Why 1920s Paris Is the Best Setting for a Spy Thriller

Read Tessa Lunneys essay about 1920s France being a perfect setting for a spy thriller, then comment below for a chance to win a copy of April in Paris, 1921!

Why set a thriller in 1920s Paris? This is the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, of Gertrude Stein and Nancy Cunard, of Josephine Baker in her banana skirt taking her pet leopard for a walk. This is a Paris of wild parties full of flappers and swells—surely this is not a place for spies, surely not a time for political intrigue? This is precisely the place for political intrigue and plots, and the flappers show us the way.

Paris in 1921 was still dealing with the Great War. The French were still burying their dead and erecting their war memorials in every city, town, and village. They were still applying for widow’s pensions and only just understanding that “missing in action” meant that their beloved man was not coming home. Even a century after the war, farmers in northern France still dig up shrapnel and find unexploded shells; just two years later, in 1921, the Somme was a wasteland and the country was full of internal refugees.

Paris had never stopped smoking in its cafes and enjoying its aperitifs, but underneath the bonhomie is deep grief and its close cousin, anger. The anger was there before the war, from the Prussian invasion of 1870; after this epic slaughter, French anger at Germany has settled into an implacable hatred. Passion, confusion, politics, and fear: the perfect setting for a spy thriller.

Europe in the first half of the 20th century was wrenched by one political upheaval after another. I have just mentioned the Great War (aka World War I), which ran from 1914 to 1918, as the greatest upheaval in the west. The greatest upheaval in the east, of course, was the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the subsequent decades of Soviet expansion.

Passion, confusion, politics, and fear: the perfect setting for a spy thriller

Amidst this, Italy found itself also irresistibly drawn to fascism through Il Duce, Mussolini. Spain was fighting its colony, Morocco, then fighting itself in the Spanish Civil War. After the war brought on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, states from the Baltic to the Balkans to the Black Sea declared themselves independent and sovereign, sometimes overthrowing their monarchs and sometimes reinstating them, in frantic nation-building tug-of-war. Germany’s desperate attempt to govern itself democratically through the Weimar Republic, despite galloping inflation and poverty resulting from their “war reparations”—the debt they owed to the victors for starting the war—ended dramatically with Hitler’s election as Chancellor and subsequent imposition of a state of emergency, creating Germany as a dictatorship. And we all know what happened with Hitler…

Paris in 1921 was right at the start of all this, right at its epicenter. Paris was the place where all the Allied troops took their leave from the front—not only French and British and American but Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, South African, Indian, Nepalese, Congolese, Sudanese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Laotian, and Khmer, to name but a few. It was a fabulous mix of soldiers and nurses from powers, colonies, and former colonies, many of whom stayed on after the fighting had finished.

Paris had endured the war through bombing and Zeppelin raids and had emerged victorious. Paris, much beloved by the Russian aristocracy through the past two centuries, was also the place where Russian nobility fled the Revolution, often turning up with nothing but their hand-tailored suits. Conversely, perversely, communism had inspired the working class and the intelligentsia with its radical program of equality and its outlet for anger through revolution. And with Paris the center of artistic life in Europe, it was also full of communists from all nations and of all persuasions. Paris was where the rich and noble came to party, where diplomats came to do business, where businessmen came to relax, and where artists came to shake up the world—all at the same time. What an irresistible place to set a novel.

In April in Paris, 1921, I wanted to look at the beginnings of fascism. The heroine, Kiki Button, has never heard the word before—indeed, it was first used in 1920 by a small group of Italians and wasn’t part of daily usage until the 1930s. What was part of daily life was anger—French anger at the Germans for starting the war, German anger at the whole world for betraying them, working-class anger at being thrown into the war, aristocratic anger for being brutally ousted from power.

There was a strong feeling in some parts of German society that Germany would have won the war if they hadn’t been “betrayed”—by traitors, by Communists, by so-called degenerates. In 1921, the German fascist movement was just beginning. Calling themselves the Freikorps (literally, the “free corps”), nicknamed the Brownshirts after the military-surplus shirts they wore as uniform, this loose group of men gathered all the disaffected, angry, disappointed Germans—mostly former soldiers—and gave them purpose through a shared hatred.

