When you cross something off that is near the top of your to-read list, and then find it again, near the bottom, you know you are just not keeping up. Here I was thinking that Robert Goddard's The Ways of the World was a newish book set in immediate post-World War One Paris, and therefore good prep for my imminent vacation, when in fact it was published in 2013 (Random House in the UK, Mysterious Press here) and there are already two sequels!
You might also find that your to-read list offers insight into the evolution of your reading tastes. I'm pretty sure I put this on the list when I started because it was international, and I know I added it more recently because of the WW1 angle. But I also know that my interests have been honed in the few years since I started keeping track of what I write, and this story doesn't quite thrill as much as it might have.
It is 1919, the War to End All Wars has ended, and Our Hero, James "Max" Maxted, is looking into the possibilities of opening a flying school in England, aided by his loyal wartime mechanic Sam Twentyman (which is one of my more favorite names in crime fiction). That plan is upended when Max's father dies unexpectedly in Paris, where he has been part of the British delegation negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. Max and his snotty brother Ashley go to Paris to collect their father's remains, and it becomes clear to Max anyway that All is Not What it Seems with their father's death. There's an elegant mistress, for starters, and a mysterious list, and some Russian exiles and fairly stereotyped diplomats: inscrutable Japanese, warm Argentines, loud and heavy-drinking Americans. And did I mention the elusive German spy and his lithe thief sidekick, Le Singe (The Monkey)? Yes, even though this story is complicated in the grand tradition of good espionage tales, the characters feel a bit stock.
I’m sure Max is handsome, and Sam is stocky, and Appleby (the British secret service detailed to the delegation) smokes a pipe. But I like characters with a little more complexity, or quirkiness, or even ambivalence. Le Carre and Philip Kerr always satisfy the last, and probably the first, and who can forget the ultimately quirky Bryant and May, or Dr. Siri Paiboun, or those rascals at Slough House?
Lesser characters seem to drop out of the picture, which is a little frustrating. We hear a lot about irritating Ashley (whom I picture as the ineffective Frahnces from Poldark) and his striving wife, and there is the intimation that they are going to try and have Max removed as executor of the father’s will – but then we don’t hear about them for chapters and chapters, really until towards the end of the book when the tale takes Our Hero back to London. And while Sam is presented as a kind of sidekick, and does act that way at times, he is really more of an independent operator than one might expect.
This story is also curiously action-less, at least for the first half. Max spends a lot of time going around Paris talking to people, to try and find out what actually happened to his father. This is in fact what normal people would do, but while perhaps realistic it is a wee bit boring for the reader.
But you have to bear in mind that this is the first of a trilogy, so you can imagine that the author felt he had time to bring characters in and out of the action (such as it was), and to develop that action in a more leisurely fashion than a stand-alone might suggest. I gather that the story is really wrapped up in the third volume, with a big ending.* Will I get to it? Not sure. I did not love this book, although I certainly did not hate it. The laxity of this review lays it out: it did not excite with character or prose, although it did not disgust. It wasn’t a book that I thought about during the day, when I wasn’t reading it, which is my idea of a really good book.
*Goddard has written a number of books, and according to his website is the "master of the clever twist." I don't love a clever twista, but they have their uses.