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The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson

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Manda Scott
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Location: Shropshire, UK

The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson

Post by Manda Scott » Thu March 21st, 2013, 2:20 pm

A long time, ago, when I was a baby crime writer trying to find a publisher for my first book (‘darling, we love the plot, but we just can’t publish lesbian characters. Can’t you change them?), my agent brought me in due course of time to The Women’s Press who said, ‘Darling, we love the characters, but the plot… we don’t publish thrillers, we only publish mysteries. Yours is too thrilling. Can you make it into a mystery?’
Thus began a search for the distinction between mysteries and thrillers. As a result, I came to the conclusion that a mystery is a literary hybrid between Cleudo and the Telegraph crossword where we all have to discover who killed Miss Scarlet with the lead piping in the library and where the clues wind through of varying degrees of tortuosity before revealing their import, or lack of it.
A thriller, by contrast, sets up one single important question: will the person for whom we have most affection, survive through to the end of the novel? This covers a pretty broad base and so we have the subgenres: the spy thriller, the action thriller (and its baby brother, the acronym thriller, in which every page must have at least one military acronym, one particular brand of gun and an identification to the nearest half millimeter of the rounds it fires), the historical thriller.
And then we have the rarest of beasts, the literary thriller, the thriller that transcends genres and leaps out to the head of a crowded field; a book so good that it bludgeons away all the normal restrictions of the field. Imogen Robertson’s ‘The Paris Winter’ is just such a book.
Set in Paris of La Belle Époque at the turn of the twentieth century, the book follows the fortunes of Maud Heighton, a young English woman of straightened means who has come to Paris to study at a women-only art school. Finding herself cold and quite literary starving, she faces the prospect of returning home to her disapproving brother – until an angel in the form of the fantastically beautiful, fantastically wealthy Russian heiress, Tanya, introduces her to a man who needs a young lady of good breeding to take care of his sister, Sylvie. Sylvie is an opium addict, and perhaps company will bring her back to the world.
Maud flourishes in Sylvie’s company. Her painting improves, her life is perfect. Until it isn’t. The sudden crash that hits her is as unexpected to us as it is to her and I’m not going to spoil it for you, but let’s say that what was a fascinating, intricate novel of art and artistry, of manners and means, becomes an increasingly dark and twisting thriller with a genuinely nail-biting denoument that coincides with the floods that assailed Paris in January of 1910.
So far, so good. This is a love story, a story of art, a story of loss and betrayal and doubt and of women finding their way in the world – the subplot of Tanya’s aunts is particularly moving – but none of these in and of themselves is exceptional. What lifts this above the herd is the quality of the prose; the working of words as if they were oils on a canvas that turn this novel about art into work of art in its own right. The characters are complex and perfect; they have depth and colour and the lights that show them are chosen with care. The settings are detailed and many are mirrored in the catalogue notes for an unsigned collection, the provenance of which only becomes clear in the last pages. The sense of Paris as the hub of change is palpable, and lights every page. And yes, I did fall in love with Maud: always a good sign in a novel.
This isn’t the average blood and thunder. It’s not a book of battles and intrigue and politics and great men of state. It’s a glorious, gorgeous tapestry of a world that is almost within reach of our own and I loved it. If it’s not at least on the shortlist for the Prize formerly known as Orange, somebody, somewhere isn’t doing their job right.

Bestselling author of
Boudica: Dreaming. INTO THE FIRE out in June 2015: Forget what you thought you knew, this changes everything.


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Post by Madeleine » Thu March 21st, 2013, 4:14 pm

Great review Manda! Someone else recommended this book, I like her Crowther and Westerman series - have you read any of those? Probably more conventional historical mysteries - and yes, I've often wondered what the difference was between a mystery and a thriller, sometimes it's a fine line! Thank you for explaining that one.
Currently reading: "The Sicilian Method" by Andrea Camilleri

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Post by annis » Fri March 22nd, 2013, 7:22 pm

Some dramatic photos of the 1910 Paris flood here:

http://historic-cities.huji.ac.il/franc ... paris.html

See also Imogen Robertson's post at the History Girls blog on the flood and how the flood as metaphor for the chaos that always underlies our lives, however orderly, inspired Paris in Winter.

Love the HG blog - the posts are always fascinating, quirky, entertaining and informative - well worth while checking out.

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