Germany was not allowed to have an armed force, especially not an armed citizens’ paramilitary group; the Freikorps were a secret society, operating in the turmoil of post-war politics to disrupt elections, meetings, and protests. They had counterparts and counterpoints in Paris, with the fascist group Action Française, as well as in Britain, Spain, and Italy. With similar popular nationalist movements currently occurring in France, Britain, Poland, and other parts of Europe, it was too tempting to place my book at the heart of this.

Of course, political turmoil doesn’t happen in a vacuum, separate from ordinary daily life. It affects daily life in all its aspects, just as daily life informs political movements. Fascist and communist politics were a direct response to working conditions, post-war conditions, and post-war grief. These ideas also informed other cultural changes, the most interesting of which for me is the changing place of women in European society.

Since Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written during the French Revolution, the place of women in European society was in question. Women fought for more autonomy, more power, and more choice; through suffrage, the right to divorce, the right to own property, they pushed against patriarchal power structures to have their say. The “New Woman” of the late-19th and early-20th century was derided but was a powerful image and prophecy of the increased role woman could play in society.

The war changed everything. With men off fighting, women stepped up to become bomb-makers and bus conductors, matrons and managers of large organizations; they traveled without chaperones to help at the frontline and then returned home to no prospect of marriage, only a future where they had to make their own way. In Britain and America, some of them returned home to the vote.

Whereas the pre-war “New Woman” was derided, the post-war modern flapper was popular. Everyone wanted to be or be with a woman who smoked and drank cocktails, who wore make-up and danced to jazz, who had political opinions and took lovers and read and traveled, who didn’t care what Mamma thought or their priest said or what anyone else did, who used hedonism as a way into modernity. The flapper encompassed both hardened war-veterans and dewy-eyed teens, running down the road that previous generations of women had worked so hard to build. Short skirt, short hair, no corset, and no inhibitions—to be honest, we still want that.

Paris was the center of this too. Firstly because it had long been a center of radical thinking, attracting artists and revolutionaries of all kinds—if you were different, bohemian, and wild, you could find your kind of people in Paris. You could find them because, secondly, Paris was home not only to Parisians but many immigrants and tourists as well. Some came for a season, some for a decade, some stayed for life.

Many of these “immigrants” were from other parts of France, respectable bourgeois towns, unsuited for the radically different. Kiki Button is part of this expatriate community in Montparnasse. Everyone was away from home, so the usual rules of “home” did not apply—women were artists, writers, radicals, and free-spirited. Paris had been a home for these women since the Revolution, but in 1921, women were more likely to be the creators than the muses of previous generations.

The war changed everything.

Kiki Button is a combination of these two ideas—political turmoil and the changed place of women in society. Mata Hari was the most famous of Great War spies, but perhaps that was because she was caught. Her name is now a byword for the irresistible seductress, the siren spy who makes men give up their secrets. Female spies during the war were much more complicated and interesting, of course, and used more than sex to get their information.

Spying is all about information—who knows what and who knows more. Kiki is a woman of her time for our time—she’s modern and free, she’s politically astute, and she’s sensitive to the fluctuations of power through information. Spies have been around since power has been around, but what we think of as modern spycraft—codes, enigma machines, undercover operations, sleeper agents—was still in its infancy in this post-war period.

So, I mention all the amazing people who were in Paris at that time. But who were they, exactly? Below are some brief sketches of the real people I’ve put into April in Paris, 1921 as well as those who inspired other characters.

Pablo Picasso was pretty much the King. Whether in the freezing studios of Montmartre or his swanky new apartment on the left bank, Picasso was the leader of any group he became a part of. By 1921, he was 40, had created Cubism and moved on, married a dancer of the Ballet Russes, and could live solely on the proceeds of his art. The next two decades would see him create the sensuous violence of his portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar, sculptures and sets for the ballet, and his famous anti-war painting, Guernica.

