Reviewed by Ruth Latta
April on Paris Street
by Anna Dowdall
Guernica Editions (MiroLand)
Oct 21, 320 pages, Trade Paperback, ISBN13: 9781771836234
“…[F]amilies were so strange. Not just because of the hurts and ills they harboured, but also for their ability to seal off the parts destroyed, force their way into other channels and flow free.”
So says Ashley Smeeton, the private detective/narrator in Anna Dowdall’s new noir mystery, April on Paris Street. April on Paris Street has several areas of interest: the charms of Paris and Montreal; the varied work of a private investigator; the dark, dangerous world in which we live, and above all, the importance of staying connected to our families, whether they be blood relatives or “intentional families” of friends.
As the novel opens, Ashley is moving into her new office/home on rue de Paris in the Pointe Saint-Charles neighbourhood of Montreal. She rents from a family which includes a computer science student, Aram, who is fascinated by her work and helps her with tech and other matters. Aram’s six year old brother, Ibrahim, is “going steady”, in Ashley’s words, with his playmate Marie Ambre, age five, daughter of a friendly neighbour, Chantale, who has deep roots in the Pointe.
In addition to a promising new home, Ashley has an intriguing and possibly lucrative new case. Charles Saint-Cyr, a socially prominent, middle-aged manufacturer of women’s fashions wants to discuss something to do with his young wife, Mirabel. At their meeting in his large home in Westmount, near the top of Mount Royal (the best address in the city), Ashley learns from Charles that Mirabel is in Paris and won’t come home. She went to see the fall fashion shows to prepare her for a position in her husband’s firm. Down-to-earth Ashley decides that “he hadn’t managed to knock her up yet and in the meantime he was humouring her aspirations.”
Charles reveals that Mirabel was having a fling with a man who has disappeared after an incident of being run off the road. The Paris police view his disappearance as suspicious, and are interviewing Mirabel. Apparently she wants to come home but first wants her sister, Isabel, to come and support her during this trying time. Since Isabel is teaching and can’t come to her rescue, Charles Saint-Cyr thought of Ashley as a substitute.
Although Ashley would like to see Paris “on Charles’s dime”, she first discusses the job with Mirabel on the telephone and Isabel in person. Thirty-year old Mirabel is vague and scattered, but eager for Ashley to come. Unlike Mirabel, whose pictures on the internet show her to be a blue-eyed blonde, her twin Isabel has brownish eyes, multicoloured hair and dresses in “Montreal bohemian” style. Isabel tells Ashley that she and Mirabel were adopted by different families after their parents’ death. Charles is an “old school husband” who tries to put the sensitive Mirabel “ in a box.”
Ashley loves Paris, but finds that she can be on a modern thoroughfare one minute, then take a turn and be in a medieval alley or a street of grand, Second Empire homes. When she and Mirabel go out shopping and sightseeing, they stumble into dangerous neighbourhoods and feel stalked. Mirabel confides that Raymond, her lover, has stolen a load of designer clothes and handbags from an abandoned truck, and that the goods probably belonged to a Russian crime family, the notorious Bortnik brothers. She hates to abandon Raymond without knowing what has happened to him, although ultimately she wants to return to Charles.
In an interview published on South Bank Scribbler website, Anna Dowdall calls her book is a “compendium of every form of doubling, fracturing, splitting and repetition that I was able to think of… encompassed within labyrinthine twin cities.” An example of this technique, which makes the reader feel that the world is confusing, broken and going nowhere, occurs when another “Mira” – a French-Caribbean woman, Mireille, who shows up at Mirabel’s posh apartment and introduces herself as Raymond’s girlfriend. She and Mirabel discuss the situation and decide that Raymond is a “sale con”. Mireille thinks she knows where he hid the shipment of goods and suggests that she and Mirabel find it, sell it to a contact of hers in Marseilles, and splits the profits.
Ashley’s adventures and experiences include Carnaval; a snowstorm that brings Paris to a halt, and her discovery, with Mirabel, of the stolen goods on Raymond’s boat. At the quay they fight off a Bortnik thug and escape by catching the train to Nice, where they enjoy a day of tropical weather before returning to Paris.
Anna Dowdall writes character-centred novels, in which Ashley Smeeton’s family background, lifestyle and personality are as important as the twists and turns of the plot. In this respect, her two Ashley Smeeton novels are like the late Sue Grafton’s alphabet series, in which Kinsey Milhone’s personal path is draws readers, and also akin to Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) C.B. Strike series in which the co-detectives’ growing romance is a major attraction.
Although April on Paris Street can stand-alone, it would be helpful to read The Au Pair, Dowdall’s first Ashley Smeeton novel, to get a good handle on the detective’s family, friends and former lovers. Returning from Paris to the “bright, bitter days” of Montreal in winter, Ashley resumes relationship-building with her late father’s Indigenous family. She also connects with her half- brother and his wife, young parents struggling to make ends meet, and sees the friends who constitute her Paris Street family. She also resumes working for Mirabel and Charles. Mirabel believes the Bortniks’ thugs are pursuing her in Canada and needs a companion. When one of the main characters is murdered, Ashley must re-think her entire assignment concerning Mirabel. Has she been used? In the end, rough justice replaces the law and we are left with the feeling that genuine friendships (even with a cat) are essential to sustain us in a wild, dark world.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s recent novel, A Girl Should Be (Ottawa, Baico, 2021, firstname.lastname@example.org) is about a fun-loving young Canadian woman growing up during the “roaring Twenties” and the Great Depression.