Author: Jessie Prichard Hunter
Release Date: February 3, 2015
Publisher: Witness Impulse an imprint of HarperCollins
In Belle Époque Paris, the morgue is the place to see and be seen …
“This morning I was called upon to photograph the dead again.” So begins the story of Edouard Mas, a photographer’s assistant with a detective’s soul. Edouard’s job is to take pictures of corpses before they are carted off to the Paris Morgue. If the bodies are unidentified, they will be put behind glass for the whole city to view, in a morbid display of lost and found.
Edouard begins to come across more and more bodies stripped of their identification and laid out in methodical poses, and he knows he is dealing with those who dabble in art—the art of death. The morgue—their museum.
Edouard’s investigation takes him from the sterile halls of La Salpêtrière to the opulent, smoke-filled soirees of high society, but he must do everything in his power to stop the artists of death, before they go after somebody he loves …
In exquisite prose—so vivid you can almost taste the absinthe and hear the rustling skirts of the Moulin Rouge showgirls—Hunter tells an unforgettable tale of murder and lust in the City of Light.
~ Excerpt ~
CHAPTER ONE: Edouard
This morning I was called upon to photograph the dead again.
The messenger boy came at five-thirty. His name is Martin. I gave him a few sous: Martin works hard for his sous, running errands all over Paris for the Prefecture of Police.
I sent the lad off and packed up my camera and plates; I took the omnibus to the rue Mazarine, in the Ninth Arrondissement. The building, number 21, proved to be a dreary four-story tenement. Police Captain Bezier was there; he led me around to the back courtyard. The morning sky with its huge racing clouds seemed far away. The windows no longer went up in straight lines but listed as though the whole building were a rocking ship. There was an empty wheelbarrow; there was a tunnel leading to the front of the building; there were two dirty awnings; there was offal on the ground.
Of course a crime scene cannot be photographed at night, but the dead can wait till morning. It is all the same to them. I change nothing, other than to cover a naked body. We must preserve the setting quite exactly as we find it but a sheet disturbs nothing, and I cannot bear that the dead be subjected to indignity.
Capt. Bezier motioned me to a patch of darkness under one of the awnings. Night had not left it yet. A woman lay there.
I checked the camera’s register to see if the magazine was full: eighteen plates. It was just a habit, a necessary part of the ritual; I have never gone out on a job with an unloaded camera. The night before, I had treated cotton papers with albumen and sodium chloride, dried them, and dipped them in a solution part silver nitrate, part water, to render the paper sensitive; I had again dried the paper, then fixed it carefully against the glass plates that it might be ready for my camera when I awoke. There is always a stack of newly treated plates in my darkroom, as I never know when I may be called upon. I am naturally in need of but little sleep; sometimes I think that the city wakes me early, like a lover, because she knows that there is so much each day to be seen and experienced together. And sometimes I awaken so refreshed, so eager, that I almost feel I might indeed have been kissed awake by this city I love so much.
But now I readied myself to kneel in foul semidarkness and see the unbearable.
“Have you questioned the tenants?” I asked the captain.
“No,” said Capt. Bezier. “There will be time for that. It’s not likely to be someone from the building, anyway. Why leave her here to be found?”
The captain is something of an ass.
I ran my right hand up and down the pebble-grained leather of the side of my camera box, once, as I raised it to my eye: another facet of the ritual. I walked around the body, looking at the corpse through my lens. Through the round aperture,everything recedes except sight, and you are alone with the image before you.
And yet the image is made distant, merely a collection of lines and angles of light. This distance is necessary if I am not to be overwhelmed by pity, anger, and disgust. For my day-to-day existence I work part-time in a fashionable studio where tintypes are turned out as though they were loaves of bread. I also make sentimental portraits of those who die in their beds, either peacefully or after long illnesses. Sometimes I photograph them before they die, that the family might having a living subject for their memento instead of a dead one. For the police I record the scenes of murders. Sometimes, if the victim is unknown or well-known, my photographs are put up on flyers all over the city. More commonly they are filed with the police and used later, as a tool to incriminate the murderer.
