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Thursday 22 January 2015

‘The Paris Winter’ by Imogen Robertson

Published by Headline,
24 October 2013.
ISBN: 978 0 7553 9013 7 (PB)

The plot is often the least of the author’s challenges in historical crime fiction. What sorts the memorable from the also-ran is the background: atmosphere, detail, and above all whether or not it feels right. This novel falls unequivocally into the memorable category.

The Paris Winter was shortlisted for the Ellis Peters Award in 2013, and deservedly so. It’s set in the art world, during the winter of 1909-10, culminating at a specific point in Parisien history which impacts heavily on the dénouement; the plot is not so much whodunnit as how do the protagonists prove it and deliver an appropriate payback.

All of Belle Epoque Paris is there: the opulent dress-fittings-and-morning-calls life of the rich, the sparse yet somehow upbeat existence of the poor and the comfortable, complacent domain of the middle class are all represented. The artistic community comes across in vivid technicolor. The well-informed salon hosts, the dilettante collectors, the girls scratching a living as models, the academy where young ladies receive tuition combine to form a rounded, detailed picture of the world inhabited by the main protagonists, of who there are three.

Tanya Koltsova is one of Maud’s fellow students, a rich Russian with a family whose plans for her do not include art. Yvette is a life model at the academy Maud and Tanya study at: a denizen of Montmartre, where lowlife apaches (not the native American kind – it’s a nickname for crook) rub shoulders with prostitutes, jobbing artists and opium addicts.

But it’s on Maud Heighton that the narrative hinges. Maud is an aspiring and talented artist, who has come to Paris to study: an act of great courage on her part, especially when money grows short and life grows very uncomfortable. (This gives rise to my one quibble with the author; Maud is apparently desperately hungry most of the time, yet almost every day she eats cakes in the morning, an omelet and bread for lunch and her landlady’s stew, albeit a thin one, in the evening. Not the most nourishing of diets, but hardly starvation rations. Fortunately the narrative soon moves on from this phase of Maud’s life.)

When Tanya’s attempt to help Maud out of extreme poverty goes catastrophically wrong, the three are plunged into a dark side to Paris’s glittering façade which only Yvette has any knowledge of, as they wreak revenge on a pair of amoral but ingenious crooks. It all comes to a climax which chills and thrills, during the floods which devastated the city in January 1910.

The plot gallops along and will keep you reading avidly – but for me, the book is mostly about the characters, both leading and supporting, all of whom are drawn with scratch-them-and-they-bleed detail and colour; and that vivid sense that this is how arty Paris in 1910 really was. 

One of the great pleasures of discovering a new author is also discovering that she has a backlist. The Paris Winter is Imogen Robertson’s first foray into the early 20th century, but it’s certainly left me itching to sample her late 18th century series.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick
 Imogen Robertson grew up in Darlington in the North East of England, studied Russian and German at Cambridge and spent a year in Russia in a city called Voronezh during the early nineties. Before she started writing full-time she used to direct children's television, film and radio. She decided to try and make a career out of writing after winning the Telegraph's 'First thousand words of a novel' competition in 2007 with the opening scene of Instruments of Darkness, her first book.
She has now written six novels; five in the Georgian Westerman and Crowther series and a standalone, Paris Winter. Paris Winter, Island of Bones and  have all been shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Historical Dagger. She also plays the cello and lives in Bermondsey, South London.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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