Kierkegaard said that “life can only be experienced backwards, but unfortunately can only be lived forwards.” This is exactly Hector Lassiter’s dilemma as he becomes involved in a series of murders in 1924 Paris and a steamy affair with dark-eyed beauty Brinke Devlin, a free-thinking mystery writer who, like Lassiter, has had her work published in the States. More troubling are the random deaths of editors of marginal literary magazines - some by plunging into the Seine, one with his throat slit in bed, another poisoned by snuff-laced strychnine while attending one of Gertrude Stein’s salons.
The bread-and-butter money earned in America through Lassiter’s crime stories finances his efforts to write a novel in Paris, the literary scene in the City of Lights roiling with serious writers, poets, critics and artists, from Hector’s friend Ernest Hemingway to Ezra Pound and the bevy of admirers who attend Stein’s command-performance salons. But the usually carefree community is infected with paranoia as the killings continue, especially after one of their own is splashed with acid when answering her door.
Lurking at the fringes of established literati are the nihilists, Satanists and followers of the dark arts like Aleister Crowley, a network of unbelievers on a mission as yet unsuspected by the police or the writers gathered by Stein charged with solving the crimes. The deeper Hector gets into this murky and unpredictable territory, the more he worries for the safety of his friends - especially Hemingway - and a young female poet half in love with Lassiter and flirting with the questionable attractions of the nihilistic society.
With his usual wit and charm, McDonald recreates the Paris of the Twenties, the madly-talented, night-clubbing writers and artists that flourish in a bohemian milieu, bold feminists and iconic literary rebels on the cusp of genius. Hemingway plays a thoughtful foil for Lassiter as the two wax theoretical in sidewalk cafes, where menacing killers seem a world away. Hector throws himself whole-heartedly into the affair with Brinke, a libertine who matches his intellectual and physical gifts in equal measure, though Lassiter may lose his edge while distracted by Brinke’s erotic charms.
Like Hemingway and their search for “one true sentence,” Lassiter is always engaged in the writing process even in the midst of murder and romance, his thoughts wandering to a story or the theme of his first novel: “The writer in him was always watching.” It is in this regard that McDonald excels, connecting the writer to his environment, be it a tumble in the sheets in a ménage a trios or facing certain death at the hands of a murderer. Hector never takes anything for granted and never underestimates his environment as McDonald spins a twisted tale of writers, their passions and their pasts.