“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.

Jason Bourne in 1815 Paris

You can judge a book by its cover when it’s a C.S. Harris Regency mystery.  The gorgeous covers are elegant, mysterious, evocative and haunting. And that’s the kind of historical mystery Harris writes, fielding a hero I dubbed the “Regency Jason Bourne” a few years ago.

He’s Sebastian St. Cyr, a Byronic English nobleman with some dark family secrets, a brilliant wife, and a powerful Machiavellian father-in-law with whom he’s often been at loggerheads.  A distant cousin of George III who wields tremendous power, this father-in-law is a “ruthless, eerily omniscient man with an enviable network of spies, informants and assassins.” 

But St. Cyr is more than a match for him or any opponent: He’s strong, clever, a gifted sleuth, blessed with supernaturally acute hearing and eyesight, and dangerous when threatened or crossed. 

Remember the scene in The Bourne Identity where Bourne is sleeping on a park bench in Switzerland and suddenly disarms and knocks out two policeman who want to see his papers?  That’s the kind of surprisingly quick, efficient act St. Cyr can perform as easily as tying his cravat.  He may look like a toff but he’s a bruiser when he needs to be.

Our hero is now in Paris searching for the mother who abandoned the family years ago, and that search of course leads to what seems like endless darkness before there’s light.  His journey starts with a shocking and heartbreaking discovery in the first few pages.   Harris is deft at writing opening chapters that grab you without feeling gimmicky and the opening chapter of When Blood Lies may be the strongest and most startling she’s ever written. 

It’s 1815 and France is “a witches’ brew of rumors and swirling threats of conspiracy” after over two decades of “death and heartache, terror and disaster, resentment and fury” due to revolution, war, and roiling regime change.

St. Cyr soon learns that his mother has been deeply enmeshed in France’s current turmoil in ways he cannot guess.  His investigation will require speaking to  a wide cross section of Parisian humanity including royalty, an executioner, the police, an inn keeper and many more.  This diversity is part of what makes the series so fascinating; Harris’s canvas is always large and colorful.

Looming over every interaction and conversation, it seems, is the shadow of Napoleon, seemingly trapped on Elba.  Ditto the echoing cries of mobs lusting for bloody spectacle when thousands of men, women, and children were guillotined during The Terror.

I can’t think of many crime writers who can so perfectly create a scene by appealing to all your senses the way Harris does.  Her fiendish plots, her deeply drawn characters and their tangled relationships are just plain thrilling.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres and was the crime fiction review for the Detroit Free Press for a decade.  He mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com

Why Did I Ditch “The Undoing”?

Because it was boring and obvious. The murderer had to be Hugh Grant. But I kept up with the story since my spouse watched it religiously for the New York wealth porn (clothes!  interiors!).  So I got regular plot reports, and I also read media updates which tried to stir up a frenzy about a lukewarm project that had none of the electricity or coherence of Big Little Lies.

How did I know who the killer was? Well, one way was patterns. I’ve reviewed hundreds of mysteries and thrillers for The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and read many hundreds more on my own over the years. I’ve also written a crime series that’s earned kudos from major national newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

In classic crime fiction, the killer is often the least likely person. In this case, there was a meta piece to the puzzle. When you cast an actor renowned for his supernatural charm, there has to be one major reason: it’s a red herring.  “Hugh Grant?  But he’s such a sweetheart?  He can’t be a crazy killer!”  Well, duh, of course he can.  He has to be.

As for the other suspects? There just weren’t enough of them, enough to be believable, that is. Nicole Kidman didn’t know about the affair so how could it be her? Neither did Donald Sutherland. The son? Puh-leeze. Sylvia? What compelling motive did she have? Grant was the super-obvious choice from episode one and each subsequent episode nailed that coffin shut. 

In addition to the regular plot updates from my spouse, nothing about the snippets I occasionally caught when I wandered into the living room tempted me back to watch the miniseries. Things just didn’t add up. Kidman was a counselor when she looked dressed and groomed for a holiday in Paris staying at The Ritz? Inconceivable. It would be too distracting to the clients, and my psychologist spouse agreed. Kidman took late night walks in New York alone? Were the writers on drugs? My spouse and I both grew up in Manhattan and her solo strolls were totally unreal.

