“Zero Fail” Tells Some Great Stories, But–

Carol Leonnig has done a good job tracing the roots and the routes of the Secret Service in what’s unfortunately an overly long and very choppy book. 

On the plus side, it’s fascinating to learn that the Secret Service was formed in 1865 in the Treasury Department as a group fighting massive counterfeiting.  It’s also intriguing to see how different presidents and First Ladies over time have placed unique demands and restrictions on the agents protecting them–or treated them in special ways.  Who can forget Barbara Bush giving agents leftovers from White House events or LBJ speaking to his agents while he was on the toilet?  How many of us knew that the Secret Service was so tradition-bound and arrogant that it interfered with their mission to protect the president?

That being said, the book is slow, gossip-filled, and profoundly repetitious as the author explains terms and events way too many times, sometimes even repeating information a few pages apart or less.  The sloppiness is matched by the apparent political bias. Republican presidents (and their wives) seem to get more favorable reporting than the Democratic ones, especially when it comes to the Clintons.  Did Leonnig really need to devote 20+ pages to Monica Lewinsky?  And why is Betty Ford absent and Carter’s presidency barely covered?

Then there’s the way Leonnig shades certain events.  She notes, for example, that when Obama beat Romney he got “slightly more than 51% of the vote” without mentioning the impressive Electoral College vote of 332 to 206.  Or that Obama won 5,000,000 more votes than his opponent.

The drumbeat through this book is bureaucratic infighting, trouble, shocking surprises, scandal, and dramatic, overdue change. The Secret Service is time and time again forced to improve security around the president when there’s an assassination attempt or terror attack. It seems to have been oddly reactive, not very forward-thinking, and often inept in trying to get increased funding from Congress. 

Just as problematic, its leaders worked hard to keep outrageous sexual scandals and problems with racism and sexism under wraps, sometimes lying to Congress.  Chapters where Leonnig describes massive failures by the Security Service and seething intra-agency rivalries have plenty of power and read as if they’re material for a miniseries.

The author has won several Pulitzer Prizes for her reporting in the Washington Post, so perhaps her publisher didn’t think editing and copy editing really mattered: the assumption was that the book would sell no matter how badly it was produced.  That’s too bad, because this could have been a gripping narrative, but at almost 500 pages it feels ponderous and overstuffed. 

As it stands, Zero Fail is undercut by constant repetition, like noting who someone works for twice in two pages, and by annoying descriptions of people that don’t match up: one Secret Service director is six feet four and then six feet three a few pages on.  When an author is that careless about a minor detail, can you really trust her on major ones?

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, The Huffington Post and other publications and several public radio stations in Michigan.  He’s the author of 27 book in many genres, one of which has sold 300,000 copies, and has seen his work appear in fifteen languages.

Sarah Perry’s Debut Novel is Wonderfully Bizarre

 

It’s a blistering summer in London after months of drought. Birds are dying in the street and people are fleeing the city for anyplace cooler. One of them is bookseller John Cole whose business has either collapsed or never been successful from the beginning. 

Unable to bear the heat, Cole leaves London, but he forgets his directions to his brother’s seaside home, has no GPS, gets lost and ends up at a house that is so creepy it might as well be haunted.

That house is dilapidated and inhabited by a motley assortment of people who could be refugees from the drought or former patients of a mental institution–or both.  One of them is obsessed by the possible collapse of a nearby dam and inspects it nude at midnight, another is a pastor who has lost his faith in God–or so he says.  Then there’s the mystery woman whom Cole instantly loathes and someone else who tries corrupting the pastor as if it’s a game.  Everyone there seems to see the world and themselves askew–or have some kind of secret.

The house is filled with strange rooms, strange packages, and these strange people, but the strangest of all is probably the man writing about his experiences among them: Cole.

