Written by Marcus Sedgwick — Probably better known for his books aimed at children and young adults, Marcus Sedgwick has been shortlisted on several occasions for the Carnegie Medal, a British literary award that recognises outstanding authors for that audience. In 2003, he was shortlisted for an Edgar Award for his novel The Book of Dead Days. In the main, Sedgwick’s books tend to fall within the fantasy and horror genres, which makes his latest release something of a departure.
Mister Memory is set in Paris in the dying months of the 19th century. It opens with what looks like a pretty open and shut case of murder. Marcel Després has come home from work to find his wife, Ondine, in flagrante delicto with a man called Bishop, an American who works at the same cabaret venue as the couple. Marcel has grabbed a gun and shot his wife. However, rather being taken to the nearest police station he is removed to the Salpêtrière asylum. All is not as clear cut as it seems, especially as all of this information is established in less than two pages. Clearly the real mystery is yet to be revealed.
Safely ensconced in the asylum, Marcel has retreated into his memories. At first, Lucien Morel, the doctor assigned to his care, is unable to get him to talk. He seems to have relinquished the real world. After a few days he begins to emerge but only very briefly, and so it continues until Marcel is ready to return to the land of the living. However, Dr Morel has made an exciting discovery about Marcel – he has the most fantastic ability to recall facts, and by Marcel’s own admission, he is also unable to tell a lie. It is his ability to retain information that had been his act at the cabaret. It’s also this skill that may hold the key to the true mystery.
In the outside world, young police inspector Laurent Petit is far from satisfied. He finds it hard to understand why the normal protocols were not applied in Marcel’s case, and he resolves to begin his own private investigation into the matter. It’s a decision fraught with risks that he is prepared to accept and results in him incurring the wrath of his superiors. However, he makes some shocking discoveries that even he isn’t quite so prepared for, and he’s also making himself some extremely powerful enemies.
For Laurent, a man with no familial ties to worry about, this is about finding the truth, but it becomes a race to do so before he can be stopped. He must also prevent Marcel becoming the next victim of an unknown killer. Laurent has stumbled across secrets that somebody will do anything to keep hidden and will kill anyone who gets in the way.
There’s something ever so slightly unsettling about this book. Initially, it’s not easy to pinpoint or describe exactly what it is that doesn’t quite sit right. Sedgwick is clearly channeling some of his experience in writing fantasy fiction with his style of storytelling, as in places it does feel ever so slightly otherworldly. It’s a tale of corruption spreading under the neatly constructed veneer that covers late-19th century Paris. There’s a hint of Amélie about it with a smattering of Pushing Daisies, albeit with much darker undertones.
Mister Memory is a unique read and though it may not be everybody’s cup of tea it certainly has some features that may appeal to fans of historical crime fiction. Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May novels, and Art in the Blood by Bonnie MacBird, spring to mind. While it’s not quite Rivers of London, if you like your crime fiction with a fantasy/horror feel to it then this book will definitely be of interest.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars