Reviewer Wally Wood: Wally is an editor and writer, has published three novels, Getting Oriented:A Novel about Japan, The Girl in the Photo an Death in a Family Business. He obtained his MA in creative writing in 2002 from the City University of New York and has worked with a number of authors as a ghostwriter and collaborator.
With an extensive background in a variety of business subjects, his credits include twenty-one nonfiction books. He spent twenty-five years as a trade magazine reporter and editor and has been a volunteer writing and business teacher in state and federal prisons for more than twenty years. He has finished his fourth novel and has translated a collection of Japanese short stories into English.
Publisher: Soho Press, Inc.
I would like to write about Cara Black's Murder on the Quai in such a way that it does not discourage mystery readers from picking up the book, which is a creditable effort, but also explains why I have difficulties with certain mysteries.
Murder on the Quai is Black's sixteenth Murder on the . . . series. It stars Aimée Leduc. This book, series readers tell me, is Aimée's backstory, how she evolved from medical student to private detective. Her father runs a private detective agency and he leaves Paris early in the story to go to Berlin where the Wall has just fallen. He wants to obtain certain files before the Stassi can destroy them. This subplot involves Aimée's mother who abandoned the family when Aimee was about three years old, and its resolution is, I presume, saved for another book.
In this one, the first chapter takes place in November 1989 Paris. An elderly rich man is murdered gangland style on—where else?—the quai after an expensive dinner with three rich friends. "You remember, don't you? It's your turn now," the killer tells the man just before he puts a bullet into the back of the man's head. The police have no leads and the man's daughter, Elsie, comes to Aimée's father for help. In a believable series of events, the father takes off for Berlin and Aimée takes over to investigate the one lead Elsie can offer.
Switch to Chambly-sur-Cher, November 1942, a dark and stormy midnight. The Cher river is rising. Villagers are pilling sandbags to prevent the water from flooding their fields. British planes have been bombing the railway line in Occupied France right across the river. Enter a German troop truck, lost on the Vichy side of the river. They want the French farmers to use their horse cart to pull the truck out of the mud. There are only five soldiers and one of the French young hotheads makes a move and before they know it there are four dead Germans, one missing in the river, and a truck with an interesting cargo.
Aimée, who spent much of her childhood following her detective father around and hanging out with her retired police officer grandfather, sets off to help Elsie as best she can. Which is pretty good. She is determined, intelligent, and a good liar when she has to be. It spoils nothing to tell you that there's another murder on the quai, the same M.O., and the new victim was one of the four wealthy men who'd had dinner together before the first killing. By the end of the book Aimée has assembled all the pieces into a coherent picture.
If this is the sort of mystery that engages you—a spunky young detective, a foreign setting, past events with contemporary consequences—then you should read Murder on the Quai. It held my interest all the way through. So if that's what you like, stop reading this right now!
Because I've decided this kind of mystery—and it's not alone—is a kind of fairy tale. It doesn't tell us how the real world works, which police procedurals tend to do. It invents a serial killer who leads a law-abiding, unexceptionable life who nurses a murderous streak for years. I'm not willing to suspend my disbelief. I believe that in the real world virtually all murder is unintentional or accidental and fueled by anger or drink or both, or it has a single target—the ex-wife, the unsympathetic boss. Finally, I prefer a book where the author is writing from the inside rather than from research (unless, of course, you can't tell the difference, which does happen).
Black "lives in San Francisco . . . and visits Paris frequently." I do not know Paris at all, and I am sure that she has correctly identified every street, every building, and every landmark. "A short walk under the bare-branched trees on the brightly lit Champs-Élysées, then right past the tiny art cinema, Le Balzac, one of her premed Friday night haunts; down narrow, winding rue Lord Byron, named for the poet who, according to her grand-pére, had never set foot here." I do not question the accuracy of this or other sentences like it throughout the book. But for some reason it sounds like research, not lived experience and I cannot tell you why. And I only noticed toward the end of the book when Aimée is running out of pages and I wanted to know what happened.
On the other hand, Val McDermid is quoted on the back cover, "So authentic you can practically smell the fresh baguettes and coffee." You should probably go with McDermid.