Published by St. Martin's Press
272 pages, 1998
To Live and Die in Gay Paree
Towards the middle of Walter Satterthwait's latest historical mystery, his globe-trotting Pinkerton agent, Phil Beaumont, complains to a French colleague that "We're not making much progress." To which the Frenchman responds:
"But we are having a splendid time, eh? Ratiocination, fisticuffs, nighttime dashes through the sewers of Paris. All very stirring.... And also, along the way, we have shared a decent meal or two." He shrugged. "Who could ask for more?"
Indeed, Masquerade is a generous helping of episodic delights, both voluptuary and villainous. The sequel to Satterthwait's 1995 Escapade, in which American agent Beaumont and British sleuth-in-training Jane Turner conspired with magician Harry Houdini to solve a locked-room murder, this new novel certainly seems to have everything going for it. Including not only the aforementioned fist fight (in a smoke-choked bar on the Rue des Capucines) and that dangerous romp through the storied sewers of France's capital, but also cameo appearances by American expatriates such as Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.
The time is 1923. The setting: Paris, which has served other historical crime fictionists so well as a backdrop over the last few years (remember Sarah Smith's menacing use of Gay Paree in The Knowledge of Water, or Eric Zencey's delvings into the City of Lights' darkest corners in Panama?). Satterthwait again uses Paris expertly here, introducing readers to both its amorous attractions and the more serious political maneuverings that influenced that city's social circles in the run-up to World War II. The Pinkerton Agency has sent Beaumont over to France to determine whether the recent deaths of wealthy American publisher Richard Forsythe and his German inamorata, Sabine von Stuben, were the result of a suicide pact (as the gendarmes have determined) or a more complicated murder (as Forsythe's mother believes). Meanwhile -- and unbeknownst to Beaumont -- the bright, plucky Turner has been engaged as a nanny by Richard Forsythe's banker cousin, a position that offers her unique insights into the publisher's abrupt demise.
Most of this tale concentrates around Beaumont, as he rather lazily trails from one history-laden locale or suspicious personage to the next, amassing a picture of Forsythe that can hardly be called flattering. ("He was useless," intones a corrupt police prefect of the late publisher. "A dilettante. And a pervert.") In these pursuits he is ably assisted by a very short, very proper French detective named Henri Ledoq (imagine Hercule Poirot with a goatee), who appears to know every obscure corner of Paris only by its proximity to restaurants that serve plates of turbot with truffle sauce or above-average cups of café au lait. While Jane Turner is traveling with Richard Forsythe's niece and nephews -- learning from them that the publisher actually "wanted to die beautifully. And he wanted to die together with someone" -- Beaumont and Ledoq come to realize that Forsythe's passing was not as he would have choreographed it. Instead, his death may somehow have been related to drugs or to Fraulëin von Stuben's association with Germany's National Socialist Workers Party -- the Nazis, who would become infamous under Adolf Hitler a decade later.
Author Satterthwait (who is also known for his series about modern-day Santa Fe private eye Joshua Croft) has a reputation for blending real-life characters into his historical mysteries, from the brilliantly furtive Lizzie Borden (Miss Lizzie, 1989) and sybaritic scribbler Oscar Wilde (Wilde West, 1991), to Houdini and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Escapade. He carries on that delightful tradition in Masquerade. Hemingway ("Call me Ernie") appears here as a macho, skirt-chasing bungler who is alternately repulsed by and curious about Forsythe's evident bisexuality. Gertrude Stein takes a colorful turn through the closing chapters of the novel, getting in a few clever (and sometimes wittily snobbish) lines, and there are brief walk-ons by Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. Readers familiar with Agatha Christie's past -- particularly her still not fully explained disappearance in the 1920s -- will have no trouble recognizing her as the basis for Sybil Norton, a mystery writer whose ribald poetry suspiciously vanished from Richard Forsythe's rooms after his death.
Unfortunately, none of these figures is engaging enough or capable of driving the thin plot here in the same way that arrogant ghost buster Houdini powered Escapade through even its preposterous moments. Masquerade's most interesting player is the gourmandish Ledoq, whose wry enjoyment of life never ceases to entertain. Ledoq's efforts to acquaint Beaumont with the proper preparation of onion soup, carried on amidst the hubbub of a car chase mid-book, fill one of the finest comedic scenes I've read in this genre in a long time. But he is generally forced to play second fiddle to Beaumont, a man of such wooden demeanor that even one-note actor Kevin Costner would look positively animated beside him. Beaumont's blandness was less annoying in Escapade, for we were distracted by the antics of Houdini and Doyle. Here, though, his opportunities to act as a foil are fewer, and consequently, his failings as a protagonist are all the more obvious. Jane Turner might have supplied to this story some of the spirit that it needs and that Beaumont lacks, but Satterthwait has relegated her to mostly off-stage labors, related through overly chatty letters to one of her friends.
Masquerade is a pleasant diversion, peppered with some light-hearted episodes and snatches of smart dialogue that hint at Walter Satterthwait's skills as a writer. However, it's not a memorable read. Nor does it incite one's hunger for the third installment in the Beaumont-Turner series, which is supposed to turn on pre-war Nazi politics. Satterthwait might do better to abandon his Pinkerton plodders in mid-series and return to composing criminal yarns around eccentric men and women from history. At the very least, he should give his next Beaumont book some other lead performer than Beaumont. That would be progress. | October 1998
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.
Read a profile of Walter Satterthwait