Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: Murder amid the books – an American in Paris

Review of: The Paris Librarian
Author: Mark Pryor
Publisher: Seventh Street Books
Source: Purchase, Half Price Books at Dallas Book Festival
Grade: B+

Texan (by way of Hertfordshire, England) Mark Pryor adds a locked room murder mystery to top all locked room mysteries to the latest in his Hugo Marston series with The Paris Librarian. Wealthy American ex-patriate Paul Rogers has a posh Paris apartment, a beautiful girlfriend, and a cushy job as head of a private library, where he’s holding a special book from the library’s sale for the benefit of his bibliophile friend, Hugo Marston.

Marston also happens to be head of security for the American Embassy and an ex-FBI agent. When Rogers fails to turn up with the book, is it Hugo’s cop instincts or booklust that push him to force an opening of the locked room in the library’s basement where Rogers has spent the morning writing?

The book is forgotten, however, when Rogers’ assistant produces his own key, to find Rogers dead. With no signs of violence, the initial presumption is that Rogers succumbed to a possible heart attack. But to Hugo’s eyes, something doesn’t look right. At least he can plead unfamiliarity with the French requirements for reporting death long enough to call the one person who’s always helped him in the past when dealing with the deaths of fellow countrymen on French soil – Lieutenant Camille Lerens.  

Camille, however, works for the Brigade Criminelle, the police division responsible for investigating the city’s most serious crimes. It takes all Hugo’s charm to persuade her to visit the scene of what seems most likely to be a natural death. Fortunately for Hugo’s and Camille’s friendship – and their professional reputations – an investigation reveals that the actual cause of Rogers’ death was an exotic poison – curare.

Unfortunately for Hugo’s reputation, the poison is only toxic when introduced into the victim’s blood stream, and there’s no mark on Rogers’ body that would have allowed the poison to penetrate his system.

Worse, the library’s security cameras reveal that no one other than Rogers himself entered the locked, windowless room in which he was found. True, his assistant left a book Rogers had requested for research in his writing outside the room, but the ever-helpful security cameras show only Rogers opened the door to retrieve the book, and then only after the assistant’s departure. The police briefly consider the possibility of a bizarre suicide, but the absence of punctures or scratches on the body rules out even that. So how did Paul Rogers die?

Mark Pryor
For a brief while, it appears that the library is dogged with bad luck, when a janitor also suffers a heart attack, but is revived by a helper’s knowledge of CPR.

Red herrings swarm through Pryor’s tale, the best being a journalist’s pursuit of an aging actress who served as a spy during the World War II occupation of France, and is rumored still to possess the dagger she used to silence a too-persistent Nazi officer.

Hugo’s friendship with the comely journalist – and her equally comely girlfriend – as well as a lovely French girlfriend of his own, give Pryor’s hero a chance to revel not only in Paris but other regions of the French countryside. I found myself checking off places I want to see, or revisit, in France, much as I did for London during the reading of Deborah Crombie’s Garden of Lamentations, reviewed at this site yesterday.

Just as American-born Crombie revisits the British Isles frequently to update her knowledge of the setting, Pryor is also a frequent visitor to France. Otherwise, he divides his time between writing and his own crime-fighting duties as an assistant district attorney for Travis County, Texas.

Shades of Agatha Christie-like poison know-how, a dash of intrigue and psychological insight added to Pryor’s knowledge of his locale add up to a fun add up to a cozy with just enough gore to satisfy the more hardcore mystery fans. But why, oh why, didn’t anybody talk to the janitor? Or the workman who might have been able to identify a possible subject making his (or her) escape after a subsequent murder? And will Hugo ever stop playing coy about what he does with the gun Pryor hints he carries?

(Tomorrow I tackle a book in a completely different genre, by another Texan, Dallas newspaper editor turned novelist Michael Merschel’s Revenge of the Star Survivors.)

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