"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ghosts of Saint-Michel by Jake Lamar

There’s a lot of good stuff in Jake Lamar’s Ghosts of Saint-Michel. The plot’s twists and turns are aided by Lamar’s ability to tell the story out of sequence, allowing you to know both more and less than you should at any given time. The biggest potential weakness—amateurs engaged in a life and death struggle with professionals—works itself out as believably as possible. On balance, it’s a well-told tale of intrigue and murky allegiances.

The soul food restaurant of American expatriate Marva Dobbs is the talk of Paris. Returning home early from her August vacation, Marva intends to break off her affair with Hassan, an Algerian in his late twenties. Instead she finds him on the run, accused of being a terrorist. When Marva signs herself out of the hospital after a serious car accident and leaves with Hassan, no one (including the reader) knows whether she is a hostage or an accomplice.

Marva’s daughter, Naima, hears of the accident and rushes to Paris from her home in New York, becoming unintentionally embroiled in the intrigue surrounding the disappearances. What she learns about her parents strains her loyalties and teaches her things about herself she might have preferred not to know.

Lamar wields his cosmopolitan cast with aplomb. Hassan lives in the gray area between guilty and framed until near the end. “Retired” American spy Harvey Oldcorn could be the stereotypical spook; Lamar provides Oldcorn with enough background to keep him believable. Naima’s father, Loïc, has both more and less to him than you’re led to believe. Cleavon Semple is still trying to play both ends against the middle at nearly eighty years old.

It’s neck and neck for a while, but Naima eventually wins the lead role in the story, if only because more is seen through her eyes. She and Marva are both strong women, capable of carrying the story on her own. Lamar is careful not to give them abilities civilians wouldn’t possess. They adapt to the situation as it evolves without fully understanding what is going on.

Paris is the perfect location, as the story relies on the city’s convoluted Cold War past: Communists who may or may not be supporting colonial independence fighters, struggling against Gaullists, who may (or may not) be with the Americans. This is history when out story takes place, but the contacts, allegiances, and techniques developed forty years earlier are resurrected as what is essentially a cast of over-the-hill conspirators have their last hurrah.

With all that going for it, Ghosts of Saint-Michel doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. Much of the fault is in the characters. As much as Lamar wants you to like Marva and Naima, they’ll do whatever they have to do to get what they want. True, it’s all done for the greater good, righting injustice, yadda yadda yadda, but some minor characters are used badly. It’s not obvious at the time whether Lamar introduces them only as props for the bigger plan, but in retrospect it’s hard to see what else they do.

As well-written as the climactic scene is, coincidence plays a bigger part than it should. Saying too much would spoil it; suffice to say some serious aligning of planets takes place to get everyone where they need to be for the climax to work itself out. Lamar’s half-hearted attempt at an explanation only draws attention to it.

Another problem is that most American readers will be unaware of the Parisian Cold War intrigues that drive many of the characters’ motivations. Not an insurmountable obstacle, and Lamar brings everyone up to speed. Unfortunately, he does it is through dialog worthy of a tour guide at the Spy Museum; at times the characters might as well turn away from each other and speak directly to the audience.

Ghosts of Saint-Michel has much to recommend it. Anyone interested in a taste of the black American community in France should get a charge out of it. Lamar’s fifteen years in France show between each line; his familiarity with his adopted city is shown by the ease with which he describes it. Paris is the most likable character in Ghosts of Saint-Michel, which may ultimately be its biggest flaw, though not enough to be a deal breaker.

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