Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

Reviewed by Kelly Stone

Paris in the year 1899 is an effervescent scene. Distinguished as “the world’s
capital” at the time, the city is right out of a fairy tale, but darkness and violence
lurk readily underneath. Enter Marcel Després, acclaimed cabaret performer
better known as Monsieur Mémoire. He is convicted of the murder of his wife and
committed to the notorious Salpêtrière asylum. The facts of the crime are simple:
Marcel returns home to his apartment to find his wife Ondine in the midst of
an affair, so he shoots her and flees the scene. He is swiftly arrested and the case
would have been closed right there and then, if not for the culprit’s remarkable
talent: Marcel Després can remember every detail of his entire life. He can rest
easy in the knowledge his perfect memory affords him. However, he must also live
forever with the recollection of the night in question and come to terms with his
raw emotions when he made the decision to raise the gun.
Salpêtrière’s Dr. Lucien Morel studies the intricacies of Marcel’s mind as young
Inspector Petit discovers inconsistencies in the events of the crime, unraveling an
investigation that digs deep into the basest establishments in Paris.
Marcus Sedgwick is known for his Printz award-winning young adult books.
Mister Memory is his second adult novel after A Love Like Blood, another
psychological thriller set in historic Paris. Sedgwick has demonstrated his mastery
of this setting time and again, and in this story Paris is an additional character,
inviting glamour and debauchery into the mix of characters’ personal conflicts.
Meanwhile, the tail end of the 19th century heightens scandals and creates tensions
that wouldn’t normally be considered in your average contemporary thriller
because “La Belle Époque” is all about façades and trickery. Sedgwick writes:
It was as if the whole city was saying, Don’t look at that, look at this! I will
show you what you want to see, and you will be so dazzled by its beauty and its
brightness that you won’t look any further, you won’t want to look any further. You
know the darkness is there, but why look at that? When I can give you what you
want… pleasure.
The setting is the epitome of grandeur, with illusions of splendor cloaking
every darkness. Illicit acts – from pornography, to adultery, to murder – are easily
overlooked.
Hailing from vastly different backgrounds, Marcel and Ondine meet as
performers in the cabaret of Insults. Entranced by each other’s routines, the pair
swiftly marry and are happy for a short while, but, as Sedgwick laments, “things
fell apart almost as quickly as they had come together. Within six months, Ondine
was dead.”
Marcel was never one to understand love. He was born in a small town, where
he mostly kept to himself, befriending only Ginette, the doctor’s daughter, whose
affections he didn’t understand or know how to return. When his parents died
from influenza, Marcel was encouraged to go to Paris and make a new life for
himself, so off he went.
Ondine grew up in the spotlight. She moved to the “City of Light” when she was
sixteen, thoroughly aware of her two inherent gifts: that she was an actress and that
she was attractive. Practiced in the art of flirtation and manipulation, she worked
her way to the top of her Madame’s house, until she grew too old for the trade and
moved on to perform in the cabarets.
Sedgwick introduces alternating timelines which show the present investigationon the one hand, and both Marcel and Ondine’s pasts on the other. This back-
and-forth highlights the couple’s incompatibility. It is clear from the first page that their relationship will erupt in disaster: Marcel brims with jealousy as Ondine falls
deeper into the cabaret’s new alluring direction. The cabaret used to be all about
ambience and creating an illusion, but as time went on, the director had to adopt
more seductive choreography to compete with other cabarets like the Moulin
Rouge. To survive, the Cabaret of Insults must prosper from their customers’
demand for lust and scandal by featuring nude dancers. Ondine has always led her
life knowing her beauty and her desirable body are her assets, so she is more than
ready to bask in and profit from her performances, but Marcel is left frustrated,
unable to control his wife, and wanting to be done with her.
On the current side of the chronology, Inspector Petit is drawn deeper into
the case. As the connections with his own life and lost love overwhelm him, he
becomes fixated on finding the truth, determined that the simple verdict is not the
entire story. The reader’s opinion of Marcel and Ondine’s roles in the reader’s eyes
completely shift as Petit’s investigation unfolds. While Marcel is introduced as a
jealous husband and Ondine as a victim, Marcel morphs into the true victim and
Ondine becomes the femme fatale. Yes, Marcel had a motive and was witnessed
at the scene of the crime, but why would he murder his wife if he would have to
remember every detail of the brutal affair for the rest of his life? With help from
Dr. Morel, Petit manages to convince the reader that everything is not as it seems.
Morel and Petit use Marcel’s extraordinary memory to dissect every detail of the
crime scene, and the detective is left to sift through and pinpoint which pieces are
important.
Mister Memory is an atmospheric novel in the vein of modern classic thrillers
like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, with a historical twist. Sedgwick draws contrasts
between the basest institutions of the time and the exterior personas of those
trying to live in a gilded world filled with a depravity and disrepute. While there
would seem to be a fine line between the so-called high and low classes, it is clear
from the intermingling evidence in Petit’s investigation that their interests blend
and weave together. Corruption in all levels of the social hierarchy of Paris is
exposed, from the base of the cabarets to the higher-esteemed law enforcement.
Sedgwick suggests that one would not exist without the other; there would be no
vibrant memory of the 19th century “City of Lights,” if not for the deep-seated
corruption and scandal serving as the backbone and foundation for the glamour.
He also introduces a discussion about how the patriarchal values upon which
the system was based could twist the implications of a verdict either favorably or
unfavorably. Through this specific scenario starring the polarizing characters of
Marcel and Ondine, Sedgwick has depicted a select moment in time from all sides
and, with that, created a memorable story.

 

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