Many of you know that I’m a tremendous fan of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but I’ve also loved many of her other books, including Touchstone, a historical mystery and thriller set in 1920s England. When that book was published in 2007, King said there might be more books with those characters, and now, six years later, she’s published the sequel.
The Bones of Paris is set in 1929, three years after the events in Touchstone. U.S. intelligence agent Harris Stuyvesant has left his government job and is now a private investigator who travels around Europe, going where his jobs take him. Now, he’s in Paris looking for a young American woman named Philippa Crosby. Philippa was part of the artistic community in Montparnasse. She’d been given a sketch by Picasso, she’d posed for Man Ray, and she’d attended (and perhaps performed at) the Grand Guignol. In investigating her disappearance, Harris ends up seeing a side of Paris that’s darker and more unsettling than the glamorous parties we often think of when imagining Paris in the Jazz Age. Figures like Hemingway, Cole Porter, and Gertrude Stein hover around the edges of this story, but this is a book about bones and death and the people obsessed with them. This book’s heart is in the catacombs, not the clubs.
Harris himself doesn’t know what to make of what appears to him to be a celebration of blood and violence that he finds when he starts digging into Philippa’s life. And indeed I think this book takes a good hard look at what it does mean to use violence as entertainment. When it is healthy catharsis, and when is it obscene? The Grand Guignol, with its horror spectacles juxtaposed with slapstick comedy, is popular with people looking for a way to tame their own feelings about the violence they experienced in the war. But Didi Moreau’s taxidermy dioramas featuring uniformed white mice on a battlefield, among other things, are kept in a locked room, separate from his other art. A few times, as a reader, I had to wonder how dark this book was going to become. I have a strong stomach for horror fiction, but this book was much more macabre than King’s other books. But you have a get a taste of extreme horror to explore what its limits are or ought to be. I liked that she took the risk to actually describe some of the horrors Harris saw.
When Harris was hired to investigate Philippa’s disappearance, it was already personal, because he’d had a brief affair with her months earlier. But the stakes get higher when Sarah Grey, his former lover and a key character in Touchstone, turns up. She’s currently seeing the French policeman investigating Philippa’s disappearance and several like it, and she works for a major patron of the Grand Guignol theatre. Bennett Grey, Sarah’s brother, also becomes involved when Harris turns for him for help in determining whether a series of photographs he’s found are real or faked. (Bennett has a gift for discerning whether people are lying or faking their emotions. This gift is what initially brought him and Harris together in Touchstone.)
It’s been several years since I read Touchstone, and I didn’t remember much about it. That didn’t make it particularly difficult to follow the plot of this book, and King provides enough general background about the characters to make their relationships comprehensible. However, as I was reading, a few things came back to me that made me more aware of how complex their situation—and their feelings—might be, but I would have liked to have had a copy of Touchstone to refresh my memory on a few things. The significance of Sarah Grey’s story in particular is unclear without having a clear memory of the previous book. Again, King provides enough to make the general outlines of the relationships clear, so it is possible to read this without having read Touchstone, but a clear memory of the earlier book would only enhance the experience of this one.