TIME magazine put it quite well: The show was “littered with predictable plot twists, hoary genre clichés, thin supporting characters and relatively little to say.”

But maybe it appealed to Americans in lockdown, the way Depression-era fans flocked to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies.  Too bad the miniseries didn’t have their wit or pizazz.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and has been moderator or panelist at dozens of panels at mystery conferences in the U.S. and abroad.  He’s published 26 books in a wide range of genres and hundreds of short stories, essays, reviews, and blogs.  His work has been translated into fifteen languages.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons, by wajakemek | rashdanothman

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Age of Light is a Powerful, Hypnotic Debut Novel

In my years reviewing books on line, on air, and in print, one of the greatest joys has always been discovering a book by an author I was unfamiliar with, or better still, a debut novel that knocked me out.  The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer is my fiction find of the Spring, a masterful tale of art, ambition, genius, professional jealousy, love and betrayal set mainly in Paris between the two world wars.

The story is told from the perspective of view of Lee Miller, a beautiful young American fashion model-turned-photographer.  She falls in with older surrealist photographer Man Ray, already famous when she meets him in her early 20s. Though he’s American-born, he seems completely at home in the hard-drinking, hard-partying multi-national Parisian milieu of artists pushing boundaries, a milieu which is gossip-ridden and decadent around the edges.

At first she’s just his studio assistant, then she models for him, they move in together and collaborate, and in the end he unexpectedly takes public credit for remarkable, innovative work that’s actually hers.  It’s a stunning reversal because we’ve come to see the world as she sees it and we believe in the power of her art independent of her mentor’s.  Perhaps the most compelling moments are watching Miller frame her subjects, observing her discover Paris as teeming with subjects to be photographed.

Paris is cinematic and mouth-watering in Scharer’s descriptions like this one in which the city seems “built on the concept of form over function, where rows of jewel-toned petits fours gleam in a patisserie’s window, too flawless to eat.” Scharer is also deft at capturing various kinds of obsession, of moments where art, love, and lust fuse:

Always, always he is photographing her.  His camera is a third person in the bedroom, and she flirts for it and for him as he takes her picture.  They print the images together, standing hip to hip in the developing room, her body blooming on the paper while they watch.  This way they get to have the moments twice, the images calling up the feelings from the day before until sometimes they stop what they are doing and make love again, quickly, her hands gripping the sink, the picture forgotten and gone black in the developing tray.

The elegant prose and striking insights made me read The Age of Light  slowly because I kept stopping to reflect on lines and scenes.  Beginning writers could learn a lot from the author about creating setting, mood, character–and how to write a sex scene that doesn’t reduce its participants to an assemblage of body parts.

Scharer’s dialogue rings true and so do her period details and details about photography which I never saw in this light even though I once dated a photographer.  Entering a darkroom with Lee is as much an adventure as when she steps into a secret room filled with opium smokers.  Maybe more so.

The Age of Light is a novel to relish and return to, a book that could easily make you see your own world with new eyes.  It’s perfect for armchair travelers and anyone looking for a book that can transport you to another time and place, immerse you in a whole new reality.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books including the just-released State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Sometimes Planning a Trip is Almost as Good as Going

I’ve been lucky over the years to travel abroad extensively on book tours, but primarily for research or just for fun. I’ve been to France, Belgium, England, The Netherlands, Italy, and Germany many times.

My French and German are good, my Dutch passable, and I can manage “travel Italian” though I know my accent needs work.

Many of these trips fulfilled dreams. I’d always hoped to one day teach abroad and I wound up with a six-week gig in London where the museums blew my mind and I fell in love with the Pimlico neighborhood I was staying in. For years I’d fantasized about visiting Bruges in Belgium and my week there doing research forr a book was unbelievably fulfilling. The food, the historical sites, the museums and churches surpassed my expectations. Oh, and then there’s the beer. I tried local varieties but also beers I’d had at home in bottles, this time they were on tap and tasted so much better. In Bruges I felt like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited: drowning in honey.