I stooped to capture the image before me.
The woman was young; she was lying on her back with her hands folded over her heart, and her head was turned away from my camera. She was wearing a black bolero jacket and a sky-blue silk waist; her skirt was dove-gray. Her shoes were of leather too soft for these streets. It is difficult not to put a story to the posture, clothing, and obvious social standing of the dead: This woman did not belong here.
I took a shot; then I lifted the back of the camera and held it at the proper angle to let the exposed slide drop down from the magazine so that the next slide would be before the lens. I do not always like my job. The simple, mechanical tasks associated with it soothe me and enable me to maintain both composure and a seeming objectivity in even the most hideous of circumstances. I moved slowly around the side of the body. The woman’s hair was loosed from its pins and flowed in a yellow cascade across the dirty ground. There was blood in it.
“The identity of the victim gives us the identity of the killer,” Capt.
Bezier said. He said that every time.
There was blood on her dress, on her folded hands. I did not want to see her face. I knelt by her side and focused my lens on her neck, which had been severed. The blood there was dull and clotted, and the wound looked like nothing more than a cut of meat.
“—not a gentlewoman,” Capt. Bezier was saying. “A midinette, a shopgirl. A night of drinking, an argument with her boyfriend. It is always the same story.”
My hand trembled, but I kept my silence. Her long, curved fingers were not marred by the stings of the sewing needle or the calluses of the shopkeeper. She was not as thin as the midinettes, who have only a snack instead of a full midi lunch. She was not a member of the upper classes, that much was clear by her manner of dress and by the short lavender glove I noticed beneath her left hip and pointed out to the captain. Ladies of the upper classes wear gloves that reach to the elbow and are almost always of white kid.
I prepared myself to see her face. Her dress was neither rich nor poor; perhaps she could afford a maid, and that is why her hands were unmarred; perhaps she had children at home even now.
Capt. Bezier picked up the glove and spanked it against his thigh to dust it off.
“Very fashionable,” he said shortly. He brings his prejudices to his job. He does not approve of fashionable women unless they are of the upper classes; he will make assumptions about their morals from the cut of their gloves.
I stepped around the blood that had gathered at her neck. She had not been dead when her killer brought her here. I knelt again. I moved her hair away from her face. She had been beautiful in life; she was not beautiful in death. Her features were very fine, indicating a lively temperament; her forehead high and white, a sign of firm yet maidenly intelligence; the space between her nose and mouth was somewhat large, and the dint was so faint as to be nonexistent—the —angels had not touched her there with their fingers that she forget heaven—what —visions had she had while she was alive? She did not look as though she were seeing heaven now. Her eyes were wide with evident horror, her mouth contorted with fear. But from behind my lens I was reassured. Her agony was spurious, nothing more than the effects of rigor mortis. It was death that had contorted her pretty features into a grotesque mask. There was no way to tell what had been on her face at the moment of her death—fear, —resignation, fury? In a few more hours her hands, which lay so prayerlike now, would be trying to claw their way into her heart. And within less than thirty-six hours all of these effects would soften and disappear, leaving her once again unembattled.
I stroked my beard, which is gingery and sharpens to a point in my hand. With my goatee and mustache I look like any young man of my station, although perhaps somewhat more fair. I have a photographer’s eye, made more noticeable for being exceedingly pale blue: I must be careful not to appear always to stare. My features are quite regular, which would seem to indicate a moderate, even modest, temperament. There is no indication of the passion I feel for my work.
Capt. Bezier had gone over the body and found no identification, and surely a woman dressed as she was did not live in this sordid tenement.
“We will begin questioning the tenants shortly,” he said.
No one will have seen or heard anything. No one ever does.
Why here? I wondered as I dropped the second-to-last slide into the tray. Perhaps the courtyard was a piece of the puzzle. Perhaps not. I stepped back to take in the entire scene: the awning, the piles of dirty clothing and human waste lying behind the body, the body itself, which seems to float in the early morning light.
