Archive for July 3, 2013

516Kb3vwpVL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_It is the winter of 1909 and Maud Heighton has travelled from the north-east of England to study painting at the renowned Academie Lafond in Paris. 

This period 1871-1914 was known in Europe as La Belle Epoque, as the similar period in the USA was called The Gilded Age, but neither were very belle or gilded for the poor. Paris eats money, the women at Academie Lafond pay twice the fees of the men for their women only classes, and Maud is hungry and cold. But her luck seemingly changes when benefactors find her a position  in a luxurious apartment as companion to the beautiful young Sylvie Morel, whose brother Christian confides in her that his sister has an addiction to opium.

The Paris Winter is a beautifully written pastiche of Victorian novels with glimpses of Henry James, Wilkie Collins, Alexandre Dumas, and Charles Dickens. Imogen Robertson writes with consummate skill drawing the reader in with fine descriptive writing, clever plot and believable characters to a larger than life world of artists, models, drunks, whores, and incredibly wealthy Russians and Americans. Some things never change. I admit to finding this period fascinating as the wealthy partied on and on and did not realise that an incident in Sarajevo would soon bring their comfortable world crashing down around them.

‘There’re lots of Russians in Paris might like a taste of proper food from their homeland, and none of these Frenchies can cook a damn. All sauce, sauce, sauce till you don’t know what you’re eating.’

This was the France of  Alfred Dreyfus, exile to Devil’s Island, and Emile Zola, and the Paris in which in March 1914 Henriette Caillaux, wife of a French minister, shot dead 220px-Henriette_Caillaux_1914Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro and was acquitted.  The murder was regarded as a crime of passion and the misogynist idea that women were unable to control their emotions!

The attractive female characters in The Paris Winter; Maud the demure Englishwoman, with an interesting past, Yvette, the French model who survives on her wits, and Tanya, the rich Russian contemplating defying her family over a marriage proposal; are the forerunners of the independent women of the 21st century.

She felt his eyes examine her threadbare cuffs, but he made no comment and when he found he was being watched, smiled at her warmly. “Ah! You are one of the new women. Independent in thought and deed. Excellent.’

The smooth easy to read narrative introduces real life characters, such as Getrude Stein, and a real life event like the Paris Floods of 1910, into a gripping story of deceit, and revenge. The reader is taken to high society salons and dark opium dens, and kept guessing by an intriguing plot. I enjoyed this book, Paris, beautiful women, and some old style villains set in a period that has been surprisingly neglected by English speaking authors.

What more could a crime fiction aficionado want? This novel has been nominated for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Crime Fiction Award.

‘Our sins will find us out. Be assured, sir.’

‘What did you say?’

‘Our sins. Look at us with our electric lights and our underground railways. Motor-cars everywhere. The moving walkways at the exhibition in 1900. We rebel against Nature and she will punish us. It is the cutting down of the trees, it makes the wood spirits angry….’