages, and Paris Requiem is a novel which should appeal to fans of crime fiction as well as those of historical fiction.
Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi
Published by Arcadia Books, August 2013
Many thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy.
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