Wandering from his abandoned car, he’s been cheerfully greeted as if he was expected but soon realizes that everyone’s mistaking him for someone with a similar name. Questions proliferate: What was the peculiar assemblage waiting for? Why does Cole continue to pretend to be someone else? Why not go back to his car and drive home?  What’s causing his crippling migraines? Does he really have a stutter and memory problems? Or is he actually mentally unstable?  Can we believe anything he says or is he hallucinating?  After all, when he comes upon the house that seems hidden in the woods, he says “It seemed to me the most real and solid thing I’d ever seen, and at the same time only a trick of my sight in the heat.”  Cole keeps referencing the heat and his exhaustion as if they’re inimical and malignant forces bent on torturing him.

The author has said she’s delighted that the book raises so many questions and has so many possible interpretations. 

This eerie, hypnotic novel is not as large in scope as Perry’s later books Melmoth and The Essex Serpent, but it’s just as captivating. And she’s as masterful a creepy story teller as Patrica Highsmith and Stephen King, both of whom seem to be just around the corner on every page.  It’s a gripping, haunting puzzle, mixing mystery and surrealism in beautiful proportions.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and three Michigan public radio stations, one of which hosted his author interview show.

“City on Fire” Has Big Aspirations

In my many years as a book reviewer I’ve seen publishers wildly hype their books as if the whole publicity department was on coke, but the jacket copy for Don Winslow’s latest book hits a new high for hyperbole.

His publisher lauds the book as “a towering achievement of storytelling genius” and “a contemporary Iliad.”  I guess they had no choice about the latter label since the author heads each section of the book with an epigraph from that poem.

But City on Fire is not an epic and doesn’t deserve that kind of adulation.  It’s a fairly clichéd story about warring Irish and Italian mobsters that feels as if the author binge-watched The Departed, GoodFellas, The Godfather and The Sopranos (and possibly Casino) before hitting his laptop

Familiarity isn’t the only problem. The characters are pretty one-dimensional and Winslow introduces too many of them too quickly, without enough identifying traits to make them clearly individualized.

One Amazon reviewer tartly observed that too many characters in the book have similar names: “You need a note card to keep track of who is on which side.”  Why didn’t Winslow’s editor suggest more variety?  That would have fixed passages like this one:

“They walk out onto the beach, where Pat’s helping Pasco dig clams out from the pit, and Peter and Paulie and their crew are standing there watching them.”

There’s a seemingly endless series of hits and counter-hits that can make you feel trapped in a violent Groundhog’s Day. And who thought it was a good idea to have several chapters of flashback after the opening chapter?  Or later on, dedicate almost twenty pages to one character’s backstory? 

As for the upper-crust femme fatale Pam who’s the catalyst for escalating violence, she’s way too bland and her Greenwich, Connecticut background too clichéd.  There’s also something comical about her being described as wearing a bikini “that does more to accentuate than conceal” her body.  Aren’t bikinis revealing by definition? Doesn’t the publisher employ copy editors?

When writing about Pam, Winslow can sound like a bad romance novelist.  Describing her transformation from a plain, acne-ridden girl to a beauty, he says this:

“It would be an exaggeration to say that it happened overnight, but it seemed to have happened overnight.  Looking into the mirror to scrub her face, she saw skin that was almost clear, as if some compassionate goddess had come during the night and stripped her of her shame….Over the next few weeks, the sun turned her skin a clear tan, baked her body into fine marble, bleached her ‘mousy’ hair to a golden blond, her eyes an oceanic blue.”

On the plus side, there are intriguing and sometimes humorous details about Rhode Island, a state most Americans don’t know much about.  By far the strongest aspect of City on Fire is the tough guy voice, but it’s not enough to carry the slow-moving and overly talky story for 350+ pages.  The heavy use of the present tense makes the book drag even more. 

In the end, epigraphs from The Iliad do not transmogrify any of the criminals in this book into Greek or Trojan heroes.  They just make everyone seem puny.


Lev Raphael was the longtime crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press before moving to public radio where he had his own interview show.

