Mon
Mar 6 2017 12:00pm

Review: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick is set in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, where a man with a perfect memory murders his wife in a dazzling psychological puzzle that reveals the strange connection between memory and fate (available March 7, 2017).

Belle Epoque Paris was one of the most glittering and artistically celebrated places in modern history, and with good reason. Between the years 1871 and 1914—a period of relative peace bracketed by wars and bloody political violence—feats of art, architecture, and engineering sprang forth from this cradle of progress, including such marvels as the Eiffel Tower, Impressionism and Modern Art, and the Paris Metro. Less well-known were the advances in modern policing that were first attempted by the French police forces, including the originally derided but now commonplace method of fingerprinting, in large part to combat the rising tide of crime that was almost inevitably the side effect of rapid urban development at the turn of the 20th century.

It is in this fertile ground that Marcus Sedgwick, a prolific writer of books for young adults, sets his 2nd adult novel, Mister Memory. In 1899, a cabaret performer admits to the murder of his wife after capturing her in flagrante with a co-worker. Marcel Despres—better known to his modest audiences as Marcel Memoire, the man with the magnificent memory—is swiftly committed to the Salpetriere Asylum

While in the asylum, the ambitious Doctor Morel becomes fascinated with Marcel’s gift of perfect recall. But he isn’t the only one to be irresistibly drawn into Marcel’s orbit; the investigating officer, Detective Petit, is unwilling to believe that a confessed murderer can so quickly have been found mentally incompetent and thus ineligible for the full extent of punishment by law. As doctor and detective investigate the details locked in Marcel’s mind, both separately and together, it soon becomes apparent that there are greater and stranger workings afoot than a commonplace case of domestic murder.

Petit, especially, must work quietly against the influence exerted by his superiors to just let it go. He travels the streets of Paris and further in Mr. Sedgwick’s gorgeously evocative prose, using mostly old-fashioned methods of detection despite the rise of new scientific ones: 

[I]f only the public knew that ninety per cent of crimes solved are solved by one criminal informing on another, and that the wheels of that process are oiled by money, they would have a very different view of the police inspector. [He] knows full well that were the truth known, it would be divisive, explosive. Even within the police, different factions hold opposing views about the morals of using criminals to solve crimes. [He] does not make such judgments, he only knows that without bribery, and sometimes more physical coercion, criminals would not inform on each other. And once a tip-off has been extracted, then the only other really useful tool the policeman has comes into effect—surveillance. So much can be gained by careful, covert watching, but it is a slow business sometimes, and an expensive one in terms of manpower.

It is this dogged and sometimes morally suspect detective work—here at the birth of Crime Scene Investigation techniques—that brings Petit, and by extension Morel and Marcel, to a truth that will land them all in grave danger, as powerful people become desperate to bury potentially explosive secrets.

Fascinating period details of crime solving and life in general aside, this book also dives deep into the gift of perfect recall and its attendant curses. Marcel has always struggled to live a normal life, his conscious thoughts constantly sidetracked by reveries triggered by memory. The murder has destroyed the tenuous discipline that kept him a functioning member of society, leaving him near-catatonic in the asylum. Morel’s initial astonishment at Marcel’s gift fades once he realizes how crippling it is, and his medical training prods him to help Marcel learn how to master it. This will be a difficult undertaking for them both, but worthwhile, especially as described in this, my favorite passage of the novel:

“Most people, if you ask them, will tell you that memory is about the past—it is, after all, about remembering things that have happened. But that is not what memory is for. The ability to recall past events is a mere by-product of what memory does for us. It was given to us, by God, or nature, in order that we might be able to negotiate the future. It was given to us in order that we may learn, understand and build upon our previous achievements. That we might create languages and civilisations. These are the things that animals cannot do, because their memory is not developed, as ours is, to be able to project the future. That is what memory is about: the future, not the past.”

Of course, there is little point in wrestling this gift to serve and enrich his life if Marcel is not actually alive to enjoy it. This is the central narrative tension of the book, with Petit’s detective skills peeling back each layer of the crime even as Morel strives to put his broken patient back together. 

Mister Memory is a fascinating look at the power of the human mind to solve problems both internal and external, set in one of the most important, progressive periods of modern history. Mr. Sedgwick pays tribute to Belle Epoque Paris with a tale that is lovingly aware of its setting, which is perhaps the only time and place that a crime this complex, with characters this bizarre and compelling, could have been both perpetrated and ultimately solved.

 

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.

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