An odd, fascinating detective mystery with all the twisty, turny brain wringing that the reader would expect of the Masterful Marcus Sedgwick. Known mostly as a Young Adult author, Sedgwick brings his unpredictable plots and spiraling scope to adult fiction for the second time.
As a youth, Marcel Després drifted to Paris from the wine producing villages of the south. At the urging of his artist neighbours, Marcel turns the one skill he has (but didn't realise was out of the ordinary), perfect recall, into a cabaret act; Mister Memory is created. Night after night he stands on stage, remembering everything, each bottle and hat removed, each digit on a blackboard- a neat trick. Except there is no trick; Marcel has an infallible memory that stretches back completely and entirely, with all its network of supporting memories and tangential avenues, to before his actual birth.
Marcel is also widely believed to be both a murderer and insane. What initially seems like an impassioned killing of an adulterous wife by an enraged husband is not as straightforward as it might seem. Incarcerated in an asylum, without any kind of investigation, Marcel Després admits to the murder, remembers it in vivid detail. complete and absolute detail, right down to the mouse droppings on the landing. The asylum's physician, Doctor Morel sees Marcel as the case of a lifetime- a book waiting to be written. Morel also discovers that in addition to his astounding memory, the patient is incapable of lying.
Meanwhile, hearing of the hushed up, too swift resolution of this broad daylight murder case and infuriated by the idea of a wife-killer escaping the guillotine, young detective Petit's curiosity and desire for justice is powerfully aroused. Reprimanded for poking around and frustrated by his superiors' lack of interest in justice, he sets about conducting a thorough, though off the record investigation of the murder of Ondine Després, alongside the somewhat unlikely partner of Dr Morel. With his assistance, Petit begins unraveling the night of the murder, depending on Marcel's perfect memory to recall every tiny detail. But how can a man who remembers every detail of every moment of his entire life sort the evidence from the everyday? The more Petit digs into Marcel's memory, the more untoward the investigation becomes: police corruption, sexual depravity, switched identities, deception and a scandal big enough to galvinise the political landscape of France; a secret that powerful men are proving themselves willing to murder for.
I loved how brilliantly MS crafted the seedy, decadent cesspit of Paris in the dying months of the 19th century; the cafes, the cabarets, the filles publiques, the booming business of photographic pornography and the promise of the dawn of a new era. This book felt a step above most historical fiction- fin de siècle Paris is a common setting, but rarely does it feel as alive and as grubby as Marcel's Paris. The detail about the contemporary police force and their chains of command and Judicial system were particularly thorough and lent an authority to Petit's below-board investigation. There are moments of shocking discovery and genuine tension as Petit's guesswork and predictions solidify into trials of hard evidence. I particularly enjoyed the scene in Paris' Archives of Hell with the librarian, guardians of the national shame. I loved that Petit was surprised and a bit disappointed that the library of confiscated "Indecent material" just looked like a regular library, with files and boxes and shelves. There are a lot of light, comedic little touches that season an otherwise quite intense read.
Though there are a lot of characters, each one is colourful and plays their part in the expansive web of connections that makes up Marcel's extraordinary case. The watery eyed doctor Morel who for the first time in years finds himself caring about a patient, wanting to cure him rather than idly minding them for their own safety. The misanthropic Boissenot, senior police detective, who is convinced that Paris's crime rate, highest ever, indicates nothing other than the end of the world. The waddling Cavard, an old fashioned secret communist, good guy and ultimate hero- the guy who brings the police to account from within initially seems to be a grumpy pencil pusher, but evolves into quite the justice warrior.
I struggled in parts with the pacing, it very much comes in fits and starts and there is the occasional dry spell where not much happens, either with Petit's investigation or with Morel's probing of Marcel's mind. That might be my fault though, as I read in uncharacteristically short bursts over an unusually lengthy period of time... For the vast majority of the novel, Mister Memory is a whip smart, very satisfying historical crime detective story with a unique premise, an array of interesting and nuanced characters, and a deft hand guiding a twisting narrative that might seem, under a lesser writer, to be extravagantly far fetched. To discover the twist, the murderer, the motive and the fall guy by the halfway point and still keep the reader hooked is quite an achievement.