Wednesday, May 14, 2014

‘Murder in Pigalle’ (Book Review)

Back in March (2014), mystery writers Rhys Bowen and Cara Black made an appearance at the Alhambra Civic Library for a panel discussion about their work. Hearing Black talk about her latest book, Murder in Pigalle, piqued my interest. I decided to give the fourteenth novel in her Aimée Léduc series a try.

The book is set in Quartier Pigalle, a district in Paris historically known for its wild nightlife – clubs, brothels, and the like. (Think Moulin Rouge…I mean literally. That’s where it’s located.) Private Investigator Aimée Léduc is pregnant and should be taking it easy, as her hormonal behavior proves, but she can’t stop worrying about her young friend Zazie. The thirteen-year-old was in the middle of her own investigation behind another girl’s sexual assault when she disappears. Aimée is convinced this is more than a mere coincidence even if the police are not, and finds herself on the trail of a serial rapist and murderer. The closer she gets, the more someone tries to shut her up.

Now when I read fiction, the most important thing to me is whether the story is engaging. A strong beginning and a heart-wrenching plot lured me in. Really, who can’t help but sympathize with Aimée’s desperation to find this dear girl? I finished Murder in Pigalle in about four days, a quick read for me especially since it was final exam week for my students. It delivered well on the excitement. However, the story seemed disjointed, fluttering from here to there. Although dead ends, false leads, and side plots make for a realistic story, in the end I felt like the really important characters weren’t given equal time. The final resolution seemed to come out of nowhere and was more than a little disappointing.

I also think Black could improve on how she portrays French people. The characters seemed too American, and used too many “Americanisms” in their dialogue. (Do Europeans really ever say “Eurotrash”?) The history lessons felt like an attempt to cover up the missing presence of a distinctive culture. The insertion of random French words, although nowhere near as obnoxious Etiquette Grrls’ habit, didn’t add the authenticity that I suspect the author was going for. When I read authors like Agatha Christie and Alexander McCall Smith (of No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency fame), I really feel as if I’m in a different time and place. With Murder in Pigalle, I never once felt as though I were in France, and the promise of that experience had been part of its initial attraction for me.

As for the main characters, I’m entering the series so late in the game, so I don’t have the benefit of knowing their past histories that might make sense of their behavior at times. Aimée Léduc seems to be a great PI. She’s adventurous and willing to risk her own neck (not to mention her unborn child) to solve this case. She reminds me of Nora Charles (of The Thin Man) walking around with a prop dog, although her infatuation with designer labels gives her a lot less class. What bugs me about Aimée Léduc is that for her “the ends justify the means.” That is, breaking the law herself is okay if it means convicting her suspect or saving her own skin. Her selfishness is evident in how she actively shuts out her baby’s father, who’s clearly interested in having a relationship with the child. Instead she eats up the slavish devotion of her business partner René Friant, who seems to be more of a liability than an asset for her detective agency.

Let me psychoanalyze for a bit. René’s short stature and inability to bed the heroine makes him envious of other men blessed with good looks and active sex lives. SPOILER ALERT: His eagerness to play the hero, protecting the helpless female population from sexual predators, leads him to threaten and attack an innocent man rather than carefully questioning him first. Things get even worse when René meets the actual rapist. It should be common knowledge that, when someone has effectively been “taken out” and is no longer a threat, it’s cruel and excessive to continue to apply force. René kicks the subdued suspect…in the groin…twice. Clearly he has serious problems where his masculinity is concerned.

Where does this leave Murder in Pigalle? Well, it well-represents its genre: a fun mystery novel to curl up with at night. I was able to enjoy the story because I just accepted the characters for who they were, flaws and all. While I don’t see myself becoming a fan of the series, I might be willing to pick up another volume sometime just because I feel like it.