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Paris provides compelling backdrop for mystery

The rich art, music and literary scene of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s makes a lively backdrop for books and films.

I enjoyed the Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris” and books such as “The Paris Wife” (Ballantine, 2011) by Paula McLain and “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris” (Simon & Schuster, 2011) by David McCullough.

Laurie R. King, whose primary claim to fame is her popular series of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, throws her hat in the Paris ring with “The Bones of Paris” (Bantam, 2013).

Like both King’s Sherlock Holmes novels and her series featuring detective Kate Martinelli, “The Bones of Paris” is a mystery, her second book to feature the characters Harris Stuyvesant, an American detective, and his friend Bennett Grey, a British ex-soldier who woke up years earlier after a devastating war injury with the ability to discern when people are lying to him.

It is bold and brave of author King to eschew her tried-and-true formula and strike out in a new direction and with colorful new characters.

In “The Bones of Paris,” readers experience the City of Light circa 1929 through the eyes of Stuyvesant – and it is one fun look. We catch a quick glimpse of historical literary lions like Ernest Hemingway, but the novel focuses primarily on artists and the theater scene. In particular, Man Ray appears, the opinionated American artist who loves to shock both Stuyvesant and his audience of admirers in local cafes by declaring that “the body’s urge was the mind’s command: bondage was freedom, pain was pleasure, and the gratification of the body was the very essence of art.” In other words, Man Ray, the surrealist painter and photographer who worked in Paris throughout his life, comes across as a rather pretentious jerk.

“The Bones of Paris” diverges from previous King novels in one key way: its decidedly macabre tone. No doubt influenced by Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol – an actual theater in Paris that specialized in gory horror shows – King invents a character with the horrific hobby of collecting, arranging and displaying genuine human bones. The obsession lends the book a sinister aura and an evil undertone absent from her other works, where murderers typically are motivated by greed or revenge.

While King’s writing is customarily good and the story suspenseful – and it would be interesting even to someone who has not already read its predecessor, “Touchstone” (Bantam, 2008) – “The Bones of Paris” is not as entertaining as “Touchstone.” There are two reasons for the downgrade: First, we see very little of Bennett Grey in “The Bones of Paris,” and he is by far the most interesting character; and second, some of the mischief in the book seems a little contrived and predictable. Nonetheless, the ending is thoroughly exciting and satisfying.

“The Bones of Paris” is a solid selection for any fiction or mystery book club. I would suggest, however, that readers new to King’s books begin with “Touchstone” or, better yet, “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” (Bantam, 1994), the first book in her 13-book Sherlock Holmes series.

Leslie Ashmore is a Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.

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