A haunted American World War I veteran stumbles into a murder mystery among the 1920s Paris literary set in this first installment of a planned series.
Upon entering the City of Light’s Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Daniel Levin is initially dismissed by a clerk for being too broke to buy books. Luckily, the Jewish-American ex-soldier then meets owner Sylvia Beach, who gives him cash and a place to stay, which is typical of her legendary encouragement of aspiring authors. Daniel struggles to write, however, as he’s haunted by his mother’s suicide and the horrors of war. Sylvia soon introduces him to other writers as well as to Miriam Rosmarin, a beautiful, dark-haired American psychologist. He resists Miriam’s probing questions and tries to ignore other people’s opinions that his true talents may not lie in writing but in detective work. This latter insight is due in part to the fact that Daniel is pulled into a crime scene early in the novel, when a gorgeous blonde woman, Sylvette Arnaud, runs into Shakespeare and Company to announce a murder in the bookstore across the street. The victim is a literary magazine editor, and Sylvette reveals that he’d previously rejected her work when she refused his advances. She then makes moves on Daniel, who enjoys having sex and touring the city with her. Local police inspector Martel hints to Daniel, however, that the shady Sylvette, who has many other lovers, is likely guilty of the crime. Later, as Sylvette endures prison, Daniel uncovers the true killer—and other misdeeds—in a denouement that culminates in a scene of him dangling dangerously off the Eiffel Tower. Epstein (Bloodlines, 2016, etc.), a former English professor and the author of many nonfiction books on popular culture and Jewish life, calls to mind Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris in this enjoyable whodunit. Like that film, it features many amusing historical walk-ons, including such figures as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, in particular, a pompous (and possibly criminal) Gertrude Stein. The author also crafts Daniel into an intriguing series lead who has many demons and desires. That said, Epstein rather overstuffs the ending with an explanation of con artistry that’s somewhat dizzying. Overall, however, his novel is an atmospheric and charming work.
A flavorful Lost Generation–era confection with a promising protagonist.