Gary Inbinder, The Devil in Montmartre
reviewed by Bertrand Cayzac
The Devil in Montmartre
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Length: 264 pp.
Bergson holds that the past hasn’t ceased to be. This would explain the powerful spell of Gary Inbinder’s mystery The Devil in Montmartre: more than re-presenting a bygone past as a fiction, the author has literally grafted compatible characters into the dense, living weft of time, and his operation becomes present to us as we read.
Indeed, with a brilliant criminal investigation carried through all strata of late nineteenth-century Parisian society, Inspector Lefebvre now partakes of the same life as the consecrated cops of old, such as Vidocq or the members of the famous Brigades du Tigre.
But enough with cheap poetry and blurring of limits. “The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark,” says G.K. Chesterton in whose hands I entrust the magic needle and surgical thread required to lead a vagrant camel such as myself, a songe-creux fit for windy mystical wilds, into the kingdom of rich, complex history.
“Chaos is dull,” adds the prince of paradox in his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, “because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street, to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria.”
“Lo, this is Montmartre!” I cried as I turned the pages of The Devil after a peripatetic initiation to the work, which had led me along the banks of the Seine, on a sunny July afternoon, to the American Library in Paris, where the book was on display. There was something providential in this invitation to walk one more time from the Eiffel tower, the symbol of the 1889 Universal Exhibition, to the butte where I used to dwell some thirty years ago, in one of the narrow streets around Rue Lepic, the very area at the heart of the novel’s action.
It was Montmartre, for sure, but the setting was the buoyant year 1889. It was the past, for sure, but it was more convincing than any past scene I could have fancied when I was living there. It was Montmartre, definitely, but the eye could discover a wider expanse of time and space than I could see from the Sacré Coeur, enough to discern the spirit of an epoch in the making. I was there... or then should I say. Yes, the Devil is as powerful a time vehicle as Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
And how does the novel descends into the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time?
Unlike Father Brown or Flambeau the Frenchman, the exacting Inspector Lefebvre relies on science, process and efficiency to solve his case. Better than this, he spearheads operational research with an active, inspired creativity and the support of a modern organization: the Sûreté nationale. Through his action, the author skillfully catches the spirit of method, invention and boldness that marked the second industrial revolution in the Paris of Jules Vernes. This often goes far beyond suggestion in that some chapters do unveil in great, picturesque details the conditions of discoveries such as fingerprinting and the early days of their integration into regular forensic procedures.
The case and the Parisian scene are so intertwined that inspector Lefebvre also takes the reader on a diligent investigation into the blooming, controversial world of the arts, including painting, can-can dancing and cutting-edge medicine, the latter meeting science again at appropriate points in a clever plot.
Chapter after chapter, pacing through brisk business, knotty sentiments and sharp debates about the pursuit of beauty and truth, taking the time to sit at a terrace or in a popular restaurant, one discovers that it’s quite an unexpected, uncanny combination of all these arts that fate and necessity have been conspiring to shape, on the edge of the fantastic. It will be no spoiler to say that the crime — or, should we say, the sacrifice — is, in its mysterious ugly way, an attempt at a synthesis.
But all this might lead to the impression that the Devil is just some busy, informed way of touring the past or its model. Not so: everything takes place out of necessity and, as was pointed out at the beginning, the protagonists are real beings. Vivid dialogs reveal their deep, singular, personalities. Indeed, more than a straight whodunit, this mystery is an opportunity to meet strong characters such as Toulouse Lautrec, whose portrait is both sharp, complex and charming. As the story unfolds, these encounters take place in the most consistent, accurate way and across diverse social walks from billionaires to rag-pickers.
Now what’s missing? I mean, what am I missing, hollow pipe-dreamer that I am? Is it that brilliant inspector Lefebvre is positive to a degree, in the style of Tintin or Rouletabille? Well, unlike Tintin, he has a family: a nice wife, a nice young daughter, and an acrid, anti-Semitic mother-in-law without whom the painting of French society on the eve of the Dreyfus Affair would have lacked acuteness.
Besides, this tactful, boy-scout type of behavior is exactly what is expected of a hero in the popular mysteries contemporary to the action. Does the end leave room for questioning as to the exact circumstances of the murder? At least in my eyes, bearing in mind that I am not familiar with mysteries? All the better, for the investigation continues even as the case and the book are closed... Listen, I already have an alternate theory as to what happened, a theory that I may share some day with the author, but that is — literally — another story.
No, what I might be missing, now that I am let loose in the Paris of 1889, has to do with my own romantic expectations and with them only. Where in the novel are the “accursed” poets? Where is their poetry? Where is Rimbaud’s “bad blood” or the spirit of the Commune? I have the feeling that Parisians from almost all walks of life are playing their part now, more than fifteen years after Montmartre’s cannons were silenced. Bourgeois or zoniers, cops or thieves, they all seem to be sticking to their social role and, when they nurture deep or groundbreaking thoughts, these are barely in rebellion against society, fate or the world.
But those who “never rise except for plunder” are many in this neighborhood. And the declared, opinionated political rebels can’t be far away...
No, the rebels can’t be far. Indeed, in justice to the author, I must say that social and cultural tensions are suggested in at least one crucial dimension: gender. Let’s take the significant question of hysteria which is particularly well staged in the novel.
Again, the spell is such that the reader witnesses in situ, with the fresh eyes of the protagonists of old time, what modern studies analyze only too late to make us feel in our bones the exorbitant domination exerted by a situated, triumphant scientific discourse as well as the early doubts and resistances induced across the “black continent.”
It certainly is the will of the author to brush by petites touches the half-unformulated feelings that his free female characters experience when faced with manifestations of male power. But this is as close we get to the strife when one may think that Paris is the capital of all insurrections and Montmartre is her crown... Or is it that the Devil’s days are precisely that: revolution checked, Rimbaud bored to death in Harar?
It may also be that I am missing the point. Honoré de Balzac said that the novel must “make everything probable, even the True,” but he certainly didn’t say that it must account for all of “the True,” which would kill literature as certainly as the map with a scale of a mile to the mile hides the sun. While our time machine’s “infinite probability drive” is reined in with virtuosity, its author can’t be expected to write anybody else’s mystery but his own, around the spindle of historical necessity: and this he has achieved with brio.
Copyright © 2016 by Bertrand Cayzac