The Most Famous Woman You Never Heard Of

According to the author of this fascinating biography, the three most talked-about women in the 18th century were Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette and Elizabeth Chudleigh.

Who was she?  A luxury-loving, experience-hungry Englishwoman who was dubbed the “Duchess-Countess” because of having married a duke and an earl.  Rising “from obscure West Country gentry” and though her finances were sometimes uncertain, she eventually moved in the highest circles of London society, was a royal maid of honor–and a bigamist. 

Though her impulsive and rocky first marriage was mostly a marriage in name only, it was never legally ended when she married one of England’s richest men, The Duke of Kingston.  She eventually stood trial for bigamy, complicated by complex legal maneuvering over what she inherited from her second husband.  Where there’s a will, there’s a fray. . . .

Chudleigh’s bigamy trial when she was in her fifties was an international sensation and in England it even overshadowed the growing war with the colonies.  As described in vivid detail, it had all the ceremony and magnetism of a coronation, given how rare it was for a peeress to be on trial in Parliament.  One newspaper reported “Imagination can hardy picture a more solemn, august, and at the same time brilliant appearance, than the court in Westminster Hall.” That trial wasn’t the end of her legal troubles, and readers will be fascinated by them as well as by her taking root in Russia of all places–for a while anyway.

The book offers dazzling and sometimes bizarre insight into a world of stupefying luxury: weird do’s and don’t for those who served royalty, mammoth dinners for a cast of thousands, lavish country and city homes decorated at an unbelievable cost, clothes and jewels worth millions.  It was all part of a highly rarefied lifestyle as decorous on the surface as a minuet, but treacherous if one made a misstep.

In 18th century England, Elizabeth Chudleigh almost always managed to dance that real and figurative dance with envious grace, style, and panache.  She wasn’t just beautiful and decorative: she was smart, educated, multilingual, charming, a wonderful conversationalist, intensely charismatic.  And as famous and controversial as any Kardashian today.

It’s too bad nobody recorded her conversation the way Boswell preserved Samuel Johnson’s bon mots and observations to make them a part of history.  We hear her letters crying for help at various points but don’t get to hear her at her most relaxed and impressive.

She was a woman of great appetites, loved commissioning new homes, loved doing a Grand Tour in Europe when that was still a man’s prerogative.  She was way ahead of her time in making sure she had good publicity–or trying to.  And of course the brightness of her star earned her plenty of detractors and even enemies.  Some of the best moments in this book are the sour comments about her in letters and diaries–you almost feel you’re reading trolls on a Twitter feed.  Their criticism is often sexist but sometimes legitimate as she was impetuous, impulsive and her plans sometimes led to “drama and debacle.”

At one point when she fled England for Rome, where the pope was a supporter, “as far as the locals were concerned, the voluptuous, peculiar, emotional Elizabeth was…a one-woman carnival.” Her travels here and there across Europe, especially when she was ill, are sometimes beyond belief and the author milks them for every juicy detail.  

The book is so filled with so much richness, however, that at times you might feel overwhelmed by names, banquets, vendettas, scandals, legal actions, and above all titles of nobility. It also seems a stretch for the author to keep speculating about whether Chudleigh suffered from borderline personality.

Duchess and Countess Elizabeth Chudleigh lived amazingly large, had amazing adventures, misadventures, famous friends and allies–and famous detractors.  She was a figure of admiration and emulation, and the focus of a unique trial.  This bountiful biography is the perfect material for a miniseries–not least for the grotesque Dickensian frenzy that erupted when Chudleigh died in Paris right before the French Revolution.

Lev Raphael’s first love as an English major was literature of the 18th century.  He is the author of twenty-seven books in many genres and has taught creative writing at Michigan State University where his  literary papers were purchased by Special Archives at MSU’s library.

