When I visited Paris the first time in 1986, my friends and I ascended the Eiffel Tower to have lunch and view the city. Almost a century earlier, visitors to the the Tower at its inauguration in 1889 could dine at one of four specially-constructed thematic restaurants, each holding about 500 people. The kitchens were built under the platforms! The restaurant where we dined in the 80s was one of several re-designs. But a good sense of how the Eiffel Tower looked and worked in its initial heyday is available in Claude Izner‘s Murder on the Eiffel Tower (2003 in French; 2007 in English).
The two sisters who are behind the Izner pseudonym know their Parisian history well. They draw on the historically rich moment in 1889 when the Universal Exposition saw literally millions of visitors view its displays on French foreign possessions such as New Caledonia and Senegal; demonstrations of the new Kodak camera; and exhibitions on history, including a “live” Cro-Magnon man (played by an out-of-work Russian opera singer).The Expo itself was designed to commemorate the centennial celebration of the French Revolution but was perhaps more memorable for other kinds of technological and artistic revolutions such as photography, the Tower itself, and Impressionism.
The mystery is that visitors to the Expo are dying, seemingly from bee stings. The unlikely detective is bookseller Victor Legris, who worries that his surrogate father, who is Japanese, or his newly-acquired love interest Tasha, may be the culprit. The narrative describes his bookshop in great detail but also provides vivid pictures of late 19th century Paris, such as the building of Sacre Coeur on Montmartre, which is 14 years in process at the time of the opening of the Tower. Legris covers several Paris neighborhoods in his trek to uncover the identity of the murderer–before it’s too late. In doing so, he also comes under attack.
The authors have already finished six of the planned eight books in the series, each one taking in a different neighborhood of Paris: Pere-LaChaise Cemetery; Montmartre; the Marais. Personally, I find Legris somewhat annoying. He dashes to and fro and has migraines. He seems insensitive to his own hypocrisy in behaving jealousy toward Tasha–while still having a mistress, the rather awful Odette (perhaps better named Odile?). But, the plot is interesting, and the scenes in Paris offer details suitable for a Road Works journey.
A second mystery that takes readers to 19th century Paris, albeit earlier, is Louis Bayard’s The Black Tower (2009)–not to be confused with the P.D. James novel of the same title. It features the extraordinary real-life character of Vidocq, who creates France’s Sûreté Nationale. Rest assured this is not the detective agency known for the clumsy Inspector Clouseau, but a much darker place where murder and violence are confronted. Vidocq is more Holmesian, and the narrative does not contain the romantic subplots of Murder on the Eiffel Tower. But both share an ability to evoke an earlier Paris.
Yet another good mystery of 19th century exists in the award-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) by Brian Selznick. Although officially a children’s or young adult title, it’s a worthwhile read for adults, too, a wonderful story set in the Montparnasse train station. Its graphic art is remarkable. While the other two mysteries are enjoyable reads, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is something special, a book that should be around for yet another century.