Ghosts of Saint-Michel

Saints Meet Sinners in City of Light

July 25, 2006By Heidi EllisonBooks

In his new thriller/murder mystery, Ghosts of Saint-Michel (St. Martin’s Minotaur), Jake Lamar, an American writer living in Paris, has used the sculptures on the city’s Saint-Michel Fountain, which vividly depict a triumphant Saint Michael vanquishing Satan’s forces, as both a symbol and a setting for events past and present.

Lamar has an easy way of weaving world politics – terrorism and a CIA-like organization play leading roles in the plot, as do atrocities committed in the past by the French police – into the personal lives of believable characters. He is also totally at ease in the bicultural world of American residents of Paris and their French friends and lovers.

A quick plot summary: the gutsy, charismatic Marva, the 62-year-old American owner of a famed Paris soul-food restaurant, is in the grip of overwhelming lust for her 28-year-old lover, her sous-chef Hassan (described as having “the distracted, not-all-there look of certain saints and sociopaths”). She is so anxious to return to his arms that she even cuts short her usual month-long August vacation (blasphemy in France, where the summer holiday is sacred) with Loïc, her perfect husband.

But all is not well when she returns to Paris. A bomb has exploded in the headquarters of an international cultural organization, and her lover and his cousin are the main suspects. The former has disappeared, and the latter has been arrested.

This sets off a chain of events in which we learn that none of the characters are exactly what they seem to be – not even terrorists. The lines between good and evil – so clear in the Saint-Michel Fountain sculptures – begin to blur as we find out more about the characters’ past lives.

The unlikely savior of the increasingly complex and dangerous situation that develops turns out to be Naima, Marva and Loïc’s 23-year-old daughter, who returns from her home in New York City to play her part in the unfolding drama and represent the coming together of the often conflicting worlds of France and the United States.

Lamar’s well-written and finely paced novel keeps our interest and sympathy for the likable characters right up until the end, where the believability level begins to slip. The novel’s denouement just goes too far into the realm of implausibility. Few thrillers are plausible, however, and this one is so much better-written and engaging than most that it seems unimportant.

This is the fifth novel by Lamar, a former journalist who published a memoir, Bourgeois Blues, when he was barely 30. He has lived in Montmartre for many years.


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