Anna Dowdall’s third novel April on Paris Street is a literate and attractively convoluted murder mystery, with this odd wrinkle: The murder doesn’t happen until near the very end of the 314-page book.
The identity of the killer is discovered by Dowdall’s young (late 20s) private investigator Ashley Smeeton, but the bulk of April on a Paris Street has to do with many confounding mysteries that bedevil Ashley and lead up to the murder.
It all begins when Ashley gets a call at her Montreal apartment on Paris Street and goes to meet a wealthy and arrogant businessman named Charles Saint Cyr. He wants her to go to Paris to (a) spy on his new, young wife Mirabel and (b) find a way to convince her to come home. She turns him down.
Two months later, in January, Saint Cyr sets up another meeting because, now, Mirabel is afraid and wants to return to Canada but can’t leave.
Saint Cyr knows she’s been having an affair — his wife hasn’t tried to hide it — and apparently is alright with it, thinking it a passing fling. (Several times, Saint Cyr tells Ashley of his deep love for Mirabel, and Mirabel does the same. Whatever that means.)
A “hired friend” for Mirabel
Mirabel’s paramour has disappeared, and the Paris police have questioned her. She wants her sister Isabel to come to help her, but the sister is a college teacher and is in the midst of classes.
So, Saint Cyr is asking Ashley to go to Paris to “extricate” Mirabel and bring her home — to “help Madame Saint Cyr with whatever arises, as a sort of hired friend.”
It’s a free trip for the young detective whose career to this point has dealt with more mundane corporate and domestic investigations. And, well, these rich and beautiful people are really interesting. Ashley’s intrigued.
And, when she finally meets Mirabel, the woman is breath-taking:
Mirabel Saint Cyr was a fair blonde with blue-grey eyes. She had a well-proportioned figure, seemed tall but wasn’t really. It was how the various elements were assembled that made the difference. Her naturally ash blonde hair was in a thick, chopped wavy style, like a grown-out fifties Italian boy cut….[She had] a pair of remarkable eyes that changed colour and moved like restless water under the impulse of thoughts and emotions.
As the woman studies Ashley at their first meeting, the effect, Dowdall relates, “was of light striking sombre water, sideways.”
Close as children, Mirabel and her sister were orphaned when their parents died in a car crash. Each was put with a wealthy foster family where life was hard and made more difficult by their separation.
Before going to Paris, Ashley has coffee with Isabel,
a haggardly attractive woman with keen brownish-green eyes and multi-coloured hair that made her look liked she’d run into an early Holi festival [also called in some places the Hindu Festival of Color]. She exuded Montreal bohemianism, with artistically shredded clothes and a small septum piercing.
Isabel, with a husky voice, laugh lines and the aura of a longtime smoker, looked to be in her mid-30s to the detective.
Ashley, as a young middle-class woman, is dazzled by the sisters, particularly Mirabel who, in Paris, opens up for her a rich and varied life of fashion, parties and the annual Carnaval where the streets are packed with mask-wearing partier.
It’s all very exciting — and very creepy. At one point, Ashley is having coffee alone by the window of a café and, suddenly, on the sidewalk outside the window, is a man, “very tall, waistcoated and caped all in black,” wearing “a revolting white vinyl full-face mask in the style of chainsaw horror movies.”
Disturbing, right? But then:
While she watched in dumb fascination, he raised a gloved hand to his face, and removed the mask. Horror lay beneath it: another visage, all red dangling flesh and lipless teeth, eyes like oily pits. Ashley shoved her chair back in shock — and then realized that this too was a mask. A mask beneath a mask.
Glitzy, blinky turmoil
While somewhat naïve, Ashley is no naïf. Indeed, in contrast to Mirabel and Isabel — and her employer — she’s a highly competent professional with her feet on the ground.
And she’s not bad looking either. A lacrosse player, Ashley is fit — and fits very nicely into some fancy clothes that Mirabel gets for her. She’s excited by the Paris life of the rich, but she’s always working.
She’s mystified by much that the people in and around the Saint Cyr family do. Nothing seems to fit together.
Mirabel, Ashley finds out, is tied to a boyfriend who was involved in stealing stolen fashion creations from Russian mobsters — not the smartest career move for a criminal — and, with the boyfriend’s other girlfriend, Mirielle, Madame Saint Cyr is talking about finding the missing stolen clothes and trucking them to Marseilles.
There’s a great deal of glitzy, blinky turmoil when Ashley is in Paris — so unlike her life back in Montreal on Paris Street.
Whatever life throws at her
Counterbalancing, in the novel, the ditzy confusion of the Saint Cyrs is the open-faced affection that Ashley’s friends and family express. These are people whose lives are emotionally rooted and compelling in an everyday-life sort of way.
Some lose love, some find love. And, then, Ashley’s old boyfriend shows up, and they take up where they left off.
Meanwhile, the young woman is starting to connect with her father’s Abenaki family at a nearby First Nations reserve. Her parents had broken up, and she never knew her father who died in an oil field accident. Now, she is coming to know her father’s mother and brother, and to begin to understand her heritage.
These are homey touches in a story that, with all of its complicated and hidden motives, might easily have spun out of control. They provide April on Paris Street with a solid foundation in real people, even as Ashley is trying to figure out a group of people who never seem to be who they say they are.
Indeed, the man at the window with the masks is a metaphor for the book.
The Saint Cyr story is one of masks within masks within masks. On her side of the glass, though, Ashley is simply Ashley.
She has her feet on the ground, and, with a lacrosse player’s stance, she’s ready to handle whatever life throws at her.
Patrick T. Reardon