The Bookseller by Mark Pryor
The Bookseller by Mark Pryor is billed as The First Hugo Marston Novel (Seventh Street Books, 2012) and it’s a very good book which sits comfortably between the mystery and thriller genres. I actually hate this game of trying to place a book into one of the broad categories invented by publishers and retailers to help sell us books, but there’s no sense in trying to ignore the world around us. We’re stuck with this labelling game so I’d better offer a couple of definitions. I take a mystery to be a book in which a fairly brainy protagonist follows clues to a reasoned conclusion. This may be solving a crime after it’s been committed or it may represent a preventive measure of some kind. Such books are whodunits or howdunits, and the narrative pace need not be high. Indeed, the lead character may be a little old lady or someone appearing relatively harmless. A thriller focuses on the emotions of the primary protagonist who, more often than not, uses violence rather than intellectual power in pursuit of a resolution to a problem. This may be to right a wrong or to prevent a great harm from befalling others. In a thriller, there will usually be a key character who’s particularly at risk. This can be the protagonist or the protagonist is cast in a protective role for this potential victim and, unlike a mystery, we may know who the antagonist is for most of the book. The pace of such books is always high. They are intended to be page-turners.
The format for this book sees us with Hugo Marston. He’s head of security at the US Embassy in Paris. This means he straddles the genres for protagonists. As a retired profiler, he has highly developed reasoning skills which can both detect patterns in behaviour and analyse complex sets of facts. He also carries a gun and, in a tight situation, can defend himself. As a man interested in books, he’s befriended one of the old bouquinistes or used-booksellers you see along the banks of the Seine. Rain or shine, they stand and offer their wares. Some carry very valuable books in monetary terms. Other books have great historical interest. It therefore comes as something of a shock when he sees his old friend literally kidnapped in front of him. As a member of the Embassy staff, he has no crime-fighting jurisdiction in France so he calls the police. They are interested and a more senior officer arrives to take command of the situation. Except there seem to be no other witnesses and so nothing serious is done to track down the boat that took his friend away. When he tries to follow up, he’s warned off. Even the Ambassador is concerned French feathers may be ruffled if his man too actively pursues matters.
Of course, protagonists are never deterred. Indeed, the more challenging the difficulties, they more stubborn they become. In this case, he calls Tom Green, an ex-CIA friend from America. They begin to look into the history of the missing bouquiniste and discover an interesting past as, first, a Holocaust survivors and Nazi hunter, and then as a man who devoted himself to outing collaborators. As a conquered country, many thought they were protecting themselves and their families by co-operating with the victorious Germans. Some more enthusiastically than others assisted the occupying force. Such history still matters in France. The motive for the old man’s disappearance may therefore be connected either with an equally old Nazi or the family of a French collaborator wishing to avoid exposure. Naturally things heat up when the body of the old man is found floating in the Seine. We therefore have the makings of a pure mystery but, on his travels around the city, he encounters Claudia Roux who first appears as a journalist and proves to be something more. When our hero saves her from death in a drive-by shooting. . . well she’s wounded but was she the target? Such are the uncertainties of life as the prospect of romance beckons. Except, of course, her father does not approve.
So what follows is a genuinely pleasing puzzle to solve. Mark Pryor is playing a version of the bait and switch game where the first presented versions of his fictional Paris prove not to be sustainable and we’re persuaded to switch to alternative views. Indeed, sometimes the only way to sort out which view of the facts is the real deal requires you to sit down quietly and review what you’ve seen and heard. In less assured hands, these more cerebral parts of the book force a drop in the pace but, somehow, Mark Pryor manages to keep the pages turning even when our hero is deep into his analysis. I more or less worked out which was the right theme but I completely missed the key facts leading to the identity of the “mastermind”. So kudos to the author. Everything is there in plain sight but it’s difficult to appreciate significance until later. For those who want there to be fighting both with fisticuffs and guns, there’s enough for The Bookseller to qualify as a classy thriller with a good mystery element thrown in. Whatever the genre, this is an above average example of it.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.