I went to the library a few weeks ago and finally picked up a book that is NOT a Mary Russell series book by Laurie R. King, called The Bones of Paris. I got a few pages in when I realized that it was, sadly, the second book featuring the hard-boiled American Harrison Stuyvesant and the incredibly damaged Bennett Grey.
So, I went back to the library and picked up the first book, Touchstone. Because, you know, you can't read a series out of order...
The Mary Russell series is the first thing I recommend when anyone asks if I have anything good to read. I love those books, I love the character development, and since I LOVE the writing, I hoped that I would also enjoy these books. (I do also very much enjoy her other series about Kate Martinelli.)
Harris Stuyvesant is an operative in the fledgling FBI in 1926. He travels to England to try to track down a hunch - a serial bomber operating in the US whom he believes may be an up-and-coming Labour leader in the lead up to the General Strike that was threatened in England at the time. (By the way, one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels also deals with the build up to this same strike. Totally real event. But I digress...) He gets a lot of runaround throughout the British police/secret services, but eventually runs into a scary guy named Carstairs, who suggests that he talk to a man who barely survived The Great War, with some rather special abilities. Grey can basically sense the disharmony in a person when they are lying, as well as having hyper-sensitivity to smells and sounds. Cartstairs had a pretty awful plan for him after the war, before Grey eventually came apart, revolted, and went to hide out in the country. Being around people and all the constant disharmony was physically painful and intolerable to him for many years.
Grey and Stuyvesant both mistrust Carstairs, but the suspected bomber is dating Grey's former fiancee, and Grey's sister is her best friend and also works with their cause. Grey would like to test himself in public a bit and agrees to introduce Stuyvesant to the main players during a country weekend at the former fiancee's family manor.
Harris falls in love at first sight with Sarah Grey, which complicates matters some as he's trying to operate undercover, and needs to use her to get close to Bunsen, the suspected bomber.
I admit that I didn't love this book quite as much as King's other works. It read like a very, very long background file with little action. I liked the characters, and they do wind up fairly well developed because of all the backstory. However, there was a lot of discourse and discussion, political history, the conflict between Carstairs and Grey that is all intellectual, leaving the story dragging more than a little.
The book does end with a good action scene, and a believable but not totally satisfying ending. I almost always enjoy reading books between the World Wars, and the characters made it interesting enough, but it wouldn't necessarily be on my must-read list.
But then I went ahead and picked up The Bones of Paris.
Montmarte from the Musee d'Orsay
This book picks up 3 years later, in roaring 1929 Paris. It takes place within the art and literature scene of Paris at the time, so it's littered with true-life characters.
Harris has quit the FBI (he and J. Edgar just don't see eye to eye...) and is operating as a private detective throughout Europe. He's a little down on his luck when he is hired by an American to find his niece who's gone missing - someone Harris had run into on the Cote d'Azure previously. The American is willing to pay handsomely, so off he goes to Paris to track her down.
She (Phillipa - Phil or Pip, depending on whom he's talking to) had gotten very involved in the outre Paris art scene, and while investigating, Harris runs across some photos that are maybe supposed to be shocking "artsy" death scenes, but that he suspects may be the work of a real serial killer. He finds a Parisian police detective who may agree and is willing to help, but Harris also sends the photos to Grey for verification. Unfortunately, Grey can tell that they are all too real.
The noble, rich patron of some of these artists has hired a new assistant, none other than Sarah Grey. Harris is concerned for her safety.
The mystery aspect and overall pacing of this outing were much more to my taste. Grey is more of a side figure (though I wouldn't have minded more of him), and with the background that we got in the overly explanatory first book, I was able to accept his abilities and just get on with the solving of the mystery. The characters continue to develop in believable and real ways. Harris is flawed, but I very much enjoy him. The smattering of real people are fun to read about and yet not too intrusive.
There is a lot more action in this book, and the mystery is satisfying, both in keeping you guessing and in the solution. The setting is well-researched and fun to read about. There is more "showing" than "telling" about what's going on.
I would very much recommend this book, and hope to see more of THIS Stuyvesant and Grey. But I think it would be hard to understand without the first - and yet it's hard to fully recommend the first... Tough dilemma.
Paris is a very cool place to visit, even in a book, and due to Ms. King's scene-setting abilities, it was very fresh in mind during the tragedy this week,
Overall, I'm glad I read them, particularly since I enjoyed the second one so much.