Bowen continues her lighthearted mystery series featuring amateur detective Molly Murphy, an enjoyable heroine who allows us to see the Edwardian period through the prism of her own experiences as a woman, a new mother, and loyal wife to NYPD Captain Daniel Sullivan, who has definite opinions about his wife’s place in the home and in society. Forced to obey Daniel’s wishes (and sometimes resentful for this), Molly worries about her husband’s current black moods. More than once she also wonders why she ever thought it would be a good idea to get married and leave her life of freedom and independence as a private investigator. Like many dutiful wives of this period, Molly loves Daniel and wants to share in her husband’s work, even when Daniel remains tight-lipped over his investigations into the Costa Nostra, a notorious Italian East Side gang who will soon wreak havoc and leave a trail of destruction throughout Molly’s home of Patchin Place.
This sometimes haunting novel delicately deals with themes of love, art, loneliness, friendship and abandonment. Molly is left to her own devices in Paris, anxiously searching for her beloved friends Sid and Gus after she learns that Gus has obtained an introduction to Reynold Bryce, the current patron and lodestone for American artists. After the loss of her house, her possessions and her “sweet little servant girl”—and in an effort to preserve the life of her son, little Liam—Daniel insists that Molly travels to the City of Light and into the safe arms of Sid and Gus. On the way she endures seasickness and a group of spinsters; she is also charmed by a young girl featured in a Reynold Bryce painting: “she wasn’t quite of this world - Angelic almost.”
The Bryce paintings become a motif repeated throughout Bowen’s enjoyable mix of lighthearted moments and a growing mystery that increasingly draws Molly into an investigation of the murder of Reynold Bryce and the inexplicable disappearance of both Gus and Sid. Molly’s friends are nowhere to be found. They left their flat suddenly, after it was rumored they were appalled at Bryce’s unexpected anti-Semitism, a view that has made him unpopular with both communities—artists and Jews.
Alone with a sick baby and very little money, Molly tries to fend off a nagging worry: that her friends are seriously hurt and lying unconscious in a hospital. The only evidence to their whereabouts is a postcard showing a scene by Monet, addressed to the artist Miss Augusta Walcott with two scribbled words and signed by Reynold Brice. Forever the sleuth (despite Daniel’s wishes), Molly plunges into the mystery of Bryce’s murder and her friends’ whereabouts in a period couched in propriety and genteel manners, where the demands of a young wife are placed in sharp similarity to the daily struggles of the working poor, of artists and prostitutes, and all of the other outcast denizens of Paris.
Traveling from back alley to boulevard and to the brasseries at the bottom of the Rue de Martyrs, for Molly the Parisian streets are bathed in a deep twilight while the inhabitants themselves often appear passionate and wild and jealous, speaking of duels and pistols. Descending deep into Montmartre where the artists live and to the teahouses at the Rue de Rivoli, Molly’s Paris becomes both light and dark, bathed golden and gray, breezy and melancholy, immune to its own abundant clichés.
Aside from Bryce’s murder, Sid and Gus’s disappearance, and the ongoing theme—the struggles of women in the Edwardian period—the true highlight of this book is Bowen’s clever exploration of the artistic movements in La Belle Époque Paris. Bowen unfolds a roster of droppable names and a pantheon of credibly impersonated artistic immortals including Mary Cassatt, Picasso, and Degas, whom Molly meets and forms a connection with. Although the insertion of actual artists gives Bowen’s mystery its distinct flavor, Molly’s shared love of painting allows her to forge an alliance of sorts with a young Parisian model and a long-lost relative of Gus’s who may hold the key to Bryce’s untimely demise. Paris, meanwhile, is perpetually alive, not because it houses the ghosts of the famous dead but because it is the repository and setting of so much of their work.
Entertaining and nostalgic, this tale shows that you can take Molly out of the detective world, but you can’t take the detective out of her. Danger lurks in every boulevard and every teahouse, and Molly is predictably placed front and center, determined to eke out justice to the last. She’s a practical person of refinement and sensitivity, an admirable protagonist who gives us a window into a past where elegance defined a way of life and where moral courage was an indelible trait of the working class.