I wanted to post it here, too, since I think it's a good look behind the creation of THE PARIS LIBRARIAN, my latest novel in the Hugo Marston series.
There are two stories that lie between the pages of THE PARIS LIBRARIAN. One makes me cry, the other makes me laugh.
Shall we start with the tears? Good, so let me present a nice photo of a gentleman called Michael Harmuth. He’s with his daughter Sarah, who happens to be a book seller in Wisconsin, and her daughter, Scout.
Well, early last year Sarah wrote to me and said that her dad, Michael, was a fan of the Hugo series. But she said Michael had cancer and was unlikely to live until the next book in the series was released (THE RELUCTANT MATADOR) in June.
Was there any way I could get an advanced copy to him? she wondered.
Now, my own father was taken by the pestilence that is cancer so, obviously, my answer was heck yes. I asked my publisher to send me an ARC, and I wrote a wee note in it, signed it, and sent it to Michael.
That started a wee conversation between the two of us, and he kept me informed as to his progress with the book. He said he was reading it slowly, so as not to get to the end too fast. As you might imagine, that email had me reaching for the tissues.
Turns out Michael enjoyed the book, which I’d been hoping for desperately. And I didn’t want the last page to be the end of Michael’s association with Hugo so I wrote to him and asked, “How would you like to be a character in the next book?”
He loved the idea and, even though I’ve put the names of other people I know in books, he’s the only one I’ve let choose his role. Good guy, bad, guy, red herring, eye-witness… whatever he so desired.
And now, of course, I must remain tight-lipped for fear of giving anything away. Suffice to say, even though Michael is no longer with us, he lives on in Hugo’s world, and in Paris no less!
Now for the laugh, which comes in the form of a “truth is stranger than fiction” guffaw. As you might be able to tell from the title, Hugo’s latest adventure takes place in and around the American Library in Paris.
Now, back in 2015, once I formulate the idea for the story, I email the good people there and ask rather boldly: “Hello, do you mind if I kill someone in your library?”
Not even hours later I receive a resounding “Yes!!” and an invitation to tour the place. Now, I’m not one to turn down a visit to Paris, so my wife and I hop on a plane to spend a week in our favorite city. And this is where the story gets somewhat amusing.
When we show up to the library, librarians Audrey and Abigail are there to show us around. They start with the front, the circulation area, then lead us through the stacks. At the back of the building, they both stop and when I look past them I see a set of stairs leading down, roped off.
“What’s down there?” I ask.
“Err, the basement. We store books down there.”
“Can I see?”
Nervous glances between them, and a hesitant response. “Well, I guess that’d be OK.”
“Oh, is there a problem?”
“Umm, no real problem. It’s just... a little creepy down there.”
Which, as you know, is precisely what a mystery author wants to hear.
So we head down and it is creepy, slightly dim and musty. I tell them about the book in progress, and explain that I’ll have a character who dies early in a locked room. Audrey says, “Oh, that’s funny, we have a small room down here. We call it the atelier, you can see it.”
Sure enough, there’s the tiny little room for my poor, unsuspecting victim to die in.
We poke around downstairs a little more and I disappear down a short hallway near the foot of the stairs. To my right is a small boiler room, but to my left is a door. In the wall. It blends in and you could walk right by it.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“Oh.” That hesitation again. “It’s our secret door.”
Are you kidding me?? I thought that, didn’t say it. Not like that, anyway. Instead I ask mildly, “Oh, do tell.”
Turns out it’s their door into the American University, which takes up the majority of that block. A door they’re not allowed to use because, well, it’s kind of their secret.
“Do you happen to have a key?” I ask.
They side-eye each other. “We do but we’re not allowed to....”
My raised eyebrow stops them, and one of the women heads upstairs for the key.
Now, you know what I’m thinking. It’s a possible escape avenue for my killer, right? But that requires lots of people to have access to the key, and what are the odds of that given that it’s to a secret door? But I ask anyway.
“Only the library staff and volunteers can access the key,” they assure me.
“And how many...?”
“Maybe ten staff and, in the course of a year,” Abigail thinks for a second, “maybe a hundred volunteers.”
I grin like a chimpanzee. “Perfect.”
Later, as I wrapped the book up, it struck me that these coincidences might appear too good to be true, too contrived. So I actually put an author’s note in the front of the book pointing out that the library does have a secret door!
And this made me wonder if my fellow writers ever came across situations like this, when their research came up with something almost too perfect... or if readers ever stumbled over something in a novel, not believing it at first but then finding out it was true?
Oh, and you’re probably wondering if I went through the secret door that afternoon. I will tell you that had I done so and admitted it in writing, my librarian friends might have got in trouble.
So here I am, admitting nothing in writing...