How James Bond Saved Britain

Have you been wondering who the next James Bond will be after Daniel Craig?  James Norton?  Idris Elba?  Theo James?  The maddening possibilities include Richard Madden, who’s the same height as beefy Daniel Craig, and the slighter and somewhat shorter Tom Holland.  Lots of women have been suggested too, actors like Ruth Negga, Lily James, Emilia Clarke, Claire Foy, Charlize Theron and Thandiwe Newton among others.

Have you exhausted yourself re-watching every single Bond movie with every single Bond?  Even the less-than-stellar films? 

Well, there’s a great book to engross and entertain you till the revelation of the New Bond is vouchsafed to eager theatergoers and streamers: Simon Winder’s hilarious The Man Who Saved Britain.  It’s my second read and I have to report that when I first had this marvelous book in my hands, I was on an author tour across the U.S. and startled passengers on planes and in airports because I kept laughing aloud at his wit.  Luckily this time around, I’m at home and can only alarm my dogs.

Part memoir, part geopolitical analysis, part literary survey, part history, part standup routine, the book explores the role of the wildly popular Bond books in the 1950’s and 60’s a time when Britain was exhausted by WWII, broke,  and losing the empire that had given it a feeling of being a world class power.  Early on in that period, Britain lacked food and fuel and despite having won the war, there was a widespread feeling that the country was a beggar at what was becoming an American feast (with Europe seated below the salt). 

Winder notes that the Bond novels’ “entire purpose can be seen as carrying forward the certainties many felt about the war into the disorienting bitterness of an ever more impotent Britain.” Winder pursues his own purpose of entertaining and skewering through sardonic humor and metaphors:

“The British governments of the 1950s now give out an overwhelming sense of weariness.  This was less true at the time because there was such a hail of events that they appeared quite busy, but it was only the seemingly busy behaviour of a corpse being dragged around by dogs.”

“James Bond can exist only because he is British.  No other country has developed an ideology over so many years that makes ever other nation so available, so pitiful and funny.  This has come from either ruling them or attacking them at various points.”

Bond’s creator Ian Fleming had an intelligence background, was part of the British elite, and created a tough hero who could save the world, or most of it, single-handedly. 

“As the 1960s progressed, Bond’s ability to maim and kill foreigners became a great consolation to millions of embittered and confused people whose traditional world picture had changed with alarming speed.  Bond in fact became in the 1960s pretty much the only British national capable of damaging anybody at all.”

Among many fine distinctions, Winder points out that the novels are far less gadget-focused than the movies and not nearly as flashy, but enough of them make for good, quick and dirty reads.  

And Bond in the novels isn’t as promiscuous as he is in the films, though the view of sex demonstrates what Winder calls “the male fantasy of a permanent, never-aging present in which an infinity of girls from around the world could be sampled in the manner of cigars.”

Winder is a deft analyst of every aspect of the books and the films, some of which he’s seen dozens of times.  So there’s something to ponder, deplore or laugh about on almost every page thanks to a dazzling, chatty, very British raconteur. The Man Who Saved Britain is a must-read for Bond fans and a superb window into a time when Britain was very different than it is today, though lingering animus towards Europe and general griping about its place in the world seem a flame that hasn’t died.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books including 10 crime novels.  He has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and Regents College in London.

(Full disclosure: Winder was one of my editors at St. Martin’s Press in New York thirty years ago and when I first found this book I didn’t know that he was also a writer, a comic, and a Bond aficionado living in London)

𝘿𝙖𝙧𝙠 𝙊𝙗𝙟𝙚𝙘𝙩𝙨 is a Solid Police Procedural

Soon after a body is found at a bizarre and brutal murder scene in London, we discover what the title of this police procedural refers to.  The dark objects are the “overturned and sometimes overlooked” things at a murder that may explain what happened.

However, one of the objects laid out in ritual fashion near the victim is anything but overlooked.  In fact, it’s a blaring message.  This object is a book about how to “read” murder scenes, written by Laughton Rees, the police commissioner’s long-estranged daughter.  Rees is a criminologist with “almost preternatural abilities to observe, process, and recall information.” In her university lectures, she only uses cold cases or solved cases, but she’s pulled into investigating this murder case at an ultra-chic, multi-million-pound home because of that book.

