1538 Finding Jack Rake
The Ghosts of Paris
by Tara Moss
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 2022
$24.99 / 9781443461252
Reviewed by Myshara Herbert-McMyn
Many of us have wished to travel into the past, whether for specific reasons or to experience a time vastly different from our own. Of course, historical fiction remains the most efficient and inexpensive way to experience the past. Tara Moss flawlessly transitions her readers to 1947 and to Sydney, Australia via her strong and timely heroine, Billie Walker, and the mysteries that plant themselves in her path.
The world is slowly rebuilding after the devastation of the Second World War and Billie Walker is trying to do the same. She was a war reporter in France alongside her husband, Jack Rake, before the war ended and separated them. Jack was missing in action and she assumes he is dead, so Billie returns to Sydney and reopens her late father’s private inquiry agency. From straying husbands to Nazi criminals to missing men, Billie’s jobs are nothing short of time-consuming in the aftermath of a great world war that left many people unaccounted for. It helps that she can sympathize with the women who ask for her help in a way only another war widow can.
The Ghosts of Paris opens onto a scene in Billie’s office where a Mrs. Montgomery offers her a new job and alongside it, a new mystery: to find one Mr. Richard Montgomery, who disappeared about two years earlier somewhere around Paris. Despite her uncertainty in returning to continental Europe, Billie takes the job and soon finds herself looking for two missing husbands: Mrs. Montgomery’s and her own, since she now has the time and opportunity to search for Jack as well.
The mystery in this novel unfolds slowly and somewhat steadily. Billie and her assistant Sam follow Montgomery’s footsteps from London to Paris, where they glean information about his disappearance. I didn’t take issue with how slowly the plot was moving until I realized I was most of the way through the novel and could not yet feel the tension of an approaching climax. Even the addition of a clearly defined conflict — Billie versus the remaining Nazi sympathizers — failed to illicit the expected tension since it took a back seat to the mystery.
As a result The Ghosts of Paris felt almost unfinished, as if there were fifty pages missing before the last few chapters. Both of the disappearances were solved quickly and without action from Billie, which didn’t sit right with me. The heroine should be the source of the action in a mystery: we need to see the agent of inquiry actively searching for answers, as she did elsewhere in the novel, both before and during her time in Europe. Since one resolution overshadowed the other, it took the wind out of the sails of the resolution I assumed would be the climactic event, and Billie became a passive participant in it. If these events had been switched around, we would have seen Billie’s action, rather than her inaction, in bringing about the ending.
Victoria native Moss has set this novel in Sydney, London, and Paris. Each city is distinct in its architecture and atmosphere, and Moss captures them spectacularly in The Ghosts of Paris. I could picture each location in my mind and Moss provides enough detail about the legal and political climates of each city for me to understand what it would have been like for a woman to live or visit them. For example, when Billie walks into the Ritz Paris hotel and attempts to check into her room, she’s informed that it’s illegal for a woman to wear trousers there. Though it doesn’t inconvenience her too much, it’s surprising and informs her daily wardrobe choices from that point onwards. I found this rule fascinating in its absurdity.
Like many historical fiction novels, the tone of The Ghosts of Paris is quite demure. The third person narration is unhurried and unconcerned, almost passive in its relaying of events. Billie spends of a lot of time in her hotel rooms and Moss describes each outfit she wore. This characterized her clearly but I wanted to see more action. Without spoiling anything in particular, I loved the car chase around the middle of the novel. It was full of action and tension, and I could feel the real threat to Billie and Sam for that brief span of time. I expected the climax of the novel to have a similar level of tension, and when it did not materialize, its absence fuelled my dissatisfaction with the ending.
Despite these quibbles, The Ghosts of Paris is a lovely example of the beauty and timelessness that can be achieved in historical fiction. As a window into another world, it will inspire curiosity and take the reader on a mystery-filled adventure impossible in today’s world. Apart from the ending, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Ghosts of Paris and travelling back through time. I believe it’s well worth the time to get to know Tara Moss’s Billie Walker and her resolute methods.
Myshara Herbert-McMyn is a book reviewer and aspiring writer living in Kelowna. She runs the blog Lit&Leta. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from Thompson Rivers University. Editor’s note: Myshara Herbert-McMyn has recently reviewed books by Sonya Lalli, Tamara Goranson, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Samantha Knight, Shashi Bhat, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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