PARIS WAS THE PLACE

By Susan Conley

Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

354 pages, $26.95

ISBN 978-0-307-59407-5

 

Paris, France may be the City of Lights to some people — all beauty, energy and gaiety. However, Paris is none of those things in Susan Conley’s debut novel, “Paris Was The Place.”

Portland author Conley made her literary mark with her award-winning memoir, “The Foremost Good Fortune” (Knopf, 2011), a remarkably lucid and powerful account of living in Beijing, China and overcoming breast cancer. That book revealed Conley to be a gifted storyteller — humorous, poignant, incisive and sensitive.

Conley’s first novel allows her to expand her reach with a complex story about a young American woman teaching poetry in Paris in 1989, facing heart-breaking personal challenges that will test her courage and love, as well as a moral and legal dilemma that may prove costly in many ways.

Willow Pears (Willie to her friends) is an idealistic American who volunteers to teach English to immigrant girls awaiting political asylum court hearings in a Paris detention center. She becomes deeply involved with these girls to the point where she forgets her legal obligations and makes a fateful moral decision that puts her career in jeopardy and involves the police.

At the same time, she falls in love with a young Frenchman — a legal-aid lawyer she meets at the detention center — and then finds out that her older brother, Luke, who also lives in Paris, is diagnosed with a fatal illness.

This is a full plate of emotional conflict as Conley tries to do too much with these plotlines. The immigration plot begins strong with great promise, but just drifts away. The romance is tenuous and Luke’s illness assumes the dominant role in the story, eclipsing everything else until the predictably sad ending. There is little suspense and no humor here, just tears and sorrow.

 

SUNSET

By Al Lamanda

Five Star, 2012

275 pages, $25.95

ISBN 978-1-4328-2584-3

 

Police detective John Bekker’s star witness against a ruthless crime lord is blown up right before a trial, and then his wife is brutally murdered and his daughter traumatized by somebody who wanted to send him a message.

Bekker fell apart and now, a decade later, he is no longer a cop. Instead, he’s a guilt-ridden drunk, but he still wants revenge.

“Sunset” is Maine author Al Lamanda’s fourth mystery, following “Running Homeless.” Lamanda is a smart, savvy writer with taut suspenseful novels based on crime and violence, with characters displaying believable flaws and convincing courage.

Lamanda’s Bekker is much like John Connolly’s plodding, determined Harry Bosch, with Robert B. Parker’s character Spencer’s sense of humor and quick reactions, but Bekker is much more deadly. Bekker can’t bring his wife back, but he can exact some mean justice for her. And he may yet reconnect with his daughter.

Eddie Crist, the mob boss Bekker was trying to bring down 10 years earlier is now dying of cancer. Before he dies he wants Bekker to do a job for him — Crist didn’t order the hit on Bekker’s wife, but he wants Bekker to find out who did. And Bekker is stunned by Crist’s honesty and unexpected generosity.

Bekker sobers up and, armed with phony private detective papers, a wad of Crist’s cash and a handy shotgun, he starts his investigation with Crist’s dead son, revealing an underworld of clever criminal enterprise populated with psychopaths, smarmy mob lawyers and a few surprises.

What he uncovers is a complex web of corruption, treachery and murder involving people he normally would never have suspected. Fueled by coffee, cigarettes, doughnuts and snappy, often funny dialogue, Bekker wastes no time being nice to scumbags — and his revenge is sweet indeed.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.