For a writer, crime novels come with their own particular challenges. As well as the usual aspects of characterisation, narrative voice, and plot, there is the additional task of posing and answering the question “whodunit?” The writer must provide enough information to give the reader a fair chance to solve the mystery, yet hide the essential clues in plain sight. It’s the literary version of the magician’s sleight of hand – the trick is to get the audience focussing on the flimflam so that they miss what is going on elsewhere. It’s only when the magician reveals how the trick was done that we cry “Of course! The butler did it!”
I’ve been thinking about the art of the crime novel while reading Murder in the Bastille by Cara Black. This is the second novel of Black’s that I have read, and both have left me feeling unsatisfied. I’m not sure Black manages to balance giving the reader enough information, but not too much. With both novels, I turned to the final chapter thinking not “Of course!” but “Where did that come from?” It’s not a fatal flaw, particularly in the private detective genre, but it did spoil to some extent an otherwise enjoyable book.
There is plenty to enjoy in Murder in the Bastille. Lovers of Paris should put this book at the top of their reading lists – Black lingers over the descriptions of its alleys and passages, squares and quartiers. Most of the time she succeeds in evoking a sense of the layers of history in the city, although more impatient readers may find the level of detail irritating. Despite this, Black maintains a good pace and keeps the plot moving along.
The book opens with private detective Aimée Leduc being attacked in a passage in the Bastille area of Paris. The police believe she was the latest victim of the serial killer known as the “Beast of Bastille,” but Aimée and her partner René have their doubts. Their search for the attacker unfolds against a backdrop of conflict between conservationists and developers over the future of the Bastille area, while Aimée and René delve deeper into its past in search of the killer.
Aimée and René are both likable, and their relationship believable. Black avoids cliché and delivers well-rounded characters, police officers and villains included. Of course, the main character is Paris itself. From an armchair travel perspective, Murder in the Bastille is truly excellent. Here’s hoping that in later books, the whodunit lives up to the setting.