The protagonist of Pip Drysdale’s third novel, The Paris Affair, would be a difficult woman to get along with in real life. By her own admission, she only keeps one friend close, claiming that all other people are “fake and they try to make her ‘fake’ too.” Yet for someone who supposedly hates phonies as much as a certain Holden Caulfield once claimed to, Harper Brown spends a lot of this novel lying through her teeth and doing some pretty underhanded things without even thinking twice. What’s more, she often gets away with it.
As the book opens, Harper is pretending to go from ‘cool girl to stage-five clinger’ in order to quickly lose the interest of a man she’s picked up at a laundromat. Having ‘tried love once’ and been burned in a backstory as old as time, and being the sole support network to a mother who seems to have had more shitty boyfriends than she’s had hot dinners, Harper has not come to the city of love looking for ‘The One’.
In a turn of events that is reminiscent of Netflix’s Emily in Paris, Harper has landed a job writing about arts and culture for the online newspaper The Paris Observer. In another Emily in Paris parallel, she’s also started a Paris themed Instagram account (and the use of social media is a big part of how the action unfolds). But, thankfully, she doesn’t seem to go through an endless parade of increasingly silly hats. Instead, Harper, a true crime podcast enthusiast, wants to make it as a journalist and has her eyes on the crime and politics beat which is currently being covered by rather nasty colleague. He just happens to be covering the story that interests Harper the most – the disappearance and murder of Mathilde Beaumont.
It is here that Harper’s hatred of the human race and unwillingness to get close to anyone romantically begins to make more sense. Drysdale slowly reveals how much information Harper has about violent crimes against women through her podcast consumption. Added to that are all of the messed up things she once had to write about for her ‘How Not to Get Murdered’ column (How to free your hands from duct tape, or break out of the boot of a car, anyone?).
Harper (who bears a striking resemblance to Mathilde) discovers that in France, approximately 1000 unidentified bodies are found each year compared to 66 in Britain, thanks to a little thing called ‘the right to disappear.’ Basically, this means that the police won’t treat your disappearance as suspicious unless you’re a minor or there are clear signs of a struggle – which means if you’re a young woman who gets abducted, chances are no one will come after you until it’s too late.
This aspect of the novel was truly interesting. It took a novel that could have essentially boiled down to another account of horrific crimes against women and made it something more. Most of the time, Drysdale got the balance just right between the jaded voice of her protagonist, and describing a society that she was absolutely correct to be jaded by. Could she have gone deeper, particularly in the light of recent discussions about violent crimes against women? Yes, I think she could have, but that didn’t detract from my wanting to keep turning the pages.
One thing I will say is that while Harper was justifiably angry, there was also a lingering sense throughout the book that she felt superior to and sometimes actively disliked other women. Further, the early part of the novel almost ignores the Mathilde Beaumont crime plot too. Which meant that a third of the way through, when it becomes relevant again, it almost felt like she suddenly remembered she was supposed to be scared.
There are so many elements to this book – Harper’s backstory, her career aims, her friendship with Camille, her relationship dramas, a plot-line involving possible art fraud, two murders and a stalker in a generic hat – that I found myself incredibly impressed by this 340 page thriller and its writer, who has managed to keep all of that under control.
The end result is a book that both utilises and critiques the trope of the murdered woman in the crime genre. As someone who does not usually read thrillers or mysteries, I have to say that this was a thought provoking and difficult to put down novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to a friend.