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Murder in Montparnasse:
Penzler Pick, January 2001: Howard Engel's Murder in Montparnasse, an intrigue-filled novel set in the Left Bank's glorious heyday in the 1920s, joins Stephen Glazier's The Lost Provinces and William Wiser's Disappearances as an outstanding example of this minigenre. Engel, an award-winning Canadian writer best known for his Benny Cooperman mystery series, makes his narrator a fellow countryman, Mike Ward. An expatriate supporting himself as a translator for a press agency on the Right Bank, Ward prefers to spend his time amid the colorful personalities who are permanent fixtures at the sidewalk cafes of the Left. One of his first acquaintances, J. Miller Waddington, is a sometime boxer and bullfight aficionado who's come to the City of Light intending to write the Great American Novel. Who does that remind you of?
Engel offers other characters both in and out of fictional disguise, and figuring out just who's who provides part of the entertainment value. The Fitzgeralds are on the scene, of course (as Wilson and Georgia O'Donnell), while another famous couple of the era, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, walk through the action as themselves.
But there's another celebrated figure on hand who, in every way possible, is distinctly out of place. Jack the Ripper, or at least a killer who resembles that British fiend, is stalking Montparnasse, the bohemian quarter of the city, and his knife has already left behind five corpses. Not prostitutes, as in London, the victims have been artists' models, although one dead woman was an up-and-coming young painter. Fear is in the streets and starting to seep behind tightly closed shutters, and even in the brightly lit brasseries and bistros there is only a hollow feeling of safety.
While others of his acquaintance watch and wait with the fatalism of the poets and artists that they are, Mike Ward keeps his journalist's instincts about him. It occurs to him to wonder, after the latest slaying, if someone with a grudge against a former lover might not take lethal initiative advantage of the cover provided by the unknown Jack de Paris in order to commit murder and avoid suspicion. One of the best passages, for those keeping an eye out for the celebrities in these pages, is the section where Ward discusses his theories with an engaging character--only very lightly disguised--based on the legendary crime novelist Georges Simenon.
Howard Engel has obviously enjoyed the jigsaw aspects of arranging this quasi- historic mise en scène, and so will those readers whose taste runs both to pastiche and pastis. --Otto Penzler [via]