"The Disappearance at Pere-Lachaise" by Claude Izner: Book Review

"The Disappearance at Pere-Lachaise" by Claude Izner
Minotaur, 306 pp., $24.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James

The Gay Nineties are dawning upon Paris, which has recently celebrated its Exposition, including the opening of the Eiffel Tower.

Nevertheless, in a blast of deja vu from the then-present, now past, there's an influenza outbreak, and some 800,000 investors have lost their shirts in the first attempt to dig an interoceanic canal through the then-Colombian province of Panama.

However, if a body's able to pull a cart through the streets of Paris, mongering a few apples here, a clutch of violets there, then one may gather enough centimes to purchase a heel of bread and a steaming bowl of soup, then flop on a dry mattress.

At 18 Rue des Saints-Peres, bookseller Victor Legris is faring much better, having earned his money the old-fashioned way: through inheritance. HIs shop is a crossroads of academia, the haute monde, and belles lettres. Even Anatole France pops by, along with devotees of the latest rage: the detective novel.

As if culture didn't already abound at No. 18, a learned Japanese Anglophile, Kenji Mori, resides with Legris, serving as a father figure and sometimes-heard adviser.

Also in quarters is a redheaded Russian caricaturist with aspirations toward higher art, Tasha Kherson, livening up the rooms above the shop, but only because her flat is temporarily occupied.
Therein lies the impetus for the story-- Monsieur Legris is alerted to the disappearance of his latest lover emerita, Mme Odette de Valois, by her naively provincial young maid, Denise Le Louarn.

Monsieur Legris installs Denise in Tasha's walk-up (six flights), while poking around in Odette's creepy apartment, an homage to her recently deceased husband, Armand, a geologist who succumbed to yellow fever while working on the canal.

Odette's fixation on death has led her to spiritualists and mediums, who are as much the rage on the Continent as they are in late-Victorian England. At Pere-Lachaise cemetery, where she vanishes, Victor encounters an elderly veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, Pere Moscou, who knows more than he can articulate about Odette because he's far from able to accurately express his jumbled thoughts, still reliving scenes of battle, retreat, and lost causes.

Meanwhile, Denise disappears. The action escalates nicely in this second Victor Legris mystery (the first being "Murder on the Eiffel Tower") by Claude Izner (a pseudonym for co-authors and sisters Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefevre, both secondhand booksellers in Paris).

This is the sort of story that couldn't take place in any other locale, and the authors' depiction of Paris in the early spring of 1890 is the biggest drawing card for this novel, although the plot is enticingly crafted, with its bountiful touches of fin-de-siecle detective writing. Furthermore, "Izner" supplies an array of literary tidbits by means of the bookshop, while Legris, Mori, and Legris' young assistant, Joseph Pignot, make up an inviting principal roster of characters, with Tasha as a delightful love interest and foil to Legris' stubborness and foibles.

Also noteworthy are the many supporting players, among them Joseph's mother, Euphrosine, and Legris' concierge, the broom-wielding Mme Ballu. One hopes to read more of Mlle Eudoxie Allard, an alluring secretary at Le Passe-Partout newspaper who moves on to the Moulin Rouge. Indeed, this is mystery novel whose overall appeal owes much to its hundreds of well-placed details.

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