The Crumpled Letter (Belle Epoque Mystery)

Written by Alexandra Maldwyn-Davis (trans.) Alice Quinn
Review by Gini Grossenbacher

This Belle Époque mystery, first published in France, is now translated and available through AmazonCrossing. It features the dual protagonists, Lola Deslys, a courtesan, and her assistant, Miss Fletcher, a disgraced English governess. Early in the novel, they discover the lifeless body of an Italian chambermaid, Clara Campo. They find her under a bush in the gardens of the Hotel Beau Rivage in Cannes. She reeks of absinthe. Lola knows the girl, and she convinces Miss Fletcher and her friend, author Guy de Maupassant, that this must be murder. The plot thickens when the autopsy discovers the chambermaid was pregnant, and she had been poisoned. Despite their early suspicions of Amedée, her boyfriend, a much more lethal suspect emerges.

The novel succeeds in its lovely rendering of Cannes in 1884. The author captures the class struggle between the gentrified and those who have fallen from grace. Anna, the little orphan who comes to live with Lola and Miss Fletcher, exemplifies the people landing on the bottom rung of society, those who are ill, young, or defamed. Women like Lola and Miss Fletcher have to struggle day to day in order to survive, never knowing if the house they are living in will be repossessed, causing all in their employ to fear losing their status along with them. On the other hand, the novel tends to lose the thread of the mystery within all the side plots that occur. I found myself having to reread portions of the book to figure out where the mystery itself was hiding. Despite that, the book’s merits reside in the depiction of the ways in which the classes mixed with one another.