The Victor Legris Mysteries #1 and #2, by Claude Izner


Murder on the Eiffel Tower and The Père-Lachaise Mystery


Murder on the Eiffel Tower

Claude Izner is the pen name of two Parisian sisters, Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefevre.  Their first collaboration is set in Paris in the hot summer of 1889, at the time of the Universal Exposition held on and around M. Eiffel’s brand-new tower – then the world’s tallest free-standing structure – which dominates the city’s skyline.  As if the excitement of the expo isn’t enough, a woman dies on the tower in mysterious circumstances.  Attributed to a reaction from a bee sting, the police aren’t much interested in the freak accident.

Bookseller and amateur photographer Victor Legris happens to be visiting the tower at the time of the lady’s death to discuss contributing a literary column to a scandal sheet titled Le Passe-partout, recently founded by a friend, Marius Bonnet.  The Passe-partout staff make the most of the opportunity presented to them and use the sudden death, plus anonymous letters sent to the paper which suggest that the death was murder, to boost sales.

It becomes clear that there is more to it than the single unexplained death, especially when it is linked to that of a rag-and-bone man who died in a similar way during a reception parade for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  Victor is reluctantly drawn into the mystery as it seems his business partner and mentor Kenji Mori, and a cartoonist on the paper, in whom Victor is interested, Russian Tasha Kherson, may be implicated.  Meanwhile Le Passe-partout’s circulation goes from strength to strength as further deaths are attributed to the same cause.

Victor turns detective as much to prove those he cares for are innocent as to discover the guilty party, but the waters become ever-murkier.  Could it be that either Kenji or Tasha is the murderer?  Kenji in particular is acting strangely, with his secrecy and lies.  Victor finds that there is a common denominator in the register visitors to the tower signed to mark their ascent on a particular day, and the trail eventually leads to the architect of this series of crimes.

A problem for the narrative arc is that Victor is actually not much of a detective.  He suspects one person after another, invariably being proved wrong as the body count increases.  He finally stumbles on the murderer’s identity much more by luck than judgement.  There are not enough clues for the reader to be able reasonably to deduce the villain’s identity beforehand and the novel is wrapped up with a lengthy written confession to explain to the reader why the murders were carried out.

The authors make a good job of evoking fin-de-siècle Paris and its culture, and the plot is satisfyingly convoluted, but the characters are thin and occasionally clichéd.  The result is a pleasant tour of Paris at the high point in its development as a world city, but Victor as a detective does not convince, and much of the suspense hinges on Victor and Kenji – whose involvement is due to some unlikely coincidences – failing to talk to each other, which seems implausible given their supposedly close relationship.


The  Père-Lachaise Mystery

If Victor didn’t seem much of a detective in his first outing, in the second in the series he makes up for it in spades as he rushes around Paris putting clues together to solve yet another mystery.  It is now 1890, a year after the events in the first novel.  Victor is still running the bookshop with the enigmatic Kenji.  His relationship with Tasha is firm, though she is determined to maintain her independence.  Victor is still assisted in the shop by Joseph, an enthusiast for crime novels who is writing one of his own, and Victor has broken with his mistress Odette de Valois, who figured prominently in the first volume.

The novel opens in Colombia, with a dying man and someone with him who wants to cover up the real cause of death.  The meaning of this scene is only revealed at the end.  The action then shifts to Paris, where Odette, now widowed, is mourning her late husband.  But on a visit to Père Lachaise cemetery she disappears.  Her distraught maid Denise, who had been with her, goes to see Victor, the only person she can think of, to seek his help.

Feeling uncomfortable at being involved,  Victor is initially indifferent, assuming that Odette has gone off without telling Denise, and when he does go to the police they aren’t interested. He finds Odette’s flat disturbed, and as he begins to think something is amiss, Denise too disappears and Victor later recognises her body at the mortuary.  As the mystery deepens he is determined to get to the bottom of it and is soon on the track of a missing painting, The Blue Madonna, which Odette’s late husband had sent to her from Central America and may be the key to the mystery.

Belle Époque Paris is faithfully described, and the authors certainly know their history.  They are keen to include aspects of French social history to leaven the detection: in the first it was the 1889 exposition, here it is the impact of the Panama Canal and the financial chaos it caused in France; and to a lesser extent the influence of Spiritualism, which Odette adopts.  Real characters – Anatole France, Georges Méliès – are mentioned, and the geography is, often painstakingly, laid out.

Unfortunately, for such a complex plot the identity of the murderer became fairly obvious quite early on simply because it was a new character who quickly became heavily involved in Victor and Tasha’s circles.  There did not seem anyone else it could reasonably be.  The mechanics of why the murders were committed are more interesting than the identity of their perpetrator, and while it is not always easy keeping track of what is going on, the story is well structured, though the end feels slightly rushed.  What is lacking in the series so far is depth of characterisation, and I’m not tempted to proceed further with these accounts (there are now eight books in the Victor Legris series) of Victor’s career in crime detection.


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