You don’t have to be a mystery lover to enjoy Yves Fey’s new novel Floats the Dark Shadow. Any lover of good historical fiction will find it delightful. Fey not only captures the last decadent decade of nineteenth century Paris, but she does so decadently, not in a stylistically over-the-top way as too many writers might do, but by writing very readable and realistic prose about a large cast of characters that includes poets, tarot readers, artists, police inspectors, and endangered children.
Through this vibrant—when not dead—cast is woven a tapestry of the occult, the Parisian art world, and even the history of Jeanne d’Arc. And at the heart of this world is a series of terrible murders committed by someone pretending to be Gilles de Rais, the captain of Jeanne d’Arc’s army, who after her death became a depraved man who murdered and mutilated children. Let me say up front that some of the novel’s scenes are a bit grisly, especially when you consider these are dead children we’re talking about so some readers might feel squeamish. There are also some scenes, including a Black Mass, that might be deemed offensive too some, but overall, I only found a couple of the scenes disturbing enough for me to skip to the next paragraph. Fey describes these scenes quickly and moves on with the story, which I appreciated. Overall, the book is very readable for anyone who enjoys a good mystery and good historical fiction.
The novel centers around two characters. Theodora Faraday is a female artist raised in America who has come to Paris recently and is becoming part of a circle of artists and poets, who include her cousin Averill, for whom she finds herself developing feelings (but don’t worry; this is no romance novel). Soon Theo realizes that children she or her friends know are starting to disappear, and she becomes involved in trying to solve the mystery. Inspecteur Michel Devaux is on the hunt for the child-murderer while he also tries to sort out his own haunted past. Willingly or not, Theo and Michel will work together to solve the crime that goes down many unexpected paths and leads to a satisfying ending I did not see coming.
Fey does an excellent job of weaving in the historical details throughout the novel. Cameo appearances are made by historical figures that include the Irish poet William Butler Yeats and Leo Taxil, a French journalist and writer who exposed Freemasonry and wrote on anti-Catholic subjects. I had never heard of Taxil, but I found him and his subject matter interesting. Rather than just drop names for atmosphere, Fey works these historical people into the novel’s events in clever and surprising ways.
I especially thought Fey succeeded at weaving in the significance of women’s efforts for equality during this time. Theo is an American from California who has marched for Women’s Rights, rides a bicycle, and even flouts the French law against wearing pants. She has a friend, Melanie, who is one of the first women artists to be admitted into an academy and must deal with verbal and physical abuse from the male students. At one point, a policeman comments to Theo that she is a woman, so what can she do? Throughout the book, Theo shows what she can do, and the underlying theme of Jeanne d’Arc in the novel is a constant reminder that it was a woman, not a man, who led an army and saved France.
Fey weaves several other themes, images, and parallels into her novel, including the use of fire, from a charity bazaar that turns into an inferno to the image of Jeanne d’Arc being burned at the stake. Religious and occult images frequently appear throughout the book, including a form of the Cross—a mark left by the killer—and references to the Rosicrucians. The author has certainly done her research in writing this book by how she ties so much together, not throwing in historical details solely for atmosphere but working them into the plot in a masterful manner.
Floats the Dark Shadow is the first novel I’ve read by Yves Fey, but it’s made me her admirer. As a historical novelist myself, I can greatly appreciate how much research she must have done for this book—her website lists several of her main resources from the “dozens” of books she said she read, which I can well believe. But what I really admire is how she effortlessly has incorporated all these details into the storyline so that I never felt she was trying to teach me anything, but instead, I was transported back to Paris in 1897 and living the experience.