The discovery of her book opens up a whirlpool of grief and misery because years ago, her father led a high-profile investigation whose suspect ended up killing her mother.  And she saw it happen.  Rees blames her father, rejected all his offers of connection and has become obsessive compulsive to cope with her trauma.  She’s a deeply sympathetic character because it seems that her dark past “always catches up with her and swallows her whole, no matter how fast or how fast or how far she runs from it.”

Rees’s “partner” in the investigation is the resonantly-named inspector Tannahill Khan, but he’s not nearly as interesting as her or the sleazy reporter, Brian Slade, who will do anything to get a story with long legs into the tabloid he writes for.

The book’s strength is the detailed and fascinating police work and the focus on Rees’s suffering and attempts to stay stable, though a few things get in the way, including the slow pace.

It seems obligatory these days that any major figure in a mystery or TV crime series is the parent of a troubled teenager and Dark Objects checks off that box in spades. 

The writing could also have been more polished to avoid various kinds of repetition and lines like this one: “Tannahill watches, his brain trying to catch up with what just happened.” Then there’s the awkward and unattractive mix of fonts and spacing at various points. 

None of that truly damages the book and the fault lies with the editing and design, not the author.  A bigger issue is the trick ending with a wildly unbelievable confession. 

All the same, filled with biting social commentary, Dark Objects has enough for police procedural fans to enjoy on a few hot summer nights.

Lev Raphael was the long-time crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of ten crime novels.

The Perfect August Read for Spy Novel Fans

 

In my many years as crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, one of the best mysteries I ever reviewed was Dan Fesperman’s Lie in the Dark, set in war-torn Bosnia. It was brilliantly plotted, beautifully written, and stunning in every possible way.

His latest book is just as thrilling.  Set in the chaos of a crumbling communist East Germany not long after the Berlin Wall has been breached in 1989, Winter Work tells twin stories of an American CIA agent and a former Stasi agent whose lives connect in surprising ways. 

Long before East Germany (the DDR) was falling apart, high-ranking Emil Grimm felt “irretrievably” convinced “that the state he served had become corrupted beyond salvation, and that he had become a willing party to its inevitable decline.”  Having relished his Stasi privileges and having used his own power for revenge, he was filled with remorse–and that’s not his only secret.  Grimm’s personal life involves a bizarre sort of ménage-à-trois which might condemn him in the eyes of even liberal-minded Westerners.

Grimm and a Stasi colleague have hatched a plan to escape from the ruins of their country which hasn’t even reached its 50th birthday, by attempting to trade information to the Americans.  But they’re not the only ones on the market as “CIA people were scurrying all over the Berlin area, seeking to make friends of their old enemies in hopes of prying lose their secrets.”

One of those CIA operatives is young Claire Saylor, tasked with contacting a Stasi agent whose name she doesn’t know and whose information is mysterious but presumably valuable.  Her on-site boss is critical, suspicious and withholding, and Saylor has to rely on a retired agent for backup on each rendezvous.  His spycraft augments hers and they forge a dynamic and entertaining  bond.  Unbeknownst to Saylor, however, the KGB has her and Grimm in its sites and a mission that looked relatively simple becomes hair-raising, dangerous, and bloody.

That’s because in the DDR, someone is always watching: “After more than forty years of training their citizens to keep their eyes one another, one could never take lightly the idea of having your movements go unnoticed in the German Democratic Republic.”

Inspired by real events and deeply researched, Winter Work has everything you expect in a top-notch mystery/thriller: characters to care about, a fascinating setting, and a plot that keeps you guessing and on edge.  Fesperman was a Berlin-based journalist and his knowledge of the city is crucial in making this book both intimate and electrifying.  There aren’t many crime novels I lose sleep over, but this was one of them and I didn’t mind because the rewards were so rich and satisfying.

