This is the middle book of a trilogy of historical novels, more stories of suspense than mysteries, set in the first decades of the 20th century. The central character is Alexander von Reisden, a German baron who works as a researcher in chemistry. I learned about these books from Laurie R. King. At a book signing in Houston, she was asked what books she read, and Sarah Smith was the first author she named. Fortunately, the signing was at my beloved Murder by the Book, and they had the first of the set, The Vanished Child. By the next day, I had found copies of the other two, and I devoured them.
In that first book, set in 1906, Reisden encounters an American man on a railway platform in Lausanne, who asks him, "Richard, do you know me?" When Reisden says no, the other man says, "Then Jay really killed him," and collapses. Curious despite himself, Reisden begins to ask questions. He learns that the Richard in question was eight years old when he disappeared in 1887, the same night his grandfather and guardian William Knight was shot at the family's summer home in New Hampshire. When an academic conference takes him to Boston, Reisden meets members of the Knight family and is drawn into the mystery of Richard's disappearance.
This book opens three years later. Reisden is now living and working in Paris. A young woman he met in Boston, Perdita Halley, has joined him there, officially to study piano at the Conservatiore, where women students are barely tolerated. Perdita, who is legally blind, hopes to make a career as a professional musician, but her relationship with Reisden is a constant distraction. He has his own distractions, including the recent acquisition of a business, a medical facility that treats mental illnesses, the Analyses Medicales Jouvet. Its main attraction for Reisden is its archives, generations of patient files, "the best multi-generational data on insanity in France." His position as director of Jouvet may explain why he receives a letter one day, asking him to ensure the proper burial of a street performer and sometime prostitute, known as the Mona Lisa, who was recently stabbed to death by an unknown assailant.
The Mona Lisa, both the victim and Leonardo's masterpiece in the Louvre, is one theme running through this rich and complicated story. There is also the upcoming Winter Salon, which will include a retrospective on the Impressionist painter Claude Mallais, who died three years ago. His widow has been selling off a few of his remaining works, but suddenly questions have come up about some of these paintings. Reisden's cousin Dottie, the Viscountess de Gresnière, owns one of those later works, and she wants him to investigate, to prove it genuine. Even more than that, she wants him to stop seeing Perdita and marry someone suitable, not an American woman of no family ten years his junior, who wants to go on tour. Perdita herself is torn, trying to understand why women aren't taken seriously as artists, why they can't have both careers and families, not to mention love. At one point, she asks herself,
What was wrong with the world, that a woman who saw pictures could not paint them? There were the clothes to fold, the children to take care of; the men who expected the women to fold clothes and take care; the daughters who did not have music, the sons who did; the necessity of everything that women did, and its second-classness; but why could there not be more, for someone, who could there not be more?In the course of the story, Perdita meets women whose unconventional lives underline her questions. One is a thinly-veiled portrait of Colette, here called Millie de Xico; the other is I think Gertrude Stein. Pablo Picasso is also here, under another name, and those more familiar with Belle Époque Paris may recognize other characters.
I won't say anything more about the book, to avoid spoilers, except to mention that the climax takes place during the great Paris floods of January 1910. It has been a few years since I've re-read these books, in part because I read them so obsessively in the beginning. In that, and in the relationship between Perdita and Reisden, with its Lymond and Philippa overtones, they remind me of Dorothy Dunnett's books. I needed to read something for a book club meeting, or else I'd have gone straight on to the third, A Citizen of the Country. It's up next.