I’d spent some time studying Dutch before my trip and found it really made a difference doors when shopping or ordering food or chatting with the B&B owner.  I ahd somehow even picked up a word for “amazing” that the owner, from the French part of Belgium didn’t know: verbazingwekkend.  When I used it, she was delighted.

As backup, my French was very handy and I once even found myself asking directions in German from someone whose accent in Dutch made it very clear where he was from.

I’ve had that same feeling of bliss elsewhere. Like standing on a bridge in Paris at night my first evening there with my beloved spouse, gazing at the buildings glowing with light and watching bateaux mouches glide down the river.  Once, through some scheduling mix-ups on one German tour, I ended up with something rare: free time. It happened to be in Munich and I actually had two entire days there for tourism, slow, fantastic meals in a number of restaurants, and a whole afternoon at the Nymphenburg palace and grounds.

There was a time I thought I might be teaching in Sweden, so along with studying Swedish (which I loved), I spent months researching sites across the southern part of the country for myself and whoever my students would be.  I read deeply about Swedish history and customs, tried out my Swedish on a friend with Swedish family and even studied a Swedish art song in my voice lessons.

The trip fell through for complicated reasons, but I’d been so immersed in what might be happening, watched so many videos, it felt as if I’d actually been there.  For a whole year and a half, I was dedicated to the idea of being in Sweden for a month and a half, and when it didn’t happen, I somehow wasn’t as disappointed as I expected to be.  The same thing has happened with trips to Nice and other cities where I had tremendous fun just planning: studying everything from train schedules to walking tour maps and restaurant menus.  When I plan a trip, I buy books, watch travel videos, study the destination in depth and the immersion is all-consuming.

It’s said that the journey not the arrival matters, but sometimes, for me, the journey doesn’t get father than my iPad–and that’s fine.

How about you?  Have you ever felt like this about a trip that didn’t happen?

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.  He is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.

 

This Flemish Thriller Will Keep You Guessing

Because I’ve had wonderful trips to Flanders in the past few years,I’ve been developing an interest in Flemish crime fiction. I recently discovered and reviewed Styx, a fantastic crime novel by Bavo Dhooge (pronounced Bah-voh Dough-hey). That book led me to another Flemish thriller, Baudelaire’s Revenge by Bob Van Laerhoven. Scandinavian crime writers currently dominate the discussion of European crime writing, but based on just these two marvels, maybe their Flemish cousins are on the way up….

Van Laerhoven’s written a colorful, complex, atmospheric, darkly sensual crime thriller set in a fascinating period.

The book’s events take place primarily during a national catastrophe: the Franco-Prussian war, which is about to devastate Paris. “With the trumpets of war blaring in the background and [Napoleon III] delivering pompous declarations about the grandeur of France, all sorts of things were apparently permissible.” The city has been frantic with real estate speculation, sexual and political corruption, séances, Satanism, and spiritualism. Opium and nude women dancing with snakes in nightclubs are just some of the escapist delights available for the cognoscenti.

A literate ex-army police commissioner who’s a combination of “hermit and whoremonger” is handed a bizarre case. The ghost of poet Charles Baudelaire might be committing grotesque murders—as revenge for his mistreatment while he was alive. It’s a terrific opening conceit. I mean, what author hasn’t imagined savaging his or her critics—more power to you if you can do it from the Beyond. But the criminality has a more improbable source, if you can believe it, and the novel turns on dark, nasty, sublimely twisted secrets—as well it should. This is a book where poetry and perversity reign, with a deft nod to Edgar Allen Poe.

The police commissioner is aptly, ironically named: Lefèvre (the fever), and the author has fun with other character names. Lefèvre has previously gone up against many insane killers, has a “bloodhound reputation,” bears “the scars of pitiless duels,” and is obsessed with sex and death. He’s not the only feverish character in the book: le tout Paris seems on the verge of hysteria, a breakdown, or revolution. And over everything, the increasingly gruesome murders drift like the foul miasma of a sewer….

Baudelaire wrote that travel teaches bitter lessons (amer savoir, celui qu’on tire de voyage), but for fans of international crime fiction, travel via thrillers only broadens our horizons. And as Laerhoven’s poetry-quoting, lust-driven inspector says, “murder sensitizes people to the mysteries that lurk behind everyday life.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take creative writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016