The Paris Winter is another success for Robertson, but it is very different from the Westerman/Crowther series in both characters and setting. Paris in the early 1900's was a creative mecca for artists and writers, and Robertson makes the most of the setting, capturing not only the physical elements of the city, but the atmosphere created by the artists themselves, the gender gap, the tremendous disparity between rich and poor, the divergence between the innocent and the worldly, the vulnerable and the powerful.
Maude Heighton gathered her tiny inheritance and all of her courage and came to Paris to train as an artist at Lafond's Academie, but she finds herself barely holding on with insufficient funds to keep her head much above the water (as soon as I wrote the phrase, I realized how much water had influenced my thoughts of the novel). Money is so short that Maude is practically starving and terrified of the coming winter which could put an end to all of her hopes. But then her friends manage to get her to visit a Mrs. Harris, who aids young women in Paris.
A job as a companion to a young woman who is ill and who would like to improve her English is on offer. The accommodations and reimbursement will make life much easier for Maude. One voice questions the largess and perhaps the purpose of the job, but when Maude's friend Tanya interviews the prospective employer, all seems above board. Maude is delighted. She is grateful for the money and the pleasant surroundings, and she likes Sylvie. She is finally free of the stress of poverty and can spend more time with her art.
Nevertheless, the reader is aware from the first pages of the novel that not all will go well. There is a brooding atmosphere that permeates, even when Maude's circumstances appear to improve. In fact, the sense of impending disaster becomes worse, because we now fear that Maude will encounter something even worse that starvation, something deliberately malicious.
If you love art, you will enjoy the names of artists who had not yet become famous and the discussions of artistic styles. If you are not interested in art, don't worry--the tidbits are like lagniappe, thrown in free of charge, and they never distract from the story. For me these little inclusions of characters who actually lived and eventually triumphed in their fields were a large part of my enjoyment. These inclusions are not, however, pedantic, and Robertson never lets them dominate.
Even characters like Mrs. Harris are based on real people, and an interview with the author after the conclusion of the book was very informative. (I would never have guessed who the Dante scholar would turn out to be, but perhaps you will.)
An evocative image of the Belle Epoque in Paris, the novel includes a compelling plot, characters that you can love and hate (and sometimes want to shake), and lots of historical detail. While it isn't particularly fast-paced, it is compelling. The Paris Winter kept me unsettled and apprehensive throughout.
NetGalley/St. Martin's Press
Historical Mystery. April, 2013; Nov., 2014. Print length: 368 pages.