Gary Inbinder, The Man Upon the Stair:
A Mystery in Fin de Siècle Paris
reviewed by Alison McBain and Don Webb
The Man Upon the Stair:
A Mystery in Fin de Siècle Paris
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Date: February 6, 2018
Length: 352 pages
ISBN: 1681776359; 9781681776354
[Alison] After polishing up on my French history, I dove right into Gary Inbinder’s new mystery novel, The Man Upon the Stair. Set in the 1890s, the story starts with the setting up of a guillotine for the execution of Laurent Moreau. He is a two-time murderer caught by Inspector Achille Lefebvre in the act of a bomb plot that, if successful, would have killed dozens.
The level of detail in the step-by-step process of Moreau’s execution is very thorough and believable, so that from the beginning, the reader feels as if they have stepped through the page and into the Belle Époque of nineteenth-century France. Lovers of history, French history in particular, would be captivated by the historical research that has gone into this mystery, as every detail has its place down to the croque-monsieur Lefebvre eats for lunch.
Lefebvre is only ranked as a police inspector for Moreau’s execution, but the next section has him promoted to chief of the Paris Detective Police. Soon after his promotion, he is visited by Mme de Livet, a baroness whose husband is one of the richest men in Paris. The baron has gone missing after getting involved in high-stakes gambling with Russian Prince Papkov.
But the baron isn’t the only man to go missing. Several of the other gamblers at the prince’s party have also disappeared, in addition to a large sum of money the baron won at the table. Soon, the baroness is under suspicion, in addition to the baron’s manservant, Bonnet. The investigation takes a serious turn when the baroness’s maidservant, Manuela Otero, suddenly and mysteriously dies. Chief Lefebvre also starts receiving news that shady friends of Moreau have plans to assassinate him to enact revenge for their executed accomplice.
In the midst of these intrigues, Lefebvre also has to balance the demands of work with his home life. He is married and has two children. His many attempts to bring his wife flowers are thwarted as he juggles secret meetings with the political police, examinations of bodies in the morgue, and consultations with an impressive network of informants.
Sometimes, when the bad guys are in hot pursuit and the good guys are tracking down remote leads, Lefebvre has to take care of business himself, and that can leave his family with the short end of the stick. But in the end, his understanding wife keeps the home fires burning as Lefebvre finds all the missing pieces of the puzzle and forms a complete picture with which to bring the guilty to justice.
This was a fun book to read. The setting is superbly done, so that I felt immersed in late nineteenth-century France from the first page. The characters are interesting, and I thought the writing style was easy to become absorbed in. I got caught up in the mystery and couldn’t stop turning the page in search of the next piece of the puzzle.
[Don] So far, so good, Alison! Historical novels are no mean feat to write. Granted, the average readers will accept whatever settings they’re given, but historical fiction writers have to keep researching lest the cognoscenti catch them in an error.
[Alison] However, while I enjoyed a lot of the historical detail and writing style of the book, I think that sometimes Lefebvre seemed too omniscient a character. What I mean by this is two things:
One, he seemed overly aware of everything going on in literature, art and the sciences of the time. It seemed a little strange to me that a chief of police would be so knowledgeable in so many things, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief for the enjoyment of the story. His nickname is “the Professor,” which explains some of his extensive interest. Still, he seemed to know too much, I felt.
[Don] Achille Lefebvre may be a French version of Sherlock Holmes! Of course, such a detective must tell the reader how he acquires special knowledge of a case. However, common knowledge can be taken for granted. Lefebvre moves in very well-educated levels of society, such as the circles of barons and princes. Readers can safely assume that he will glean a lot from participating in polite conversation as well as by simply keeping up with the news.
[Alison] Part of what I like most about characters are their flaws, and someone who is all-knowing and all-doing can seem unrealistic/flat to a reader if he never faces any real setbacks. If a character can do everything and know everything and solve crimes with a snap of his fingers, I feel it diffuses some of the tension of the conflict.
[Don] The “conflicted detective” subgenre needs a “reasoner,” and such a story needs length. For example, the TV series Elementary has as its main leitmotif the increasingly close relationship of Sherlock and his partner, “Joan” Watson; and it evolves in a contemporary setting over the course of several seasons. Gary Inbinder’s novel has other objectives, mainly the detective’s function in a setting unfamiliar to modern readers.
[Alison] But the second criticism I had in terms of Lefebvre’s omniscience is that sometimes Lefebvre’s voice seems to have foresight into the future that seemed anachronistic to the time in which the book is set. He has certain opinions that are at conflict with the times or seem too quantitative/overly observant of his present time.
For example, at one point when speaking about fingerprinting technology in solving crimes, he says, “ ‘I’m afraid that fingerprinting, like telephonic communications and motorized transport, are early shoots that won’t reach full bloom until the next century’.” Comments like these pulled me briefly out of the story each time they appeared. As a reader, they seemed too prescient to me.
Personally, I feel the enjoyment of a story set in the past is to keep it firmly in the past. Too many insertions of modern-day foreknowledge into historical fiction creates a dissonance that dispels the illusion of the narrative’s timeline.
[Don] What is “past” or “future”? Of course, readers would be aghast if, say, a heroine in a novel set in Jane Austen’s time sighed: “Oh, if I only had a cellphone!”
Foreknowledge belongs to the genre of science fiction. Achille Lefebvre, like anyone in the reading public in the second half of the 19th century, had to be familiar with the renowned author Jules Verne, who has always been justly recognized in Europe as a major and influential literary figure. Sadly, Verne’s works were bowdlerized in the English-speaking world because they were presumably too advanced for the public to appreciate.
However, Lefebvre is by no means in the same position as Verne, let alone Cyrano de Bergerac, who, in the mid-17th century, recapitulated the history of flight in the 20th century. Cellphones two centuries before Jane Austen and three centuries before their time? No problem for Cyrano! Who, today, can predict the 24th century as accurately as Cyrano predicted the 20th?
Rather, Lefebvre deserves credit for foresight rather than foreknowledge. He’s telling the readers that the technology they expect in a modern setting is not yet available to him. But he says nothing that anyone in 19th-century Paris would find at all surprising.
Lefebvre lives in a very exciting age. The Eiffel Tower itself was new, and it stands today, as then, as a monument to technological progress. The automobile and 20th-century photography were already being developed in France. Fingerprinting, aircraft, the telegraph, telephones and the like were common topics of conversation. Lefebvre is a man of his times.
[Author’s note] In 1890, Lefebvre anticipates the technological advances in police work made by two famous officials who serve as his models: Louis Lepine and his successor, Céleste Hennion. For example, Hennion organized the first motorized police squad. Much of the technology was on display at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, in 1889. Its application to modern police work was a matter of development, imagination and expertise.
[Alison] But overall, this was a fun book to read and I enjoyed the complexity of the setting and characters. The level of detail was wonderfully integrated into the background of the story, and the mystery was interesting. For lovers of historical French mysteries, I’d put this near the top of the to-read list. I enjoyed it, and I hope you will, too.