The short opening paragraph of Winter Work perfectly sets the book’s tone:

In winter, the forest bares its secrets.  Hill and vale are revealed through disrobing trees.  Mud and bone arise from dying weeds.  Woodpeckers, taking notice, pry deeper on leafless limbs and rotting logs.  Their drumbeat goes out like a warning.

Lev Raphael is the author of ten crime novels and seventeen other books in many genres.  A former guest author at Michigan State University, he currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at https://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Sarah Perry’s Amazing 𝙈𝙚𝙡𝙢𝙤𝙩𝙝

In Sarah Perry’s second novel, Melmoth, Helen Franklin is a bland, depressed English translator in her 40s who lives and works in Prague but doesn’t think much of its fabled baroque beauty.  In fact, she has contempt for it. She lives a severely monastic life, denies herself pleasure so profoundly that she rents a room from a nosy, obnoxious elderly woman who mocks her and whom she herself finds gross and grotesque.

Despite her knowledge of German and Czech, which might expand her interests and social life, Franklin’s life in Prague is stupefyingly dull as she works on boring projects like translating technical manuals.  And then something dazzling changes everything.  It’s a manuscript containing a handful of bizarre and even horrific stories, given to her by one of her only Czech friends who seems shattered by having read it. 

Franklin reads the manuscript in pieces and begins to be drawn into its dark labyrinth.  Is she insane?  Is what she experiences really happening or has her undisclosed past finally caught up with her?  And what’s led her to live such a claustrophobic, self-denying life in a city that seems to offer joy, pleasure, and even simple amusement at every turn?

The stories are narratives of encounters with “Melmoth the Witness,” a woman invariably dressed in mourner’s black who wanders the Earth lonely, barefoot, stalking people who have either sunk into despair, done something terrible–or both.  Melmoth’s own crime that led to her being cursed was to deny what other women saw when the stone was rolled away from the tomb of Jesus.  Since that time, she’s been the ghostly, seductive epitome of suffering and pain, inexorably drawn to misery in many forms, leaving bloody footprints wherever she roams.

All the stories, ranging across countries and centuries, focus on human misery and criminality–but this isn’t a crime novel per se.  It’s a new take on the Gothic. You don’t have to know the classic novels by Ann Radcliffe, “Monk” Lewis or Charles Maturin (who’s name checked here) to appreciate the stunning achievement.  

But if you have, you’ll be even more gobsmacked by the dazzling and disturbing mix of the two original strands of Gothic.  There’s Terror Gothic: Is Franklin being followed?  Is someone about to do her harm?  What is the dark secret that torments her? 

And then there’s Horror Gothic in many forms, including a ghastly scene that feels like an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.  Melmoth herself is horrifying, given that everything about her seems both dead and alive at the same time.  She’s a ghost, a zombie, a vampire of sorts, a shape shifter.

Melmoth is a surprisingly short novel overflowing with color, texture, and stories, stories, stories.  The book’s narrator speaks to you directly in a voice that will not be denied, and don’t be surprised if Melmoth makes you wonder if someone is spying on you–with evil intent.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres, has taught creative writing at Michigan State University, and currently edits and coaches writers at writewitoutborders.com.

 

A Mighty Masterpiece on the Move

If every picture tells a story, then a masterpiece, one by Leonardo Da Vinci, must be full of stories that make for an epic, and Eden Collinsworth serves them up in grand style in her thrilling new book What the Ermine Saw.

The painting is the seductive, engrossing, and enigmatic portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, a Renaissance Duke’s mistress, holding, of all things, an ermine. It’s the strangest lapdog you’ve ever seen and has sometimes actually been misidentified over the years as just that, a dog. An ugly dog, too. But there’s nothing ugly about the painter’s execution, his delicacy, his tones that seem as fresh and magical as when they were painted over 500 years ago.

