Laurie R. King, best known as the author of the Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell mystery series, of which I am a big fan, has written an excellent novel of suspense in The Bones of Paris. This book is set in the Jazz Age Paris of 1929 and features American private investigator Harris Stuyvesant and British brother and sister Bennett and Sarah Grey. It is actually a sequel to an earlier novel, Touchstone, but works very well as a stand-alone. I have not read Touchstone, but King gives you enough of the characters' backgrounds in The Bones of Paris that you understand what is going on with their relationships.
Harris Stuyvesant is the main protagonist of the novel. He is a veteran of World War I, a former boxer, and a former agent of the US Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor of the FBI. Stuyvesant left because he didn't get along with J. Edgar Hoover, and became a private investigator. He has been traveling in various parts of Europe, solving cases. Three years before this novel begins, during the case featured in Touchstone, he was on the path of a bomber in London and fell in love with Sarah Grey, a passionate Englishwoman who longed for a better world and was involved in social causes. Tragically, he was not able to prevent the bomb from going off, and Sarah lost a hand in the explosion because of Stuyvesant's mistake. He feels much guilt over what happened, so their relationship has cooled, and by the time The Bones of Paris begins, they have gone their separate ways. Stuyvesant has had a series of meaningless relationships with women, all of whom bear a certain resemblance to Sarah, while Sarah has been living in Paris, and is now engaged to a police officer. Stuyvesant and Sarah obviously still have feelings for each other, as much as they would like to deny it.
The other main character is Sarah's brother, Bennett Grey, who has heightened senses following a near-death experience in World War I. Because of this ability, he can always tell when someone is lying. This makes him extremely valuable to the British government, and he is called on to help them catch conspirators and traitors. The government always keeps an eye on him in his remote home in Cornwall. He and Stuyvesant have been friends since the events of Touchstone, and they still correspond in spite of what happened between Stuyvesant and Sarah.
As this novel begins, Stuyvesant is trying to find a young woman from Boston, Philippa Crosby, who has gone missing in Paris. Her mother and wealthy uncle are paying his expenses, but they don't realize that he had recently had a brief affair with her. Philippa has been working as an artists' model and aspiring actress in Montparnasse, the section of Paris which, in the 1920s, was frequented by artists and authors. Much of the delight of this novel comes from brief appearances by such famous figures as Ernest Hemingway (an opponent of Stuyvesant's in the boxing ring), Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Josephine Baker, and Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company. As Stuyvesant makes the rounds of the bars and cafés of Montparnasse, he finds that many of the inhabitants know who Philippa is, but have not seen her for several months.
At first Stuyvesant thinks Philippa has gone off to live with an artist and has not written to her family because she thinks they would disapprove of the relationship. Then his investigations take him to the Grand-Guignol theater, where extremely realistic horror plays were performed. King explains that these plays, which showed graphic murders, torture, and sexual perversion, served as a sort of catharsis for the people of Paris who were traumatized by World War I. In fact, the war, although long over, looms large in The Bones of Paris, as many of the characters suffer from physical or psychological trauma from their experiences.
Stuyvesant encounters three people who, he thinks, know more than they're saying about what happened to Philippa. One is Dominic, an aristocrat obsessed with death, who lives in a house above the Paris catacombs and produces plays for the Grand-Guignol theater, where he had wanted to put Philippa on the stage. Another is the surrealist painter and photographer Man Ray, who had taken erotic photographs of Philippa. The third suspect is a truly creepy artist named Moreau, who makes art objects out of human bones. Stuyvesant finds some of Moreau's "Displays," as he calls them, in Philippa's room.
Soon Stuyvesant realizes that Sarah Grey is involved with all three of his suspects. He sees her for the first time, since the breakup of their relationship, in the company of Dominic and Man Ray, and it turns out that Sarah has been working as an assistant to Dominic. Moreau makes prosthetic hands for her, although she is repulsed by him. At a party in Dominic's house above the catacombs, it looks as though Stuyvesant and Sarah might rekindle their relationship, but then Stuyvesant finds out that Sarah is engaged to the police officer in charge of missing persons. Sarah's fiancé is willing to share information with Stuyvesant in his search for Philippa. Stuyvesant learns that several young women matching Philippa's description have gone missing in recent months, and he realizes that Philippa may have fallen victim to a serial killer. He knows Philippa is probably dead, and that the killer is one of these people who are close to Sarah.
Knowing the danger to Sarah, Stuyvesant calls on her brother, Bennett Grey, to come to Paris to piece together the evidence he finds in a series of photographs of young women in agony. He wants to know if the emotion is real or staged. Grey, whose heightened senses always tell him what a person is really feeling, examines the photos and tells him these women really are in excruciating pain. Stuyvesant realizes he is on the trail of a monster who delights in torturing women, and that Sarah might become the next victim.
The Bones of Paris is a wonderfully suspenseful novel, but definitely not for the squeamish. The events become creepier and more horrific as it goes along. King's descriptions of 1920s Paris, especially the café society and the art world, are very detailed and draw the reader into the setting. Some people might think she spends too long on the descriptions, but I disagree. I think this is one of the strengths of the book. King makes you feel as if you were there, and in the company of many famous people of the time. The pace speeds up as the book goes along, and in the last part you can not put it down. If you can handle the gruesome events that take place, the conclusion will prove very satisfying.
After reading the Bones of Paris, I would like to go back and read the earlier novel, Touchstone, to see how these characters first met. I would have liked to see a future novel about them, since King leaves enough unresolved in their relationships to make you think they will reappear, but now I doubt there will be one. The Bones of Paris was published in 2013, and there has not been another Stuyvesant and Grey novel since then. King's Holmes and Russell series has proven to be very popular, and now she has started a new series of contemporary mysteries, so I doubt she will return to these characters. I'd be glad to be wrong about this, though. I highly recommend The Bones of Paris if you are looking for a creepy read for Halloween.
The Bones of Paris is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.