Every reader has his or her own appetite for detail in historical fiction. Personally, I tend toward gluttony. Give me a wordy but wholly verisimilitudinous re-creation of some city of yore, a forgotten rural landscape or an archaic industrial enterprise, and I shall gleefully dine upon it page after glorious page. I do have my limits, and some novels manage to exceed it; Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian comes immediately to mind. However, I can be very forgiving of an author’s earnest efforts to transport me, through the supple vehicle of English expression, into a period, place and culture that’s not otherwise accessible.
Read the Rap Sheet’s take on three new non-fiction books about crime fiction.
So don’t bother repeating to me the complaints, leveled by some other critics, that Max Byrd’s effervescent new historical mystery, The Paris Deadline, overburdens readers with street and alley monikers, and threatens their patience with its meticulous descriptions of early 20th-century railroad travel or the French capital’s once-intricate pneumatic-tube communications system. Far from implying that Byrd was overly fond of his research and intent on proving his scholarship, these particulars add authenticity, significance and essential grounding to a plot that often threatens to spin free of credibility’s fragile bounds.
Consider this evocative portrayal of the Chicago Tribune’s French bureau in 1926, where a young rewrite man named Toby Keats plies his lowly trade:
The Paris edition of the Tribune occupied the top three floors of a rambling nineteenth-century structure that had not been designed with modern journalism in mind. Apart from the Managing Editor’s sanctum behind a frosted glass door, our editorial offices consisted of one long city room, which held a collection of sprung leather chairs, a long oval table covered with typewriters and ashtrays, and a string of smaller rewrite desks like ours, crammed off to the side and in the corners. All practically deserted, of course, at this time of the morning. Bedlam arrived later, with the regular reporters, at the civilized hour of noon.
New Mexico born and Harvard educated, Keats volunteered for the Third Army Engineers during the so-called Great War, only to wind up excavating tunnels through enemy territory—an assignment that left him so traumatized, he now won’t even descend into Paris’ bustling web of subways. Since the war’s finish, he’s carved out a less perilous existence for himself in the City of Light, drinking his body weight in coffee, dodging herds of goats in the cobblestone thoroughfares, and observing both the reluctant begging habits of disfigured ex-soldiers and the fashions of local officials. (“In those years Parisian gendarmes still wore black silk-lined capes in the winter. The slang term for policemen then was hirondelles—swallows—because as they went down the dark streets on bicycles, the capes rose and flapped behind them like tails and they looked like swooping birds. To me they looked like bats.”)
In The Paris Deadline, it falls to Keats to return a dilapidated, life-size and automated antique duck that was mistakenly sent to the spendthrift mother of the Tribune’s publisher, Colonel Robert McCormick. It seems the woman had ordered “two absolutely marvelous” mechanical parrots from a tiny shop on the rue Bonaparte, but instead received this “moth-eaten” quacker. She wants Keats to exchange it for her actual purchases.
However, the shop owner soon turns up dead, and Keats is beaten in the street before being approached by a charming and resourceful young blonde named Elsie Short, who—after attempting to misrepresent her interest in the robotic waterfowl—finally admits to be a “roving agent” for the Thomas Edison Doll Company.
Elsie claims she wants the creature only as a historical curiosity. But could this be yet another ruse? After all, the ersatz bird in Keats’ hands looks an awful lot like Vaucanson’s Duck, a “somewhat scandalous” 18th-century automaton. The original beast, created by French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson, boasted some 400 moving parts and could not only flap its wings, but appear to eat and digest grain. Although Vaucanson’s Duck was supposedly “destroyed in a fire” more than a century before, Keats has doubts about that record. Which are only exacerbated as it becomes clear that parties of various nefarious stripes desire the duck for themselves, including an American banker and criminals who may covet the automaton for its operating mechanism—technology that might serve to advance weapons development.
Only when Elsie Short is kidnapped and whisked off to Switzerland, though, does Keats comprehend that his shabby duck is the key to a larger puzzle involving secret codes, hidden messages and what may be a long-buried fortune.
Author Byrd won a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America for California Thriller (1981), the first in a trio of novels starring San Francisco gumshoe Mike Haller. During the 1990s he penned historical fiction about a trio of U.S. presidents: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant. Now, in The Paris Deadline, he delivers a sparkling and suspenseful caper adventure well-rooted in a lovingly re-animated Jazz Age Paris.
Yes, Byrd can be a bit melodramatic with some plot turns, and he leaves at least one mystery oddly dangling at the book’s end. But he nicely avoids recruiting Ernest Hemingway into this story (a feat other novelists writing about 1920s Paris frequently fail to match), instead employing, at Keats’ side, two other real-life figures who labored in the Tribune’s French outpost at that time: William L. Shirer, who’d later compose The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; and Waverly Root, who became famous for his food writing, but in The Paris Deadline is heralded for his rewriting talents:
... [I]n those days the [Tribune’s] Paris edition was normally eight to ten pages long, much of it sports scores and stock market numbers. For home news, to save money, the Colonel limited our incoming cables to fifty words a night. The result was that often we were presented with a stingy four-word summary from Chicago (“Pres speaks Protestant Conv”) and expected to spin out a full six-inch story from that. Root was a gifted and uninhibited spinner, especially good at political vacuousness, and his more exuberant inventions were occasionally picked up and reprinted by the wire services, to the mild confusion of those who actually witnessed an event.
It’s those sorts of incidental details, together with Byrd’s bursts of jocular prose, that make me hope we haven’t seen the last of Toby Keats.