Good Read: 'When Beggars Die,' an Uncommon Mystery
Michael Cohen, Professor Emeritus at Murray State University, brings us his latest 'Uncommon Mystery,' When Beggars Die by E.A. Allen.
E. A. Allen, When Beggars Die (2013) ISBN: 978-1-60653-066-5
When I met Ed Allen—that’s a great moniker, by the way, for one writing in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe—he was finishing a Ph.D. in history at Tulane and I was teaching at the University of New Orleans. He went on to a career that included a post as Senior CIA Analyst for European Security Affairs. I can’t think of a better background for someone writing a historical thriller about the precarious balance of power in Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century. That’s the period when the action of When Beggars Die takes place, just after the turn of the century, when the English King Edward VII is in Paris to negotiate a treaty.
I like the mystery setup of When Beggars Die—the papers of the great detective’s sidekick, bequeathed to the author/”editor,” are the equivalent of Dr. Watson’s battered tin dispatch-box, and there is additional interest in the danger that still might accompany the release of any of these cases to the public. The narrator is no lightweight, but a Gentleman-in-Waiting to the King of England. Allen’s detective, Gerard de Montclaire, is nicely finessed into both literary and political history, being a protégé of the fictional Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, and rubbing shoulders in the book with the historical Edward VII and with Sidney Reilly, “Ace of Spies,” who partakes of both worlds. I like also the pacing of the story, which adapts Raymond Chandler’s advice that when things slow down, the author needs to send through the door a man with a gun—or a sword, or a blade concealed in a cane. Or he can have a woman scream in the next room, an ominous figure emerge from the mist of the Jardin de Luxembourg, or a dirigible suddenly blot out the sun. Allen’s packed plot also includes a lovesick Cardinal who commits suicide rather than have his concupiscence exposed, a murderer’s identity revealed by his lime-scented cologne, and the kidnaping of an English Cabinet Minister. As a result of the murder that opens the book, the English king is involved in a potential blackmail plot, which could be aimed at him from anywhere in Europe. It could even be coming from the opposition in his own country to the treaty with France the king is negotiating. Montclaire must find the evil manipulator behind the plot, and the narrator, Sir Francis FitzMaurice, must keep his detective friend from self-destructing.
Allen takes pains to recreate Paris at the beginning of the century, with gaslit, misty streets, only a few automobiles among the carts and carriages, and her present suburbs only dark villages miles away from the city lights.
If your taste runs to historical mystery and characters who hobnob with European leaders of a century ago, I think you’ll like this one.
Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University. His most recent book is Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction, published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press in 2000.