Tamara de Lempicka was a former St. Petersburg debutante. She fled with her Polish husband to Paris after the Russian Revolution, penniless and armed only with those skills thought necessary to an aristocratic lady. She learned to paint under the tutelage of André Lhote, working and partying with equal dedication. Her society portraits paid the bills as her style came to symbolize the hard, chrome, modern woman.

Hermine David was a painter and muse of Jules Pascin. Her pictures belonged to an earlier age, but when she returned to Paris after the war, she was once again a habitué of the left bank cafes, drinking with the famous and fallible.

These are all artists around Montparnasse. I didn’t want to have too many real people as they are such enormous figures on the page. I wanted Kiki to be the focus, and as Kiki is not real, then her main friends and lovers must also be fictional. However, many real people became the inspirations for other, entirely fictional characters.

For example, the character of Harry is based on a combination of people like Natalie Barney and Winnaretta Singer. Famous heiresses, they left America and Britain, respectively, for Belle Epoque Paris, found women to love, and stayed. Barney hosted a Sapphic salon where the women would dress as Greek nymphs and dance in her garden. She was famous for writing sentimental love poetry and falling for young women. Singer, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, held musical salons for the likes of Debussy and Ravel. She enjoyed a successful “marriage blanc” with Prince Edmond de Polignac—much better than her first marriage when on her wedding night, rumor runs, she climbed on top of an armoire and threatened to kill her first husband if he came near her. Singer certainly didn’t threaten to kill artist Romaine Brooks, who was the inspiration for Harry’s lover, Wendy—fierce, androgynous, and dedicated to her art—not even when Brooks left Singer for Barney.

If Picasso was King, then Kiki de Montparnasse was the Queen of Bohemia. Born Alice Prin, she sold flowers, mended boots, and was so hungry she had no pubic hair before she became the most famous artist’s model in Paris and an artist herself. Stories of her abound, but some of my favorites are:

  • She rarely wore knickers but liked to dance on tables when drunk, including doing cartwheels
  • She shocked the artist Fujita when she modeled for him by wearing nothing under her coat
  • When Emmanuel Radnitzky got off the boat from New York and decided to call himself Man Ray, she delighted him so much he started to shake and couldn’t take her photo. She sat next to him naked on the bed, put her hand in his, and didn’t leave his side for six years.

Kiki de Montparnasse is clearly an inspiration for Kiki Button, as is the fierce intelligence and high social standing of Nancy Cunard. Nancy Cunard, the heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune, was in Paris recovering from a near-fatal hysterectomy, performed for unknown reasons—a cap to a painful few years in which her first love died at the front, she got divorced from another, and she fought irreparably with her mother, Maud-called-Emerald. But a silver lining to this operation was that she could write poetry and make love to Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, and Aldous Huxley without the usual worries about contraception. At this point, she was angry and young and writing; soon, she would start the Hours Press, compile the Negro Anthology, and fight the fascists in Spain.

Other inspirations are more literary than Parisian; Fox is a type of Svengali, and Edward Hausmann is like a villain from a John Buchan novel. Svengali is from Trilby, published 1895, and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps was published in 1915 and was a soldiers’ favorite, so they’re typical of the pre-war period. Other inspirations are more English or Australian than Parisian; Bertie is like the composer Ivor Novello or the poet Siegfried Sassoon, while Tom is the suffering-but-manly Australian “Digger,” like someone you might find in a novel by Frederic Manning or Leonard Mann.

Many of the fictional characters are recognizable as a type. The type says something particular about the historical and political situation of the characters—that they are shaped by their time and so must fit their natural tendencies within contemporary politics. For example, Bertie’s suffering is colored by the fact that homosexuality was illegal in England in 1921; his mourning was as unspeakable as his love, making his behaviors to overcome it dangerous. Similarly, Violet’s grief takes on a self-destructive edge as her role as wife and mother disappeared on the battlefield. With so few men returning, it seemed this role would never return either. The grief that governs both of these characters would not have the same bitter, dangerous edge today. Bertie would be allowed to openly mourn his lost love and openly seek a new relationship. Violet would most likely have a career, or at the very least a job, to give her something to do with her time that doesn’t involve incidental treason.

