Despite its sinister title, STRANGLED IN PARIS, a crime novel by Claude Izner, the pseudonym of two French sisters, Lilliane Korb and Laurence Lefevre, is as bonbon of a story filled with luscious tidbits on the architecture, art, and notables, of nineteenth century Paris. In the course of tracking down the murderer of a velvet masked, expensively dressed working class woman, newly married bookkeeper Victor Legris and his brother-in-law Joseph Pignot also search for the meaning of the the black unicorn engraved on the pendant she had been wearing at the time of her death. Two other murders follow in rapid succession, but this time the victims belong to the upper class. All they seem to have in common, is their membership in the Black Unicorn Society the goal of which goal is to find the philosopher’s stone.
As if this were not intriguing enough, a stellar cast of characters orbits the Legris-Pignot duo–Victor’s wife, the enchanting painter Tasha, his partner Kenji Mori, Joseph’s termagant of a mother, Euphrosine, Joseph’s wife, Iris and a group of eccentric book lovers. They take the reader on a tour of streets where he might rub shoulders with Zola, Eric Satie, Claude Debussy and Stephane Mallarme. They serve up tidbits on concerts attended by the novelist Huysman, whose stepfather was part-owner of a Parisian book-bindery. This is no surprise. Besides being experts in nineteenth century Paris, Korb and Lefreve are bouquinistes, second-hand booksellers on the banks of Seine. The also seem to know the Parisian art scene inside out. Tasha’s vernissage, for example, takes place at the gallery of Deyfusard Tadee Natanson where one can imagine Misia Sert, Natanson’s wife and her coterie, which included Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir Monet, Redon, Gide, Proust, Faure,and Diaghilev. Her friends, the Nabis painters Vuillard and Bonnard were in attendance.
Art, history, humor are only a few of the delights of STRANGLED IN PARIS. The way it breaks so many of the rules urged upon English-speaking crime fiction by self-described arbiters of literary taste gives it a nostalgic flavor, as if the sister Korb and Lefevre were chaneling Dumas and Zola with their lovely long sentences and their lavish use of the passive tense.Their opening sentence is, “The storm was battering the Normandy coast” rather than the prescribed “The storm battered the Normandy coast.”The crime does not happen in very first pages, as recommended by so many how-to write a mystery formulas. It meanders through Normandy where a sailor rescues the victim of a shipwreck, moves on to Paris until, at page 35, poor Loulou meets her doom. What follows is a convoluted plot that brings in the appalling social conditions of a century when industrialization brought prosperity to some without lifting the masses from dire poverty
There is social mobility for some. Euphrosine Pignot, for example, is a former vegetable seller at Les Halles, recently elevated to resident-in-chief of the Legris-Mori-Pignot household, “An imposing thickset woman, her hair drawn into a tight bun bristling with pins, appeared at the door armed with a ladle.”
‘Incomparable Aphrodite, guardian of this fairy castle, might I humbly request an interview with Monsieur Legris on a private matter?’” Thus, on page 43, painter Maurice Laumier detaches Victor Legris and Jojo Pignot from their book selling duties so that they can find out who did away with the beautiful Loulou of the velvet mask.In the course of their inbvestigation they come face to face with horrors middle and upper class Parisian usually ignore.
There are plenty of social ills in nineteenth century Paris–abortions are illegal but there is no safety net for impoverished mothers and their children, working conditions are appalling for those who labor fourteen hours a day at ateliers de couture, making fancy frocks for the rich, housing conditions for the poor are dismal, “Two identical buildings…formed the outer edge of a large area in which some crazed architect had piled up flimsy shacks, mouldy sheds, and a heap of worm eaten buildings whose windows were gaping holes open to the elements and whose roofs were worn away by wind and rain. The unpaved streets gradually disintegrating, leaving large craters filled with mud and rubbish. This cramped and dirty cesspit was home to gaggles of pale children, mangy dogs, prostitutes, pimps, the unemployed, old men and tramps.” Cruelty to animals–a reliable indication of a dysfunctional society–is rampant. Description of the suffering inflicted on animals at an abattoir is enough to turn anyone into a vegetarian.
STRANGLED IN PARIS flows past a somber background but Korb and Lefevre have such a deft touch that just like Paris itself, the story”fluctuat nec mergitur–it is tossed by the waves but it does not sink.” Sometimes, the sisters’ Gallic humor is barbed enough to skewer the pretentious of a xenophobe who thus justifies France’s imperialistic aspirations in Asia, “The Celestial Empire and its satellites have no real language– so let’s give them one.” Often, it is based on lighter material, such as why famous restaurant is called Le Lapin Agile. Rich as a Paris-Brest, this is a book to enjoy at any season, but in the dog days of summer it is a cool and sweet as a dip in the Seine.