Joseph Koenig won critical acclaim and an Edgar nomination for his first novel, Floater (1986), and went on to write a string of solid hardboiled tales through the late ’80s and early ’90s. His last was the critically praised Brides of Blood (1993), a police procedural in post-revolutionary Iran. For nearly two decades after that Koenig did not publish, disappearing from the mystery scene. His return came in the form of the Shamus-nominated False Negative (2012), a murder-mystery about a journalist who writes for true crime pulps much like Koenig once did. His newest novel, Really The Blues, takes the murder-mystery noir to the streets of occupied Paris. I received a copy from the publisher, in exchange for an open and honest review.
Paris, 1941. The United States is not at war, which means ex-pat jazz musician Eddie Piron can live somewhat comfortably under Nazi occupation. His band Eddie et Ses Anges is a big hit at La Caverne Negre, where the SS’s paradoxical love of “negermusik” outweighs the racial policies they’ve sworn to uphold. But all is not well within the band. Danish drummer Borge Janssen may not be the best, but any jazz musician is valuable in a town where such skills are in short supply. When Janssen abruptly decides to quit, he and Eddie get into a scuffle, with a punch compromising Eddie’s lip and preventing him from playing the trumpet for a while.
The next day, Janssen’s broken body is pulled out of the Seine; investigators reel Eddie in, where he learns that Janssen’s live-in girlfriend, Anne Cartier, stuck her head in an oven and caused their apartment to blow up. And from there, Eddie’s comfortable life is upended. First comes mercenary intelligence broker Thad Simone and his girlfriend Mavis, hoping to sell the secrets of occupied Paris to the US government—blackmailing Eddie in the process, once Thad finds out the complex circumstances that caused Eddie to leave the States. Then there’s the two Nazi investigators, Maj. Weiler and Col. Maier, hoping to root out Janssen’s co-conspirators before they bring revolutionary thoughts to the minds of the “docile” French. It’s the reappearance of Anne Cartier that clinches it: Eddie is in the midst of something bigger than himself, desperately trying to keep his own secrets hidden while he’s dragged into the conspiracies of others.
It should come as no surprise, but the elements that impressed me so much about False Negative were things Koenig excelled at in Really The Blues. The atmosphere is a lush portrait of Paris in 1941, a world colored gray from cigarette smoke, Nazi feldgrau, and French defeat. As something of a World War buff I was pleased to see the fine attention to detail, which I think helped build the novel’s rich atmosphere and gave it a ring of authenticity. The characters are well-defined and the dialogue can crackle, yet it feels cut from the past and not constructed in the modern-day. The cover and design—especially that art deco title font—add to the atmosphere. And while Koenig’s earlier novels included snippets of jazz history—such as the scene with Louis Armstrong in False Negative—Really The Blues lives in the thick of the jazz era, with numerous references to the hits and performers of the time.
The other strong element of False Negative was race and race relations; it’s something of a minor spoiler (though the book reveals it very early on), but one of the big secrets Eddie grapples with is that of his race. He’s light-skinned enough to pass as a Caucasian, but his Louisiana Creole heritage and dark-skinned mother label him as a Negro back in the US. Having fled to Europe to start a new life, Eddie sees it crumble thanks to Thad Simone’s interference and the Nazi’s oppressive racial policies. And while the novel doesn’t directly state it, it’s fascinating to see the parallels between the American treatment of race with that of the Nazis—an uncomfortable contrast, given the point in history. The irony is that Eddie fled the racial intolerance of the Deep South only to find himself hiding out in the open, under the eyes of watchful Germans hunting other Caucasians—communists, Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables.”
There’s one more comparison to False Negative I can make: Really The Blues is a subtle novel, despite a few moments of blazing tension—one intense rooftop chase scene from around 3/4ths of the way through the novel sticks out in my mind. What it’s not is the kind of slam-bang noir where every chapter has three surprise twists and ends on a cliffhanger, so don’t expect it to be one. It makes me feel that Koenig was looking to write something more than a simple mystery-noir, which gave it a strong literary quality. The novel starts off a bit slow, soaking in the rich atmosphere and establishing the roots of Eddie’s concerns. Eddie himself is not entirely likable, not unsympathetic, a complex human being trying to be something he’s not. Stick with his story long enough and you get to another one of those tense scenes, the explosive finale where all the different plot-threads converge. I can’t say they were tied up neatly—Thad and Mavis work well as the spoilers who upend Eddie’s comfortable life, but they felt underused, their motivations less clear, compared to the other important characters.
Though the mystery plot is pretty good and the characters are nuanced and well-realized, the strengths of Really The Blues—the rich, moody atmosphere and thoughtful look at race in the 1940s—take it into another class of novels. The plot is subtle but crackles with energy, as the walls begin to close in on Eddie Piron, trapped between his past, the Nazis, death and lies, with no easy exit—so, he makes his own way out at the novel’s thrilling climax. Eddie is a complex character, the perfect protagonist to lead us down the dark alleys of a shattered city. If you don’t mind the subtleties and complexities, the often bleak outcomes in this world of gray, I’d recommend you follow Eddie down that road.