James Norton travels from Boston to Paris at his domineering mother's urging to bring home his fragile sister, Ellie, and their journalist brother, Rafael. He discovers Rafael devastated by the death of his Jewish lover, Olympe. Suicide, accident, or murder? Ellie is confined to a wheelchair owing to an unexplained paralysis. James is drawn into finding solutions to both problems and his investigations lead him to seedy brothels, the bureau of a hypnotist, the morgue of aspiring neurologists, and the wards of la Salpetrière, the famous neuropsychiatric hospital for women. The autopsy reveals that Olympe had been pregnant and the questions about her death multiply. The exoneration and return to France of Dreyfus plays as a backdrop.


A fast-moving, murder mystery with a remarkably consistent recreation of late nineteenth-century medical Paris. Psychiatric theories of degeneracy, heredity and race inform the responses of the medical characters. Zealous researchers strive to establish connections between brain pathology and behavior, occasionally resorting to crime to advance the cause. The plight of women denied independence and employment is another major theme developed in several characters; they find release in cross-dressing, prostitution, manipulation, hysteria, perinatal death, and suicide.

While the prose is occasionally overblown and the emotions starkly drawn, the plot moves along smartly. The apparent guilt or innocence of an array of suspects flips back and forth with compelling effect. Notwithstanding protestations of tolerance, anti-semitic sentiments pervade medicine and society in both Paris and Boston. Even James must confront his suppressed suspicions and guilt over the end of his own tepid marriage with his wife's miscarriage and death.



Place Published




Page Count