Murder in Montparnasse: A Mystery of Literary Paris

Written by Howard Engel
Review by Nicole Leclerc

This mystery is set in 1925 Montparnasse, where it is possible to meet most of the artists who would later become icons – Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein. This is what happens to Michael Ward, a Canadian journalist stationed in Paris. A serial killer is targeting young female models. When one of his friends is murdered, though, Michael doubts she is a random victim and suspects a link to the writing of a roman à clef.

Despite the attraction of the setting, this book was a major disappointment. Its main problems are continuity, credibility and an overabundance of facts. The tenuous mystery winks in and out, disrupting the reader’s focus. Nothing much happens. A group of people drifts from bar to bar, and when there is some action, it defies plausibility. Although the book is written in the first person, it has a detached, documentary feel that makes it impossible to connect to the characters, who are too numerous and superficially drawn.

The historical aspects are well researched but read mostly as a rather boring litany of artists, landmarks, bars, streets and drinks. The descriptions are vivid: “He had a face that hadn’t been lived in, the male equivalent of a virgin at a bacchanal.” However, they fail to perk up the general flatness of the book.

Engel should have abided to his own advice on writing: “You make your sentences experience the thing you are talking about rather than let them simply describe what is going on from a distance. Your narrator is close to the story, but you must not leave him a cipher. Make him opinionated, smother him in the action.” Unfortunately, he did not.