But all this sounds very serious, and April in Paris, 1921 is not serious in its tone. Paris is a place both of intrigue and parties and has always been both. I tried to recreate this dichotomy within the writing by using a light-hearted tone for serious issues. Crime fiction allowed me to do this. The strong structure of the genre paradoxically provides enormous room to play. I can use the structure to make a point about Kiki’s partying, her emotional needs and issues, and the state of her world—I can use these points about Kiki to talk about our world today.

But these are points that we all know crime fiction has always done. I wrote a crime novel because I wanted to read a crime novel—one that wasn’t too dark—that was set in interwar Europe, written in the first person, included a sassy heroine … and the list got so long that I decided I just had to write it myself. Crime books are my books to relax with. The ones I read when I’m watching endless reruns of kids TV shows with my daughter or waiting for the bus or winding down after a long day. I never read them as a young woman, but now I’m an addict. 1920s Paris is my favorite fantasy destination, my go-to place when the washing up and laundry and endless emails become too much—I dream I’m in a café in Montparnasse, sipping a Kir Royal, reading the latest literary review in a lazy way as I wait for the party to begin. Of course, I had to combine the two; they were made for each other.

1920s Paris is my favorite fantasy destination […] I dream I’m in a café in Montparnasse, sipping a Kir Royal, reading the latest literary review in a lazy way as I wait for the party to begin.

I’m not the only writer who thinks so. If you want more crime novels set in 1920s Paris, you can’t go wrong with George Simenon and his detective Maigret (you may have seen Rowan Atkinson portray him in the recent TV movies). The most popular detective writer in Paris at that time was Maurice Leblanc with his detective Arsene Lupin, although I haven’t read these. I have read those other masters of the detective genre who wrote in and of the 1920s: Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett. Christie, famous for Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, writes about England and Europe. Hammett, of course, has the Continental Op operate in San Francisco. Other crime writers of the period include Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ronald Knox, among many others. For modern crime books set in the 1920s, it’s no secret that Kiki Button was inspired by a certain Phryne Fisher, written by fellow Australian Kerry Greenwood. As for others, I suggest you consult the pages of this most excellent site.

Read Kristin Centorcelli’s review of April in Paris, 1921!

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  1. Daniel M

    looks like a fun one

  2. John Smith

    I’m not sure I’d have spent time in 1920s Montparnasse, but Paris in the 1920s is a great subject!

  3. April

    Wonderful era and setting.

  4. Jackie Wisherd

    Would enjoy reading this book. So many real people inspiritations. I am sure this story is a satisfying picture of the 20’s in Paris.

  5. Lori P

    I enjoyed reading this. Really sets the tone for an exciting read!

  6. Pearl

    Captivating and fascinating.

  7. carloshmarlo

    Sounds like a tremendous book with a sparkling cast of characters! I’d love to win a copy, thanks so much for the chance!!

  8. ellie

    An amazing time, place and story which would be greatly enjoyed.

  9. Gail Malane

    I can’t wait to meet Kiki Button and her 1920’s Paris !

  10. Joye

    Really interesting article. Now I want to read the book so I can see how the story relates to the events that happened

  11. Margit Curtright

    Very interesting! I look forward to reading this book.

  12. Tiffany

    So interesting!

  13. Susan Glatki

    April in Paris, 1921 sounds wonderful and Kiki sounds like the perfect person to tell the tale.

  14. Rita Newhouse

    Paris conjures up images of Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, American expatriates,Hitler in front of the Eiffle Tower, the international language before English, even Jackie Kennedy, a place where anybody who was anybody ended up;spying would be a given. Mara Hari was even executed in France. It is interesting that the film, An American in Paris, had not one scene shot in France.

  15. Laurent Latulippe

    I love historical spy thrillers.

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