Mysteries aren’t one of my favorite genres for reading, but if I pick one up, I expect it to pass the bedside lamp test. That’s a little criterion I made up for myself. In that test, the better the mystery, the longer the lamp stays on at night while you flip the pages trying to get to the bottom of things. With a really good mystery, the lamp might stay on all night. Not so with Janice Law’s “The Prisoner of the Riviera.” I was drawn to the novel because a) it won a Lamda Literary Award this year; and b) because the main character is real-life English artist Francis Bacon, whose works I have found intriguing. I wish I could say the latter about Law’s book. The second in a series, the mystery takes place post-World War II along the Côte d’Azur. Law’s device of taking an historical figure and using him as an unlikely sleuth in a murder mystery is an interesting one, but her execution here is puzzling and ponderous—and not in a good way.
The book begins in London in the reconstructive days following the war, but the setting soon changes to the more picturesque and less war-weary French Riviera where Bacon has embarked on a vacation with his lover and nanny to get away from memories of the blitzkrieg. But before they can escape England, Bacon and his lover witness a murder and the artist agrees to deliver a man’s dying words to his wife in the south of France. Bacon is promised to have some massive gambling debts erased if he carries out the request. Soon he becomes involved in a series of murders that follow him to France, where he has become a suspect in the death of the wife he was supposed to visit. Perhaps if you read “Prisoner” quickly in just a few sittings it might hold more suspense and drama. But if you read it over a longer period, as I did, you may lose the thread and have to backtrack several pages to remember about whom it is you are reading. Law’s use of aliases for multiple characters only adds to the confusion and a transgender twist thrown in toward the end does little to heighten interest in the mystery. Luckily, this a relatively short book, which keeps the reader from feeling bound to the story for too long.