posted on February 27, 2014 by Rhys Bowen

A Tale of Two Cities

cityofdarknessandlightI usually write a series set in New York City at the turn of the Twentieth Century. In CITY OF DARKNESS AND LIGHT, the new book, the 13th in the series, that makes its debut on March 4 I take my heroine to Paris (for reasons I can’t disclose in this blog without having to kill you)

I’m so glad I chose New York for my setting because it is a city of a thousand stories—the melting pot, the immigrant experience, the theaters, the drawing rooms of the Four Hundred and Paris is much the same—cities in which one will never run out of stories.

I once wrote a list of why I liked New York so much and looking at it now, I find that most of it is equally true of Paris.

1.  They are both true cities where living, working, eating, shopping all take place on the same block.

2.  Life is not confined to buildings. It spills out onto sidewalks and into parks. At the first sign of spring, tables and umbrellas come out onto sidewalks, people take their food into parks. They sit outside the public library playing chess. There are impromptu jazz bands and barbershop quartets in the subway at Grand Central and outdoor concerts in Central Park. And Paris is the quintessential city of sidewalk cafes, parks and gardens. What can be more heavenly than buying a baguette stuffed with brie and take it to a bench in the Tuilleries garden and people-watch?

3.  New York  is a city of artwork. There are mosaics in the subway stations—my favorite is the Alice in Wonderland motif at 50th Street. Look up and you’ll see Egyptian temples, art deco medallions, Greek columns and marble frescos, sometimes eight or ten floors above ground level. For whom were the art deco goddesses and marble pediments intended? Certainly not the pedestrians who walk below and never look up as they hurry to the nearest subways.I like to think of them as a little offering to the gods above.

And Paris—where could there ever be a feast for the eye than those beautiful boulevards designed by Baron Haussmann? And the magnificent statues on horseback, and the fountains and those two icons, the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur dominating the skyline. Did you know that they wanted to pull down the Eiffel tower after the great exhibition of 1900? And that they were still building the Sacre Coeur at the time my book is set?

4.   New York is a city of good smells. Every block has at least one good aroma wafting out of a café, or from a sidewalk cart—roasting coffee, frying onions, curry, sesame oil, baking bread. Luckily New Yorkers have to walk so much or they’d all be fat. And Paris is a city of visual gastronomic delights. The bright vegetables laid out neatly in the markets, the amazing selection of cheeses, and pates, and ripe peaches on barrows and the lingering aroma of garlic and Gauloise cigarettes that say so clearly that we are in the City of Light.

5.  New York is a city of dogs. They are not much in evidence during the day, unless one encounters a dog walker, being dragged down Fifth Avenue by six or seven of her charges. But early evening, the dogs come out, each with his accompanying human, whom he often resembles in stature and walk. Interestingly enough, there are more big dogs than small. You would have thought that dachshunds and yorkies would have been ideal for city life, but I see more golden retrievers and labs and standard poodles, even Afghan hounds. New Yorkers are well trained too. Not a speck of poop in sight on the sidewalks.

Paris also loves its dogs, but mainly petits cheins, lap dogs who trot along with ribbons in their hair, or tucked in an owners arm. Interestingly it is often fashionable men who carry their dogs around. And dogs are welcome at restaurants. Waiters even bring a little plate of food and allow them to sit at the table sometimes.

6.  New York is also a city of contrasts—the little old lady from the the upper East Side wearing tired looking furs and smelling of face powder and moth balls sit next to young men in baggy pants, gang colors and caps worn backward. Sometimes they look at each other and smile.

In Paris the old lady, head to toe in black, poodle on a leash nods politely and says “Bonjour Monsieur” to a large African man with a shining ebony-black face. “Bonjour Madame,” he replies in impeccable French.

And then there is the fashion. Nowhere do you see such interestingly edgy clothing than in the Village. And nowhere but Paris do you see such amazingly fashionable women, simple well-cut black dresses, impossibly high heels, the casually tossed scarf, pouting red lips and oozing sexuality.

Both are a feast for the senses, a quickening of a pulse, a feeling that one is truly alive and that life is a banquet waiting to be sampled. Is it any wonder that I set my stories there?

CITY OF DARKNESS AND LIGHT, a Molly Murphy Mystery, is released March 4 from Minotaur Books.
Twitter @rhysbowen

Rhys Bowen

Rhys Bowen

Rhys Bowen’s mysteries have been nominated for every major mystery award, including the Edgar for best novel, and she has won nine of them. She currently writes the Molly Murphy Mysteries, set in turn-of-the-century New York City and featuring a feisty Irish immigrant woman. In 1997 she began a new, lighter series, this one about a minor royal in 1930s England. The first book was called Her Royal Spyness. It has been described as Bridget Jones meets Charade as told by Nancy Mitford and described in a Booklist starred review as "A smashing romp." The first book has appeared on many bestseller lists and award nomination slates, including the Dilys award for the book that independent booksellers most enjoyed selling. A Royal Pain and Royal Flush are now in stores and Royal Blood comes out this fall.

Rhys was born in Bath, England, of a Welsh/English family, and educated at London University. She worked for the BBC in London, as an announcer then drama studio manager. She sang in folk clubs with luminaries like Simon and Garfunkel and Al Stewart, and also started writing her own radio and TV plays. Needing to escape from the dreary London weather, she accepted an invitation to work for Australian Broadcasting in Sydney. While Down Under she met her future husband John, who was on his way to California. She married and settled in the San Francisco area, where she has lived ever since, raising four children. (Although she now spends her winters in her condo in Arizona.)

Finding nothing like the BBC in California, Rhys started writing children’s books. Her first picture book was named a NY Times best book of the year. More picture books followed, then Rhys moved to young adult novels, writing many best selling titles. She also wrote some adult historical sagas and some TV tie-ins. When she felt she had exhausted her enthusiasm for writing for teenagers, Rhys decided to write what she likes to read: mysteries with a great feel for time and place. Her childhood memories of her Welsh relatives were the inspiration for her first mystery series: the Constable Evans novels. The stories were immediately well received. The second book, Evan Help Us, was called "a jewel of a story" by Publishers Weekly and nominated for a Barry Award. Evan’s Gate received an Edgar Best Novel nomination.

Wanting to try her hand at something different and edgier, Rhys conceived Molly Murphy—brash, fearless Irish immigrant in New York City. The first book in this series, Murphy’s Law, won three awards including the Agatha. Every subsequent book has received starred reviews and award nominations. For the Love of Mike won the Anthony Award at the world mystery convention. Oh Danny Boy won a Macavity. The ninth book, The Last Illusion, will be published in March 2011.

Rhys also enjoys writing short stories and has achieved much critical acclaim for them. Doppelganger won the Anthony award and was included in the world’s finest mystery and crime stories anthology. More recently her story Voodoo was chosen to be part of the anthology of the best of 50 years of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

Rhys is a past national board member of Mystery Writers of America. When not writing she loves to travel, sing, hike, play her Celtic harp, and entertain her grandchildren. She blogs at Jungle Red Writers and Rhys’s Pieces.

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