What is she looking at?  And why is she holding an ermine?  The author deftly explores both mysteries.

The painting in modern times has traveled from its base in a Polish museum around the world on loan and been transported with almost unimaginable security given its worth and rarity, one of only fifteen of Leonard’s paintings to survive.  Reading about the security around its movements, you feel like you’re in the middle of an amazing heist movie–though luckily the painting survived intact wherever it went.

How it got to Poland is somewhat mysterious as there’s a gap of almost 250 years in its history, but what’s more mysterious than that is its having survived wars, revolutions and every kind of disaster you can imagine–with only some minor damage to an upper corner.

Along the way and crossing one border after another in Europe, we get stories of love, lust, greed, cruelty, family feuds–plus Nazi madness and obsession.  There are capsule portraits of individuals you’re unlikely to have heard about, some of them heroines like Rosa Valland at the Louvre, who kept track of the vast stores of art the Nazis looted from Jews in France.  Her secret records aided restitution to the original owners and museums after WWII.

The book is a fast, stunning read as we whirl from one century and country to the next, from palaces to hovels, and all the while the small painting shines at the center, a jewel of jewels, a magnet for the very best of humanity and also the very worst.

Collinsworth has written a book that will delight art and history buffs and yes, even fans of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  Because hovering over everything is the spirit of one of the world’s greatest artistic geniuses, a man whose legacy has affected and inspired countless millions.  To turn these pages is to feel connected to his genius, however tangentially, to be graced and possibly even changed.

Lev Raphael has been an art lover since he was very young and has visited dozens of art museums across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  The author of 27 books, he taught creative writing at Michigan State University and currently coaches, mentors, and edits writers in all genres at writewithoutborders.com.

“The Paris Showroom” Was Badly Edited

This historical novel builds on fascinating, horrible facts. While plundering the belongings of deported or imprisoned Jews, rich and poor, the Nazis in Occupied Paris “processed” their goods in three locales, including the Lévitan department store

Anything valuable that officers, their wives or mistresses might want was displayed and the rest sent off to Germany, no matter how prosaic an item it was.  Damaged goods were repaired for the greater glory of the Reich and personal effects like letters and photos were burned.

The 800 prisoners forced to do this labor lived in appalling conditions and the author makes their plight very vivid, but that’s one of the book’s few strengths.

I really wanted to love The Paris Showroom because I’ve read hundreds of books over the years, fiction and nonfiction, about WWII, including books about France during the Occupation. 

But I couldn’t. The dialogue too often seems American and contemporary, with characters saying things like “Whatever” and “True that” and “Beats the heck out of me.”

Then there’s an apartment house concierge who sounds like a 2022 guru or life coach and far too wise.  Worse than that, one of the two main heroines seems unbelievably naive and uninformed: though she’s twenty-one, in 1944 she still doesn’t understand how or why the war started (!) or what the Occupation really means. Her questions can be unbelievably dim and it’s hard to root for someone so out of touch with reality.

Blackwell also gets some things wrong like the French name for The Phony War, that period from September 1939 and April 1940 when there was virtually no fighting on the Western Front.  How could she have missed something so basic?

Another error that’s hard to comprehend from a seasoned author: She says the Jews wore “golden stars.” Not remotely: it was a Yellow Star. I suspect professional historians might find even more problems than I did. 

Though she peppers the book with bits of French for atmosphere, Blackwell for some reason uses the English “huh?” rather than the French “hein?” which you’d get from context. And rather than use “bibelot” she employs the very popular American word from Yiddish “tchotchke”– but doesn’t quite get its meaning right either.  The book is filled with choices like this which you would expect a careful editor or copy editor would have caught.

While there’s a touching family reunion in The Paris Showroom, that and almost everything else in the book is often overshadowed by minute details about fan making.  Don’t ask.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work has been translated into 15 languages and he coaches, mentors, and edits writers at https://www.writewithoutborders.com.