In 1899, Marcel Després returns home from the cabaret in which he works to find his wife, Ondine, in flagrante delicto with Bishop, an American who works in the same venue. Després is, understandably, aggrieved, and he shoots Ondine before running away. When caught, he is arrested for her murder, and does not try to protest his innocence.
Young officer Laurent Petit is assigned to the case in the days following the arrest, and is surprised to find that Després has been moved to the asylum at Salpêtrière, thus meaning that the case is no longer to be investigated. And yet, Petit finds that he can’t forget the case – something just doesn’t add up. Despite being told to leave the case alone by his superiors, Petit begins to investigate, and finds more than he bargained for.
Memory is a device that is used frequently in fiction. Usually, the protagonist suffers from a loss of memory following on from an accident or other traumatic event, making it difficult to know who to trust. In Mister Memory, Sedgwick has taken the opposite approach. Marcel Després remembers everything. And I do mean everything. Every little detail of a situation, everything he’s ever read, ever experienced. This may sound like a boon, but Sedgwick has made it into a burden, as Després often becomes lost in his own thoughts, prompted to return to a given memory by whatever is going on around him at the time. This made the novel unique, to me at least – I don’t think I’ve read a novel in which the protagonist remembers everything. And whilst you might think that this would be beneficial to a police investigation, it soon proves otherwise, because Després can’t separate what’s important from the unnecessary detail that most of us are able to dismiss and forget.
In terms of the murder mystery element, I found it to be absolutely gripping, and it proves to be far more convoluted than a simple crime of passion and the plot twists and turns brilliantly. Petit does rely on a certain amount of supposition in order to make sense of the events, however, and those readers who are looking for a standard police procedural may not take to this aspect of the novel. I didn’t mind this – Petit covers a lot of ground in trying to work out what happened, even when he is told to back off in no uncertain terms, and I’d admired his determination to seek the truth.
I absolutely loved Mister Memory, and part of this was down to narration of the story. Told from an omniscient perspective, the reader is invited into the grime and glamour of late nineteenth century Paris, and the narration adds both historical detail and context as well as humorous asides, and there are huge swathes of text that I would like to quote to illustrate how clever, witty, and tantalising the text is.
Paris at that time can be described as a fairy tale; assuming it’s understood that fairy tales are brutish, dark and violent.
Whilst it won’t be to everyone’s tastes, Mister Memory may be worth considering if you’re a fan of historical crime novels that have a certain je ne sais quoi about them. I loved the originality of the tale and whilst I won’t remember every little detail, Després is character who will stay with me for some time to come.