Monday, January 26, 2015

An interview with Gary Inbinder, author of The Devil in Montmartre

Today I'm hosting an interview with novelist Gary Inbinder.  His third novel The Devil in Montmartre,  released last month, brings readers into the bustling fine art scene and dark underworld of Paris in 1889.  As the city is flooded with tourists during the Universal Exposition, Inspector Achille Lefebvre, a young but highly regarded member of the Sûreté, investigates the murder of a young woman who danced the Can-Can at the Moulin Rouge.

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The Devil in Montmartre stands well on its own, but one of your protagonists, the talented artist Marcia Brownlow – probably my favorite character – also featured in The Flower to the Painter. What made you decide to bring Marcia back for an encore appearance?

Marcia Brownlow is one of my favorite characters. After I finished The Flower to the Painter I had the idea of using her, and some of the other characters, in another novel. A fin de siècle Paris setting appealed to me, as did the idea of a murder mystery with references to Jack the Ripper.

The action in the novel unfolds through many different viewpoints. How difficult of a process was it to piece together and structure the novel in this way? 

I had used a first person narrative in earlier novels, but I found the single perspective too limiting for this particular story. On the other hand, using multiple first person narrators seemed too complicated and potentially confusing. So, I struck a balance by using a third person narrative with multiple points of view. Once I got into it, it seemed to flow quite naturally.

I’d love to know more about your research into Montmartre in 1889, since I felt fully immersed in the setting. Based on the depth of detail, I’m guessing you know French and have spent time walking around Paris in person, though please correct me if I’m wrong!

Two admissions. First, I had two years of college French. I can still read French fairly well, but I wouldn't attempt to write or speak it. Second, my knowledge of 1889 Paris is dependent on imagination and years of reading histories and period literature, studying old photographs, paintings, drawings, maps and so forth. Of course, for months prior to writing The Devil in Montmartre, I added to my knowledge with additional research.

Your detective, Achille Lefebvre, is well-respected by his fellow detectives and known even in less reputable circles to be a trustworthy fellow. He’s not just an admirable character, though, but a likeable one. How did you come up with his personality? Will we be seeing more of him in future books?

I'm glad you liked Achille. I particularly enjoyed writing his scenes and dialogue. He combines traits of my favorite fictional detectives, including Simenon's Maigret and Sherlock Holmes. However, I tried to "humanize" him by focusing on his domestic life, especially his relationship with his wife, little daughter, and difficult mother-in-law. As for future books, there's a sequel in the works but it's a bit premature to say anything more about it.

Achille runs into some resistance when he advocates for the use of fingerprinting as an aid in solving crimes. Why was this viewed as such a radical development?

At the time, no major police force had used fingerprinting for identification purposes. However, the English anthropologist, Sir Francis Galton, published his system for fingerprint identification in the late 1880s, something I mention in the novel. In 1892, Juan Vucetich, a Croatian detective working for the Argentine police, made the first positive identification of fingerprints in a criminal case. Vucetich based his identification and classification system on Galton's writings, but it took more than a decade before police departments worldwide adopted it.

Interestingly, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, anticipated the use of a fingerprint to solve a crime in a chapter of Life on the Mississippi (1883) and he revisited the subject in The Tragedy of Puddn'head Wilson (1894).

Your three novels convey some of the same themes – artistic creation, for one – and are set in historical times, but are a bit different genre-wise. What prompted your move into historical crime?

I'm a retired lawyer, I've had some experience working with law enforcement, and I'm partial to good historical fiction and classic crime novels. The historical mystery/crime genre offered a good vehicle in which to express my varied interests, and I just decided it was the right time to give it a try.

What originally inspired your interest in French art during the late 19th century? Do you have any favorite painters, post-Impressionist or otherwise?

I grew up with art. My late brother was a fine artist and art teacher, and my older sister majored in Art History and did some of her post graduate work at The Sorbonne. As I recall, among the first books that caught my attention when I was learning to read—or perhaps even before I could read—was a set of illustrated biographies of the painters, including Manet, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. My parents took me to the Art Institute of Chicago when I was very young. The paintings fascinated me, and the museum has a fine collection of French Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, including Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

In addition, I saw the films Lust for Life, the story of Van Gogh with Kirk Douglas, and John Huston's version of Moulin Rouge with Jose Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec. These have remained favorites, which I've returned to over the years. As a result, I have many sources to draw upon when visualizing scenes for my novels.

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Gary Inbinder's The Devil in Montmartre was published by Pegasus Crime in December (hardcover, $25.95, 256pp).  Visit the author's blog at http://garyinbinder.blogspot.com.

10 comments:

  1. Sounds like a fabulous read for Fin de Siècle Paris and the art world. Will put it on on my TBR list!

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    1. Thanks - you have a great site!

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  2. Interesting how the obvious (fingerprinting, washing hands before surgery...) is always resisted contemptuously at first.

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    1. I wouldn't call it contemptuously, but it was a new development that not everyone was sure about. And in this case it was more than just the usual suspicion about change. Collecting the data on potential suspects isn't always convenient or easy (something the novel goes into), and creating a database large enough to be useful is time-consuming and expensive. It's easy for us to look back and judge, too. :)

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  3. Interesting interview, Sarah!
    This one sounds like a yummy read.

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    1. I loved the atmosphere and was surprised the author hadn't been to Paris - it felt very real to me.

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  4. My favorite epoch, place and genre ... hooray!!! I hope that Gary makes a 2015 resolution (never too late, right?) to get his French back to speaking stage. Think of the research he could do if he could speak as well as read the language! "French in Action" from Yale with Prof. Pierre Capretz (I believe still available to watch for free on the Internet) gave my speaking ability back to me and it is shocking the difference that it makes when in France or even when reading (for some interconnected reason that I don't understand, but appreciate). Thanks fo hosting this great interview, Sarah. 8-)

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    1. Wow, I remember "French in Action" - that takes me back a ways. I may have had one of Capretz's textbooks or workbooks in high school. After that, I went on to major in French in college. I haven't been to France since then and haven't spoken the language much either, although my reading ability is still good. The French that I noticed throughout the book was all spot on.

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  5. Anonymous12:02 PM

    Very interesting review!

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  6. Anonymous8:07 PM

    I love the fact that the Detective runs into resistance from his colleagues for wanting to use fingerprinting. Give this story a feel of authenticity.

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