Monday, March 25, 2013

Amateur heroes

The year is 1890 and in Paris there is a womanizing bookseller named Victor Legris who solves murder mysteries on the side. At about the same time in London, a gentleman named Charles Lenox makes elaborate plans for international travel, but he, too, finds himself distracted by murder. The two men, very different yet with much in common, are the heroes of two popular series of mysteries written respectively by Claude Izner and Charles Finch. I have just finished reading the second Victor Legris novel, The Disappearance at Pere Lachaise (2003), and the first Charles Lenox novel, A Beautiful Blue Death (2007).

The disappearance in Disappearance is that of a recent widow named Odette de Valois, who vanishes in a cemetery. Her maid comes to Victor for help because she knows he was Odette's former lover and because she has heard of his success solving another mystery. Victor doesn't take the missing Odette very seriously until both the maid and a cemetery worker are found dead. It finally dawns on him that something sinister is afoot. The solution has to do with jewelry, art and the Panama Canal.

The death of a different maid causes Lady Jane to enlist the services of her lifelong friend, Charles Lenox, to find out what happened to her. Finch's title, A Beautiful Blue Death, refers to the rare and expensive poison used to kill the maid, who since leaving Lady Jane has gone to work for the man who heads the Royal Mint and who has somehow decided that his own home is a safer place for the Mint's treasure than the Mint itself. So there seems to be a motive for murder, but is it the true motive? And why kill the maid if the killer is after the money?

As is typical of murder mysteries featuring amateur sleuths, especially historical murder mysteries, the police in both Paris and London are incompetent, as well as hostile to amateur interference, so Legris and Lenox must do battle against officialdom as well as killers. Neither of these books is a first-rate mystery, although both are enjoyable, and I expect to return to both series in the future.

Of the two, I found A Beautiful Blue Death more to me liking. Secondary characters are important in both novels, but while Finch uses these characters in resolving the plot, in Disappearance they are more often distractions. Izner (actually two sisters who are themselves booksellers, as well as experts on 19th century Paris) sometimes seems more concerned with showing us what Paris was like in 1890 than in telling a good story.

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