Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Proper Lefte Bank Murder

Mark Pryor, The Sorbonne Affair: A Hugo Marston Novel

Bestselling American author Helen Hancock believes her Paris hotel room is bugged, but she dare not involve local authorities. So she contacts Hugo Marston, security chief at the American embassy. Marston doesn't take Hancock, her potboiler novels, or her suspicions seriously... until an actual pinhole camera appears behind a painting. This spy gewgaw traces back to an indebted American hotel employee, who turns up dead, crashing Marston's investigation into a wall.

Reading British-born American author Mark Pryor's seventh Hugo Marston novel reminds me of Inspector Morse, the classic British mystery series. Both feature educated, well-spoken protagonists whose gentlemanly demeanor conceals a roiling past. Both have subdued tones and cerebral characters whose occasional sudden bursts of violence feel more powerful because they surge forth unexpectedly. This comparison could be good or bad, depending.

On the one hand, Pryor writes with a pensive tone reminiscent of a primarily cerebral subgenre I haven’t much seen in years. His characters discuss facts, evaluate evidence, and have long conversations about, well, stuff. In a paperback thriller market dominated by antiheroes who love kneecappings and fistfights, this approach, with a primary emphasis on the puzzle, seems somehow both nostalgic, and a welcome relief from the constant action.

Not that the character is bloodless or boring. Like Inspector Morse, Marston continues believing he’ll find the right woman, even well into middle age. And when, in an important subplot, a convict from Marston’s past comes barging into the present, we discover his repressed capacity for naked savagery. One suspects Marston’s normally donnish approach to even ordinary conversations serves to shackle a powerful inner conflict between libido and violence, between Freud and Nietzsche.

Mark Pryor
On the other hand, this subdued tone, so welcome throughout most of the novel, does set a very slow pace. The number of important expository scenes that occur in bistros, while Marston and another important character chat over wine, becomes pointed somewhere around page 80. Especially since Pryor has a large ensemble of characters to reintroduce from prior novels, the exposition gets long and talky. Much bread and zinfandel is consumed. When there’s a body in the stairwell, maybe postpone introductions?

Pryor establishes an interesting locked-room mystery. Despite the impression I gained growing up during the Cold War, watching off-label spy thrillers, bugging somebody’s personal space is very laborious. Most remote surveillance devices have limited range and short battery life, Thus Marston and his multinational battalion of crime experts must unlock a mystery that could only take place within limited geographic range. They successfully find the bug’s receiver… after its owner is already dead, but the data must still be going somewhere. Evidence accumulates without any clear suspects.

Helen Hancock compounds these problems by her personal quirks. Her first scene establishes she probably hasn’t learned the meaning of the word “inappropriate.” She strives to emulate Hemingway-era stereotypes about American expats in France: sexually flagrant, workshy, and moody. She fears spies pirating her yet-unfinished novel, but apparently spends little time writing. Though she came to Paris for research, her labors apparently consist of wine by the bottle, hot stone massages, and indolently mentoring American MFA students. She flirts with Marston in front of his date.

This collision between Hancock’s histrionic behaviors, and how the evidence supports her paranoia, provided momentum enough to propel me through Pryor’s more sluggish passages. Fundamentally, Pryor cares less about what happens, than about how characters respond. One suspects Pryor might rather write highbrow character novels, but his training as an attorney, and the exigencies of today’s publishing market, make genre series more lucrative.

It’s somewhat cliché to say a novel has a self-selecting audience. Don’t all books, especially in today’s niche market? Yet Marston’s distinctive retro style, reminiscent more of Agatha Christie than Raymond Chandler, deserves mention. Hugo Marston, our protagonist, has the capacity for profound violence and coarse outbursts, especially when a suspect from his FBI-agent past barges into the present. But he’s primarily a thinker, a tendency conveyed in his dialogue and slow, discursive expositions.

I found plenty to like about this novel. But I had to adjust my mental rhythms to match those of my author, a choice not all readers make anymore, when television and Internet pander to our hunger for novelty. Pryor’s audience will want an experience that takes them outside themselves, an experience more like literary fiction than the usual genre boilerplates. I’m glad I read this novel, and will probably investigate Pryor’s previous Marston novels. But ask yourself whether this book is right for you.

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