Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Perhaps, the most striking element of Anna Dowdall’s April on Paris Street is her prose, which is of a quality more frequently found in the literary fiction of seasoned authors than with an emerging crime fiction writer. This augurs well for Dowdall’s future endeavours. The second notable feature of the novel is its rich portrayal of upscale Bohemian life in Paris and the contrasting lifestyles of Montreal’s working-class Pointe Saint Charles neighbourhood and ultra-rich Upper Westmount. The actual crime story is, however, somewhat short on suspense and glossed in “cozy in Gucci.”
Dowdall's protagonist is Ashley Smeeton, a newly minted private investigator who works out of her apartment on Paris Street in Pointe Saint Charles. Her bread and butter are mainly checking up on cheating spouses and chasing down deadbeat ex’s late on child support payments, pretty routine stuff. Her social life is quite flat, with the visits of her neighbour's kids being the high point of her day. Occasionally, she reminisces about a summer romance with Jon Perez, a Colombian she met in the Laurentians. Perez conveniently shows up toward the end of the story for some brief love-making, and turns out to be a two-timing louse, not unlike most of the men in the novel. Other than that, Ashley lives quite a celibate humdrum existence. So, she is delighted when rich fashion mogul Charles Saint Cyr hires her to go to Paris to bring his wayward wife home. Not to mention, it is a very lucrative offer. When she gets to Paris, she finds the wife, Mirabel Saint Cyr, to be irresistibly flamboyant, eccentrically manipulative, and engaged in a torrid affair with a local fashion designer, Raymond Boissier. Persuading Mirabel to return to Montreal will not be easy, and Ashley is soon distracted by the fascinating nocturnal world of the City of Lights where Mirabel is a leading denizen. It is not long before Ashley is caught up in Mirabel’s escapades, including fencing haute couture, ripped off by Boissier from a Russian mob. The scheme goes quickly sour, leaving one mobster dead, and heightening the need to get Mirabel out of Paris. With some fleshing-out, the plot to this point could have made a solid crime novel, but Dowdall decides to elaborate by twisting the story toward Ashley’s past as a girl from a small town in the Eastern Townships, whose deceased and estranged father was from a nearby First Nations reserve. There is a fair amount of finding one’s roots in the subsequent chapters before the novel gets back on track with the arrival of a vengeful Russian mobster in Montreal, and Ashley being pulled back into the Saint Cyr family drama. A fair amount of subterfuge ensues, ending in the murder of Charles Saint Cyr. The novel then concludes in a “reveal” of the motivations of the murderers.
For the most part, I found April on Paris Street to be an enjoyable and informative read. Certainly, the intricate excursions into Parisian nightlife were pleasurable to follow and extremely well written. The early Point Saint Charles chapters were also promising, offering a glimpse into intriguing neighbourhood dynamics. However, while Dowdall does an excellent job in crafting the prose of the novel, she has not worked out all the kinks in plot and character development. Midway through the novel, the plot opens up in different directions for no apparent reason, other than perhaps a less-than-successful back-story attempt to fill out the character of the protagonist. Many of the characters in the novel are cardboard figures, e.g. the rich older husband, the younger beautiful trophy wife gone wild, the Romeo two-timing lovers and the coarse mobsters. Dowdall’s protagonist, Ashley, is somewhat better developed, experiencing a bit of a character arc by the end of the novel. As this novel is clearly intended to be part of a series, there is hope that we will see that arc develop further in subsequent novels. While suspense is lacking in the novel, the plot does evoke enough curiosity for the reader to stay with the story until the end. The end, itself, is rather contrived and unconvincing, although not wholly off-putting. Notwithstanding these areas for improvement, I quite enjoyed reading April on Paris Street. Perhaps, even in plot-driven literature like crime fiction, there is a lot to say about lucid, flowing prose and well-turned dialogue elevating the appeal of the story.
April on Paris Street is published by Guernica Editions.