Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Floats the Dark Shadow
Bear Cat Press
2012, ISBN 978-1-937356-20-0
Floats the Dark Shadow is an atmospheric whodunnit set in the dark Parisian underworld of 1897. An American art student, Theodora Faraday, and a Parisian police inspector, Michel Devaux, team up to catch a serial killer of children who believes he is the reincarnation of Gilles des Rais, former follower of Joan of Arc who became a serial killer after her death.
The chapters showing the killer with his victims may upset some readers. Similar perverse crimes against women and children are the subject matter of today’s popular mainstream TV detective shows, but a novel is longer, more complex and multi-layered than a TV show, and some readers will find the descriptions of horrific and disgusting acts too fulsome. Fey, a well-travelled American author who writes historical romances under the names Taylor Chase and Gayle Feyrer, has done thorough research for Floats a Dark Shadow, not only into Parisian landmarks and locations, but also into French history, specifically, into Gilles des Rais, and into the Paris Commune (1871), which happened twenty-six years earlier than the time frame of the novel, but is still vivid in Parisians’ memories.
Fey also delves into end-of-century decadence Theodora’s cousin Averill Charron, a poet, belongs to a group of literary friends who publish a (fictional) magazine, The Revenant, and call themselves “Revenants” -ghosts with physical form who feed on emotion and desire. Some of the Revenants dabble in Satanism and magic. They are part of the late 19th century “decadent movement”, associated with the real-life French authors Baudelaire and Rimbaud and the British Oscar Wilde, author of the new, sensational play, *Salome*, mentioned in the novel. Unlike the Romantic movement of earlier in the century, which valued nature, the Decadents prize artifice.
Rimbaud believed that “a poet must arrive at the unknown through a relentless disordering of his senses,” and, to that end, the Revenants drink absinthe and seek out the dark and sensational. Averill, for instance, praises an unintentional contrast in Theodora’s painting of a windmill, saying that the mill looks “innocent and frisky”, while the flowers behind it are like spattered blood. Inspector Michel Devaux of the Surete “did not think Theodora had the same perverse sensibility as her poet friends. she wanted to be wild, perhaps even wicked in a small way.She did not know that small ways were like small tears in the soul that let evil drip in.”
Manifestations of decadence pop up frequently and unexpectedly to jar the reader, as is the case with Aunt Marguerite’s cocaine parties, where she and her women friends use their own special jewelled syringes. Theodora finds Averill writing a poem to a wax medical model of a female figure which shows her delicately-crafted organs. The climax of the novel is a Black Mass.
Theodora, the illegitimate daughter of a French portraitist and an American society woman, was adopted in California, and learned of her true origins as a young adult. Her real father, who does not appear “on stage” in this novel, arranges for her to move to Paris and live with the family of his brother, Dr. Urbain Charron, a prosperous physician specializing in women’s illnesses. Thanks to Cousin Averill’s assistance, Theodora lives most of the time in her Montmartre studio, rented from a widow with a little boy. The Revenants, an all-male group, consider Theodora their “blonde Amazon” and take her to creepy, unusual places, such as a violin concert in the Catacombs.
The novel is presented in the third person from three viewpoints: Theodora’s, Michel’s, and occasionally “Gilles”, the serial killer. Tension is ever-present as readers are taken down dark alleys, to the morgue, to an anti-woman demonstration by the male students at the Ecole des Beax Arts, and to a devastating fire at a charity bazaar. The size of the cast conceals the identity of the prime suspect but the sheer numbers of characters to keep track of may overwhelm some readers. It is helpful that the author frequently presents Michel Devaux’s current line of reasoning, which refreshes readers’ memories as to who the persons of interest are, and why.
Devaux’s past parallels Theodora’s in that both were adopted. His parents perished in the Paris Commune, a popular uprising in response to the seige of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. To defend the city of two million, the populace formed a citizens’ militia which elected its own officers. When the French government moved to Bordeaux, leaving a power vacuum, the citizens’ militia’s central committee took over the government and held elections for a 92 member council (commune) which included many left-wing activists. A feminist movement arose as part of it. In administering Paris, the council instituted laws that helped the poor. In May 1871, the army suppressed the commune after a week of bloody street fighting. Hundreds of Communards were shot; 10,000 were tried and found guilty; 4,000 were sent to penal colonies; some escaped to Britain and America. Paris was under martial law for five years. (see Wikipedia)
Devaux reveres the Communards. Theodora, raised on the American belief in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, believes in equality, including women’s suffrage. Throughout the novel, as she and Michel conduct parallel efforts to identify the child-abductor/serial killer, we notice that the principal characters are both energetic and idealistic, and hope that they will become a couple. For much of the novel, however, Theodora is in love with Averill. Always willing to excuse his unwholesome death-obsession, she gives him the benefit of the doubt when he is found twice under highly suspicious circumstances. Until late in the novel she misunderstands the nature of his friendship with Baron Casimir Estarlian. If Floats the Dark Shadow is the first of a series, a relationship may eventually develop between Theo and Michel.
Fey’s lush writing includes a key motif, the theme song of the Commune, “Cherry Blossom Time”, which appears at the beginning of the novel and again at the end. As well as providing unity and shape, it affirms selflessness and concern for others, as demonstrated by Michel, Theodora, her landlady and her little boy.
Ruth Latta’s four cosy mysteries: Tea With Delilah, The Secret of WhiteBirch Road, Illusions Die and Memories Stick are available from firstname.lastname@example.org