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Pinkertons in Paris

Published Aug. 9, 1998
Updated Sep. 13, 2005

MASQUERADE

By Walter Satterthwait

St. Martin's Press, $22.95

Reviewed by JEAN HELLER

If you are in the market for an intelligent, amusing, marvelously written mystery to round out your summer reading, you could find it right here in your own backyard. Walter Satterthwait, a resident of Indian Rocks Beach and a veteran mystery writer, recreates France in 1923, Paris in particular, as the setting for Masquerade.

As the story opens, dilettante Richard Forsythe has been found shot to death inside a locked hotel room with one of his many mistresses, Sabine von Stuben. It is obvious to police that it is a murder/suicide. The woman was shot first, Forsythe two hours later _ both with Forsythe's gun, which is found in his hand. But his mother doesn't believe it and hires two Pinkertons from America to investigate, a man, Phil Beaumont, to work openly, and a woman, Jane Turner, to work undercover inside the Forsythe family as a nanny.

Beaumont is ably assisted by a dapper little Frenchman, Henri Ledoq, to whom France is little beyond its cuisine, which he knows all too well (don't read the book when you are hungry). Ledoq also knows and is known to every expatriate artist in the country in those days: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, James Joyce and others, some of whom become key characters in the book _ almost, toward the end, to distraction.

Jane works inside the family of Richard Forsythe's uncle to gather information on the dead man, her progress chronicled in lengthy and ever-more-amusing letters to a friend we know only as Evangeline. We don't meet Jane in the flesh until very late in the story.

Beaumont and Ledoq, meanwhile, interview as many as they can of Forsythe's friends, associates and relatives _ including his coke-head wife, who was perfectly happy with Richard's affairs because it left her plenty of room for her own. They run into corrupt police who eventually turn murderous, tough guys in a seedy bar who chase them into the excrement-filled sewers, an eccentric couple enjoying a floating repast in those same reeking tunnels, and Hemingway. Ah, Ernest. Could he have been, in real life, so clumsy and oblivious?

Beaumont and Ledoq eventually become convinced the Forsythe/von Stuben deaths were murder, but their lives become a series of chases through a variety of cities, and they must concentrate on staying alive long enough to prove it.

Of course, part of the fun is trying to guess the answers to the who, the how and the why of two murders inside a locked room (thank you, Edgar Allen Poe). The how and the why I didn't learn until the end, and both added up to solid storytelling. Alas (I'm beginning to talk like the characters), I guessed the who about two-thirds of the way through, and it was disappointing. I would tell you why, but it would give away too much. A book which held together so well I didn't want it to end let me down at the end. However, the letdown was not nearly serious enough to suggest that readers pass on the book.

Masquerade is great good fun. If only it could have been a different killer.

Jean Heller is the author of the mystery-thriller, Handyman (Forge).