Is it shallow to confess that the first thing that drew me to Marcus Sedgwick’s Mister Memory was the cover art? A brilliant blend of modern and art nouveau, the illustration is framed very much as Alphonse Mucha would frame his illustrations. There is even a very Mucha-looking woman at the top, her hair becoming branches of a tree. Rather than ornaments, the corners of the frame are two revolvers, and down one side is the skyline of fin de siècle Paris and down the other a train. The central image is a man’s silhouette and his torso is a street map of Paris. The very top has a skull, positions so the woman’s head almost seems the lower half of it. Directly opposite, at the very body, a brain lies with one portion identified, perhaps where turn of the century psychologists though memory resided. It is fascinating and in its iconography, the entire story is previewed.
At first the story is simple. A cabaret performer named Marcel Després caught his wife in bed with another man, shot and killed her, and was arrested. Sureté detective Petit becomes suspicious, though, when Després is declared insane and sent to the Salpêtrière, an asylum for the mentally ill where he is put in the care of Dr. Morel, the Assistance Chief Alienist. Petit is curious why the Prefect of Paris Police, the head of all police, personally involved himself to shut Després away from investigation in the silence of an asylum. Soon both men become obsessed with Després for different reasons. Petit wants him to pay for killing his wife and Dr. Morel wants to find the limits of his memory, because the secret of Marcel Després is that he remembers every single thing. He forgets nothing, not even the unimportant details such as mouse droppings on a stair step.
Sometimes readers will think of the Watergate phrase, “it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.” Of course, there was a murder, so it is the crime, but it’s quite likely if Delorme had not sent Marcel off to an asylum, the original simple crime passionel would have been the only story. By piquing Petit’s curiosity, then his obsession, all sorts of things unraveled, revealing a far more complex and sinister plot. One that puts Petit, Morel, Després, and everyone involved in danger.
Mister Memory is as much literary fiction as it mystery. It explores the themes of obsession and memory. While it may seem a gift to be able to remember everything, we quickly learn that it is a trap, that forgetting can be merciful. Obsession is explored not only through Petit’s obstinate compulsion to ferret out the truth defying direct orders, risking his job, and even his life. Morel is equally obsessed, first out of ambition to publish a great paper that will surpass his teachers and competitors, then out of a genuine desire to help. In the process, Petit leaves behind his paralyzing grief over the loss of his fiancée and Morel finds a renewed dedication to the art of healing.
I enjoyed Mister Memory very much. There is a strong sense of place and time. Of course, if you’re telling the story of someone who remembers everything, there had better be a strong sense of place, down to the disturbances in the dust. The details vary dramatically depending on whose point of view we are perceiving the story. The free-association of a never-ending memory is fascinating. The plot unwinds slowly, carefully, so that its complexity and intrigue are shocking to contrast with the beginning. We go from crime passionel to international intrigue so slowly but inexorably that when we understand all, it’s stunning. The real marvel, though, is how it is all unwound by the little details, Després’ inexplicable insistence that he shot once but fired five times, an old file that was forgotten by a conspirator erasing his tracks, a photographer neglecting to polish out a flaw in his lens. To have such grand schemes be undone by the little things, that is the most gratifying kind of mystery.
The cover was complex and fascinating–which made it a perfect cover for this complex and fascinating novel.
Mister Memory will be released March 7th. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.