“Thank you, Edouard,” said the captain. “I do not know what we would do without your work. The state of the body at death is often what turns the jury toward conviction. And, of course, we will pass the photographs out among the various police precincts, to see if any of our contacts recognize the lady.”
“They will not recognize her,” I said, closing my camera with a satisfying click.
“And why not, Edouard?” Capt. Bezier thinks I overstep my bounds. I do although all I do is tell him what my camera shows.
“Because your contacts are all among the criminal class, and I would be surprised if this unfortunate young woman had any such connections.”
“Ah, Edouard, you are such a sentimental young man! A becoming figure, an abundance of pretty hair, and you cannot believe that a woman could have contact with my criminals! It is a good thing you are not a detective, young man—you —are far too idealistic. This woman could be a whore, have you thought of that?”
“She is not dressed as well as a whore,” I said shortly, then turned and busied myself with my equipment. The entire equation was there in the foul-smelling tenement courtyard on that drab spring morning, although I did not yet know the answer.
None of them can speak. I am their voice.
You will no doubt see them in the Morgue. But they do not tell their stories there, as they tell them to my camera. In the Morgue the world sees only their empty husks. The dandies of Paris who go to see the latest morsel of flesh are dupes to their own desire. The dead show their secrets to me. They show nothing to the crowds: Even most of death agonies have faded and altered by the time the bodies are transported. The slightest movement displaces the original expression of death. I wish it softened it. Sometimes I think of the one among the dandies and curiosity seekers who may sincerely be looking for a lost loved one, and both fears and hopes to find her at the Morgue. Of the one who stands waiting his turn on the queue, not wanting to see, cursing sight that it can bring him to this. It is my job to look at things no one else wants to. But I cannot not touch the bodies. I have been asked, as I pack away my photographic equipment, if I would be willing to lend a hand; and I’ve been curt in my refusal. I could not violate these corpses that so lately were animate souls, I cannot move limbs that have no more volition, cannot support a head or back, that the body be taken where no living person ever lies.
“Captain Bezier, this young woman was not yet dead when she was laid here. And yet there is a trail of blood, so she must have been wounded elsewhere and killed here.” My voice was flat, as though I did not care. I cared. She was evidently”—I wanted to say, obviously—“brought here from another location. If I were you, I would look toward the tenements within a quarter-mile radius. Perhaps she was on her way home late, after dinner with friends. She should not have been walking alone after dark, but perhaps she felt herself emancipated, and not in need of an escort. Perhaps she found the wrong sort of escort. But I will tell you this: that she was left with her hands thus folded at her breast indicates a reverence for life or for death.”
“Oh, Edouard, you are such a fool!” Capt. Bezier said complacently. “Always I have to hear your theories. It is true that you have sometimes been right in the past. But you let your poetic imagination rule your intelligence. Leave police work to the police, young man.”
He would, of course, take careful heed of what I had I said. But he would take blustery credit, too, for any information he gleaned from me.
“I am done here,” I said brusquely. I was not irritated by Capt. Bezier, any more than I was intimidated. But I was done with the dead. High above the listing tenement the wide sky of Paris awaited, the day awaited, and I was hungry for the day. I glanced once more toward the young woman who had not seen this day come. And turned away. Later, in the quiet of the darkroom, I would see her again.
And she would tell me her story.
~ Review by Venture ~
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*
Death and love in the City of Light. This story is told by multiple people. It shows their struggles as people. Edouard is called out to photograph death. He is a man that everything is not black and white. He is a keen observer. He strives to find out the answers even if he isn’t an investigator. When he finds himself at a woman’s psychiatric institution, he still doesn’t see things as simply as everyone else does. He wants to protect Augustine from everyone.
Edouard is considered naive in the book of death and absinthe. I don’t find him naive but more open-minded. He just doesn’t consider a woman used good because she is a prostitute. He assumes she has a good reason to why she has found herself in this situation. Murder and the sick mind play a huge role in this book. I give this 4 books.
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~ About the Author ~
Jessie Prichard Hunter is the author of the psychological thriller Blood Music, forthcoming from Witness Impulse. She currently resides in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and two children.
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