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Crackling crime in Paris
The First Hugo Marston Novel
By Mark Pryor
280 pp. Seventh Street Books
Reviewed by Eric Petersen
A new voice in mystery fiction comes calling with his first novel and the first in a series of mystery novels featuring a charismatic protagonist destined to win legions of fans. Hugo Marston is the head of security at the United States embassy in Paris, but he's not your typical diplomat.
The middle-aged Hugo is a big, tough Texan who wears cowboy boots (the author is an Englishman who lives in Texas) and packs a gun. He's also fluent in French and adores Paris. He possesses impeccable manners, a formidable intellect, and a passion for rare books.
Hugo has two best friends. One is Max, an elderly bouquiniste - he sells books at a small kiosk on the streets of Paris near the Seine. Unlike most bouquinistes, Max specializes in rare books for the collector. The novel opens with Hugo buying two volumes from Max - one a first edition Agatha Christie novel, the other a rare copy of Arthur Rimbaud's classic poetry collection, Un Saison En Enfer - A Season In Hell.
Max agrees to sell Hugo both books for a thousand euros. Not having that much money on him, Hugo goes to the bank, even though Max offered to let him take the books now and pay him later. After their transaction is completed, the old man is accosted then abducted at gunpoint by Nica, apparently a hoodlum whom Hugo suspects is running a protection racket.
Unable to help Max for fear of Nica shooting him, Hugo reports the abduction to the police - and is stunned when the detective tells him that two witnesses claimed that Max went willingly with Nica. The police choose to believe these lying “witnesses” rather than Hugo, a fellow law enforcement officer.
With the American ambassador unable to help, Hugo takes it upon himself to investigate Max's kidnapping. Before he took the job at the embassy, he was a criminal profiler for the FBI. He won't be working on this case alone; his other best friend, Tom Green - a fat, foulmouthed, semiretired CIA agent - is there to help.
When Hugo gets the books Max sold him appraised, he's stunned to discover that the Rimbaud volume is a signed first edition dedicated to the author's mentor and lover, the poet Paul Verlaine. Why would an expert bibliophile like Max sell such a rare book - one of only four signed copies known to exist - for a tiny fraction of its actual worth?
As he continues his investigation, Hugo crosses paths with Claudia Roux, an investigative reporter doing a story on drug trafficking in France, which has become a serious problem. Hugo and Claudia become lovers, causing him to run afoul of her father.
Claudia neglects to mention that her last name is actually Roussillon, and that she comes from a very wealthy old aristocratic family. Her father Gerard - who is openly gay - doesn't care who she sleeps with, but insists that she can only marry a nobleman, and Hugo is beneath her class.
Just when things seem like they can't get any worse, Max the bookseller is found floating in the Seine. The cause of death turns out to be a massive cocaine overdose. Refusing to believe that the overdose was an accident or suicide, Hugo vows to bring Max's killer to justice.
As the body count continues and more bouquinistes turn up floating in the Seine, the case takes Hugo on many twists and turns, involving warring drug gangs, corrupt cops, assassins, Max's surprising past as a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, and the ghosts of Nazi collaboration that still haunt France nearly seventy years after her liberation by the Allies.
What makes The Bookseller compulsively readable is its unorthodox narrative - crackling hard-boiled detective fiction seasoned with richly detailed impressionistic portraits of Paris in the winter and the character of the French. The novel opens with this paragraph:
The largest of Notre Dame's bells tolled noon just as Hugo reached the end of the bridge, the brittle air seeming to hold on to the final clang longer than usual. He paused and looked across the busy Paris street into Cafe Paris. The yellow carriage lights above its windows beckoned as dim figures moved about inside, customers choosing tables and waiters flitting around like dancers.
Here's another great impressionistic paragraph:
Hugo put his shoulder to the door and stepped into a small room filled with trails of smoke that rose past the blank, tired faces of men who stared into cups of coffee, beer, and shot glasses of amber liquid. A scarred stone floor and the heavy elbows of the bar's patrons made every one of the dozen or so tables wobble, though no one was moving much. Above Hugo's head dark beams striped the low ceiling, the plaster stained yellow from a hundred years or more of cigarette and cigar smoke.
For mystery fans and book lovers, this is a novel to savor and a great start to a new series of mysteries. Bon appetit!