Picture the Scarlet Pimpernell as a woman--dealing with murder before the Terror made heads roll...
It's the eve of the French Revolution. Fiscal crisis and social tensions brew. Anne Cartier, a headstrong young vaudeville actress at Sadler's Wells company in London hears terrible news. Her stepfather, the actor Antoine Dubois has mysteriously died in Paris. The official verdict: he killed his mistress, then himself. Anne enlists the aid of Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin and his adjutant Georges Charpentier of the royal highway patrol. But, in her search for truth, Anne befriends a deaf, illiterate seamstress with a talent for puppetry who gives Anne an entre into the Palais Royale. Her quest further confronts her with an amateur theatrical society of dissolute young noblemen; a tormented female botanist; a sadistic aesthete; a rich, well-connected financier; a professional assassin.
Unravelling the mystery tests Anne's nerve as well as her remarkable acrobatic skills. At a critical juncture in the investigation, she acts the part of an exotic queen in Indian costume at a reception. Priceless Indian jewelry disappears. Its owner, an aged count is murdered. And a venal police inspector threatens to derail Anne's project.
The story rises to a violent climax in a vast limestone caveoutside Paris where the city has begun to bury its dead. Historian O'Brien's debut novel is elegantly written as befits the times and explores borders between countries and between layers of society. Few have chosen to place a crime novel here. O'Brien makes us wonder why.
The bar for historical mysteries has just been raised, thanks to this masterly debut novel. Set in late 18th-century London and France, this is the story of a young woman's search for the truth in a society where appearance is all. Sadler's Wells actress Anne Cartier is anxious to leave London, where a rejected suitor threatens her bodily harm. She moves to Paris to continue her second career working with the deaf, and to investigate the reported murder/suicide of her much-loved actor stepfather, Antoine Dubois. The affair of the queen's necklace has distracted the Paris police from fully investigating the deaths of Antoine and his actress friend, but Anne finds evidence of the victims' having been involved in something much larger than a lovers' squabble. She seeks the aid and protection of Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin of the royal highway patrol, who's looking into a series of thefts from the chateaux surrounding Paris. Their attempts to find answers are hampered by not only the criminals but also a system corrupted by venality and the right of noble privilege. At the same time, their own tenuous relationship is threatened by the stratified society of patronage and privilege in which they live. This is a truly wonderful first novel elegantly written, complex in both its characters and its plotting, and wearing the author's scholarship and erudition lightly. O'Brien, a retired history professor, deserves a strong following both among mystery readers and readers of novels in the tradition of Charles Palliser. This is great stuff; please, may we have more?
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Poisoned Pen Press
May 30, 2002
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