Murder in Montparnasse
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.