Why Paris?

~Guest Post by Mark Pryor, author of The Bookseller

I’m often asked, “Why Paris?” Or, “Paris because you’ve lived there?”  Or even, “Paris, well that’s not very original.  Why not Helsinki or Constantinople?”

All fair questions, but all with multiple answers.

Some of the reasons I chose Paris are sentimental although, for the record, I have never lived there.  But I was in Paris with my wife when the initial idea for The Bookseller came to me, wandering the streets and sampling its cafes like a good tourist.  Prior to writing the book, I’d visited Paris maybe ten times and loved it since the first. It was clear to me that if I can’t be there in person, then why not travel there in my books?  Seems like a decent compromise to me.

Other reasons are practical: the idea that came to me involved bouquinistes, and I don’t know of any other city that has them.  I suppose I could have traveling bouquinistes but . . . actually, you’ve just given me an idea for a story. The main practical reason, though,  is that I know Paris and I do adhere to the maxim, write what you know,  at least to some degree.  (Perhaps I’d tweak it a little to say, Write what you know, or what you can properly research.)

Anyway, once made the decision had definite implications for The Bookseller and, of course, for the other books in the Hugo Marston series.

First, the choice of Paris opened a door for me.  When I picked a distinctly Parisian bookseller I was then allowed (required, really) to invent a history for him.  Hugo had to look into his background and that, in turn, unlocked the door to history, let me scroll back in time to World War Two and play with some issues that interested me, have always interested me: how we chose which side we’re on in the midst of conflict, how we decide to put what’s right (or wrong) up against immediate concerns like life, love, and family.  I suppose I could have examined those issues elsewhere but the French resistance and the German presence in France during that period have always had a powerful force in books and films, and (perhaps more importantly) in my imagination.

Paris’s history in WW2 also gives me something a lot of other cities don’t: a physical beauty that was left untouched by bombs and the hideous ogres of 1960s and ’70s architecture.  In other words, it’s a wonderful city for Hugo and me to walk around and for us to describe to the reader.  And while it’s a huge place, of course, its major attractions are almost all within walking distance of each other.  Hugo, or any character in the books, can so easily stroll down a wide boulevard or disappear into a narrow side street to find adventure.  In Washington DC he’d be sitting on the metro, which is no fun for a man of action.

Paris is also a place of moods.  This is so true of the main artery that divides the city in two, the River Seine.  Sometimes soft and rolling, sometimes churning and angry… the weather dictates some of those moods but the many beautiful bridges that span the Seine give me a chance to use it like a mirror, have Hugo or others stop like every other Parisian and tourist to stare into the water and have it reflect back their own moods and emotions.  You know how it is, when we’re at the beach on a summer’s day the ocean is the place we came from, a place teeming with life, a playground.  But at night, when the wind is up and dark clouds are rolling overhead, it’s the most dangerous thing in the world, an unforgiving beast waiting to swallow the unwary.  So it is with the historic River Seine, a character in the books to some degree, and an unpredictable one at that.

Paris also offers predictability: a wealth of pleasures open to my characters.  Street-side cafes where Hugo can sit and watch the world go by, the sordid delights of Pigalle for Tom’s more basic instincts, and restaurants galore where they can meet up and talk.  And always tourists, who may be fun for Hugo to watch and his best friend Tom to complain about, but I have to admit they are even more fun to kill off when needs must.

One of the aspects of Paris I have yet to take advantage of (but I will now that I have the green light from my editor) is its central location in Europe.  From Paris’s many train stations Hugo can zip down to Madrid or Rome, be in London in a couple of hours, or take a short flight to Moscow.  And of course, wherever Hugo goes I have to go there first, to scope it out for him.  I’m the advance party and that’s always an adventure for me.

One of the nice things people have said about The Bookseller is that it gives the reader a sense of Paris.  Even a couple of people who didn’t like the story said so.  That’s a huge compliment and one I hope to earn for future books because so many have written about Paris, made it their setting.  But I truly believe the city is so rich, has so much to offer, that a thousand writers much better than me could continue to explore the place and never run out of wonder.

As for Helsinki, well, those Scandinavians are doing pretty well without my help.

As for the other suggestion, well, as everyone knows it’s Istanbul not Constantinople.  And believe me, from Paris Hugo can get there any time he pleases: the three-day train ride takes him through Germany, Austria and into Romania, places steeped with history and the potential for trouble.  Especially if Tom’s on the train with him.


MARK PRYOR is an assistant district attorney with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, in Austin, Texas. He is the creator of the true-crime blog DAConfidential. He has appeared on CBS News’s “48 Hours” and Discovery Channel’s “Discovery ID: Cold Blood.” This is his first mystery novel.

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