A mechanical duck takes a star turn, keeping us not just entertained but rapt. Groucho would have approved. This bird here, in Max Byrd’s deeply gratifying historical fiction The Paris Deadline, has gained fame by eating and excreting, which mechanical ducks aren’t known to do, even the French ones; but the duck gains our readership by sparking mystery, adventure, and romance. Why a duck? Why not a chicken? Because the water soon gets deep.
The place is Paris and the time is the 1920s, the “Crazy Years”—postwar, ebullient—or the “Jazz Age,” take your pick. Toby Keats is a vagabond reporter for the Paris edition of the déclassé Chicago Tribune, who shares a desk with a fictional version of the great journalist Waverly Root, here seen in the days before his acclaimed The Food of France, but already a suave and cunning boulevardier. Toby was a tunneler during the war—he would dig scrawny tunnels to the German lines, under which he would set explosive charges—and he carries the scars of that insane practice: thunder and lightning, the dark of the Metro, elevators, and locked doors all render him into jelly.
Toby is on an errand for the imperious mother of the Tribune’s owner when he makes acquaintance with the mechanical duck—Vaucanson’s Duck, as it will turn out, named after Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782): gifted mechanic, brilliant anatomist, and creator of the most lifelike automatons ever to exist. This one waddles and flaps, chews, swallows, and – testifying to its maker’s thoroughness — even poops. It is otherworldly and possessed, creepy and blasphemous, with the luxurious charm of a Fabergé egg. It is also in the sights of Elsiedale M. Short, Ph.D., Elsie for short, out of West Orange, NJ, and the Thomas A. Edison Doll Company, a scout for rare dolls and a slave to automatons, a fibber and a darling.
Henri Saulnay—German toymaker and villain, who lost everything in the war, which is still fresh and bitter for him—also wants the duck, homicidally so. But why? Byrd makes great, complex, and sometimes violent sport out of discovering the answer, but before that stormy night in the Jura Mountains, outside the cuckoo-clock town surrounded by alpenglow, first and all around Byrd attends to atmosphere.
Byrd is a flâneur of the best sort, a walking pocket plan to the city’s arrondissements, a psychogeographer of neighborhoods who deals out a swarm of street names as transporting as the copperplate, pastel maps folded into the old guides. “The Marais has certainly been flooded many times by the Seine, in the slushy brown days before modern dams tamed the river. In winter every crooked alley and house in the district gives off a notorious clammy odor, a cold, green, reptilian sweat.” The historical setting is intimate and giddying. It is Paris by night, snug though it will rain soon. At least it will be a Parisian rain. There are zinc bars and boot scrapes, Rumplemeyer’s and countless cafés, and gendarmes in silk capes. When it comes, the time spent afield has plenty of bump and dash, and so does the patter.
Pleasingly enthralled by his subjects, Byrd loves to dig and provide background. His punctuated biography of Vaucanson calls him up in his pinched glory: his association with Louis XV; the day he was drubbed out of town by the workingmen of Lyon who resented his automated silk-making machines; the creation of a gyroscope that motivated his rumored Bleeding Man — an automaton that could catch a fever, roll its eyes in derision, and move, circulate this way and that as easily as the blood in its transparent arteries, thanks to the gyroscope. The history of automatons gets excellent coverage, as do train timetables. Then there is the issue of Toby’s claustrophobia, which seals the story when he must confront the memories of being “trapped in some kind of narrow hollowed-out space about eight feet wide by three feet high,” where he must kill a man—there are two dead men in the space to begin with—or be killed. And, oh yes, it’s about 100 feet underground and pitch black. And Toby is painfully injured and there are rats. For two days, pinned under fallen timber. If you have a dread of tight, closed spaces, you are allowed to skip a couple paragraphs and imagine the worst. But you won’t want to miss any of the rest of the tour.