Death at the Paris Exposition
(Emily Cabot Mysteries #6)
Allium Press of Chicago
September 1, 2016
also available as ebook
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MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
It all started at Printers Row Lit Festival, in Chicago in 2014, when I met Frances McNamara at a booth. Enjoying historical mysteries, I was intrigued by Death at the Fair, her novel set in Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition. I enjoyed very much the heroine Emily Cabot, so I am thrilled to travel with her today to another world exhibit, the one in Paris in 1900, as presented in Death at the Paris Exposition.
By now (this is the 6th volume in the series, but they all work well as standalone), Emily is married to Stephen, a doctor and medical researcher. She teaches at the University of Chicago and is much involved in politics, defending the place in women in society. They have three young children.
Bertha Palmer, a famous businesswoman, socialite, and philanthropist of Chicago, has invited Emily’s family to come and join her at the Paris Exposition. Bertha Palmer (who eventually received La Légion d’Honneur, in January 1901) is the only woman commissioner, and Emily is to serve as her secretary to manage the American delegation and pavilion.
The Palmers are there with their son Honoré and his friend Lord James. As the women try on new dresses sewn by the House of Worth, a famous French house of high fashion that specialized in haute couture, Bertha’s necklace disappears. Feeling in debt for this free trip to Paris, and not satisfied by the job done by the French cynical policeman, Emily decides to do her own investigation to help Bertha recover her jewels and identify the thief. Things turn out more tricky than expected when murders are added to more thefts.
I really enjoyed the suspense, with some totally unexpected twists.
But the greatness of the book lies I believe in the amazing amount of research done and how it is so artfully woven into the narrative. The author consulted many books and videos on the topic. Even if you don’t understand French, this one is amazing.
If you have met me in the real life, you would know right away I am not into fashion nor fancy dresses. Even so, I was totally captivated by the descriptions of the dresses (found by the author for instance in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s letters), their colors and texture of the fabrics, as well as the job of couturiers and milliners, and the hard competition.
By the way, you can see some clothes and accessories owned by Bertha Palmer here. Or on Frances McNamara’s Pinterest board. You will recognize some dresses you have read about in the book!
The richness of descriptions applies as well to places, the exposition in itself, especially the architecture and the events, but so much more, as McNamara smartly sends Emily to different neighborhoods of Paris (Notre Dame Cathedral, les bouquinistes along La Seine, le Quartier Latin, Montmartre) and even outside Paris (Beauvais for instance). Allium Press created also an awesome Pinterest board on the topic!
I enjoyed a neat passage on cafés: “Concern for food and drunk was only a secondary object of the customers. The primary goal was watching.” Go grab your copy and keep reading the fascinating description on page 74.
There were also interesting comparisons between this 1900 Paris Exposition and the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. You could feel the jealousy between the American and the French.
Note that the Eiffel Tower was built for the previous Paris Exposition, in 1889. During the 1900 one, on July 4th took place the dedication of the statue of Lafayette at the Louvre.
Another fascinating layer in the story is all the people we meet. There are of course fictional characters (a colorful Russian countess and her daughter), but some real ones as well. I have mentioned the Palmers, the House of Worth (and we meet the famous Cartier jeweler, as the son Louis married the Worth daughter Andrée).
Emily meets also Mary Cassatt, and even poses for her with a child (check the author’s pin for a possible Emily!). There are some wonderful passages on the life and art of the famous painter, who lived in France for many years, died there is even buried there. There’s a neat meeting between Emily and painter Edgard Degas, and Cassatt translates for them:
A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people. Conversation in real life is full of half-finished sentences and overlapping talk. Why shouldn’t painting be, too?
I particularly enjoyed the very end for its welcomed unusual perspective: as I read MANY books set in Paris, I’m sometimes tired of the rosy almost picture perfect vision of France they offer, the view reserved to tourists. Emily is not afraid to say she’s happy to come back to Chicago, bringing back with her bittersweet memories of Paris. Yes Paris is beautiful, but lots of tragic things can also happen there, as she witnessed.
EN DEUX MOTS :
Mystère à rebondissements sur fond d’exposition universelle à Paris. L’auteur a su avec talent intégrer le fruit captivant de ses recherches dans une histoire qui se tient. Excellent mélange de personnes réels et fictifs.
VERDICT: Perfect example of how to integrate smartly the fruit of your research into a historical novel. Luscious descriptions and suspenseful mystery. Very enjoyable.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Frances McNamara grew up in Boston,
where her father served as
Police Commissioner for ten years.
She has degrees from Mount Holyoke
and Simmons Colleges,
and recently retired from the University of Chicago.
She now divides her time between Boston and Cape Cod.
She is the author of five other titles in the Emily Cabot Mysteries series,
which is set in the 1890s and takes place primarily in Chicago:
Death at the Fair, Death at Hull House, Death at Pullman,
Death at Woods Hole, and Death at Chinatown.
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