I’ve been a fan of Laurie King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries, as well as her present-day Kate Martinelli series, since 1995. Enjoying those series as much as I do can sometimes mean that I’m initially disappointed when King writes something that doesn’t take me back into Mary Russell’s world. But I have always enjoyed King’s work — even her standalone novels! — and Touchstone, written in 2007, was no exception. That book was a historical mystery-thriller, set just after the first World War in England, and its story and characters touched and engaged me.
The Bones of Paris, Touchstone’s sequel, is set in 1929, three years after the first book’s literally explosive events. The three characters have scattered: Bennet Grey, the human lie detector, to an isolated farm in Cornwall; Sarah Grey to heal her wounds in Paris; Harris Stuyvesant to pick up a private detective’s living here and there across Europe. But when Stuyvesant is asked to find Philippa Crosby, a missing girl who was last seen in Paris, he’s glad enough to have an excuse to see Sarah again as well.
Searching for Philippa, Stuyvesant finds a Paris obsessed with art and death, film and violence, sex and pain. The Grand Guignol alternates scenes of torture and slapstick, and the audience leaves a little more able to deal with their emotions about the Great War. Surrealist films show slashed eyeballs, severed hands. Man Ray takes extreme close-ups of straining muscles and sweating skin, and creates a mural for a Danse Macabre. In this environment, could a girl — or several — just disappear?
This book is darker than most of King’s work. She doesn’t just suggest some of the grisly stuff Stuyvesant sees, she describes it in detail. When is art a healthy way for people to work through their own darkest emotions, and when does it cross the line? When it exploits someone? When it uses a dead body? When it’s real?
Still, as interesting as the crime was — and as interesting as it was to get a glimpse of Paris during the Jazz Age — The Bones of Paris wasn’t one of my favorite King novels. Stuyvesant himself is a boring point-of-view character for me. He has a strong tendency to get drunk and use his fists when he’s frustrated, and in a mystery novel, there’s a pretty high chance you’re going to get frustrated on the regular: by witnesses, by girlfriends, by the case itself. That kind of act wears very thin on me. I prefer Bennett Grey, who is tortured by his extreme shell-shock but who at least doesn’t act like Ernest Hemingway. But we don’t get quite enough of him to please me.
If the sound of this book — Paris, the Jazz Age, encountering Man Ray and Cole Porter and Natalie Barney — entices you, then I suggest you start with Touchstone. King is always worth a read, and Touchstone will tell you whether you want to move on to Paris — the city of light, and also of darkness.