Laurie R. King writes:
Ah, Paris in the Twenties. A social Xanadu; a literary Eden; the Garden of unearthly delights, right? Which might make it an appealing place for a crime writer to set a nice cozy mystery, one with beautifully dressed young people gathered around a decorative corpse in the midst of a naughty party, but—a thriller?
No. For the thriller end of the crime spectrum, you need the farther end of the decade: not 1923, when talent was young and hungry and thick on the ground, but the waning months of 1929, when the party was about to turn ugly, when the petty criminals and hangers-on had taken over, and those living off the allowance from home were about to get a rude awakening with the Crash.
Now, that is the setting for a thriller.
So what books got me in the mood for The Bones of Paris? Memoirs of idyllic summer days on the Champs Élysées and nights of wild parties where all the world was witty? Or books that suggest something darker, more complicated—even if the author hadn’t intended to give that away? Especially if they hadn’t.
Shadows beneath the City of Light; pleasure tinged with guilt, and success with loss. Three such memoirs come to mind.
A Moveable Feast
By Ernest Hemingway
This is as much novel as autobiography, and may be the Paris book, with every image and flavor we hold about 1920s Paris: a heroic and hungry young artist; the intoxicating freedoms of daily life; the expatriate’s inspirations, an American stirred to nobility by the City of Light—a memoir wrapped in that inimitable Hemingway pomp and bluster. But the young man’s notebooks at the book’s core—writing that bursts with confidence and energy—were later reshaped by the editorial hands of an old man losing a battle with drink, then by those of the suicide’s widow. The reader feels the bounce of the young man, but through a film of desperation, depression, and failure.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
By Gertrude Stein
First of all, isn’t it just a bit creepy for Stein to have taken over poor Miss Toklas so completely that she even writes the woman’s “autobiography”—which, no surprise, amounts to a song of praise about Gertrude Stein? Toklas did actually write a memoir, What Is Remembered, which makes for an interesting companion volume to the “Autobiography,” but this fictionalized history offers inadvertent glimpses of a Stein with just a bit too much self-regard, a Stein who might have made some poor choices in (among other things) politics, who could have done with a bit more humility. The good lady would have agreed with none of those judgments herself, but when the reader spots them in Stein’s own writing, it makes for some deliciously subversive moments.
By Kiki of Montparnasse (Alice Prin)
Kiki–the Queen of Montparnasse–was a fixture in the Latin Quarter’s cafés and bars, and makes cameo appearances in most of the reminiscences about the time and place (especially those of the men). But as a researcher works through those stacks of Twenties memoirs, an odd fact comes to light: for stories set in Paris, they contain remarkably few actual French people. The American community of Montparnasse was just that: American, with a handful of Brits, Germans, Spaniards, Japanese, and Italians for flavor. Then as now, the Yanks didn’t bother to learn more than a bit of French, and limited their interaction with les Français to waiters and shopkeepers. To see the community from the other side, that of a working-class French girl, is illuminating. And although Kiki is never rude about the foreigners whose lives she shares and inspires, the reader of her memoirs can’t help wondering if any of those men who bought her a drink and cheered on her nude dances had any idea of who she was. If any of them sent her the odd check, when they moved on and left her behind.