The Austin Chronicle

The Reluctant Matador

Paris-based FBI agent Hugo Marston's pursuit of a murderer leads him to Barcelona

Reviewed by Jesse Sublett, June 12, 2015, Arts

The Reluctant Matador by Mark Pryor

Seventh Street Books, 299 pp., $15.95 (paper)

The Reluctant Matador brings fans up-to-date on the caseload of Hugo Marston, FBI agent and security chief at the American Embassy in Paris. Marston, like his creator, is also a Texan – in his day job, author Mark Pryor is an assistant district attorney for Travis County.

I grabbed this book mostly because of the title, wondering if the plot might involve bullfighting, the bloody spectacle known on its native turf as corrida de toros, toureo, torada, and – my personal favorite – tauromachia. Instead, the title refers to a prison gang called Los Matadores.

The book begins in Paris – always a good setting for a murder mystery. After all, the concept of modern crime detection originated there in the early 1800s, drawn from the spidery web of Eugène François Vidocq, the Parisian master criminal-turned-detective (who, later in his career, was imprisoned for fraud). Marston is en route to a dinner date with the stepdaughter of a friend at Pont de l'Alma, a historic arch bridge over the Seine – near that fateful tunnel which, in 1997, was the site of au décès tragique de la princesse de Galles, Lady Diana. The stepdaughter is a no-show, but Marston fortuitously arrives in time to direct the retrieval of another young lady from the river. Quicker than you can say, "I am Vidocq, master detective!" Marston has conducted a one-minute inquest and concluded she was murdered.

When two flics (French policemen) arrive on the scene, the senior examines Marston's credentials and gushes, "Attendez, you're Hugo Marston?" A mutual friend, he says, regards the American G-man as "some kind of crime-solving superhero."

Marston and company discover that the stepdaughter, who had a false front as a fashion model, was in fact a dancer at a sleazy strip club. Soon we're off to Barcelona, searching for the mysterious stranger who was the young woman's last known contact. ¿Qué sigue? Con una velocidad asombrosa, they find her father – Marston's friend – standing over the stranger. You guessed it: Está muerto.

Merde! as one says in France when one has really stepped in it.

The chase is afoot, leading down a path studded with murder, mayhem, drugs, prison gangs, and the grand tradition of deduction and analysis. Pryor, who also writes a humorous blog showing himself in a fedora and pop-collar overcoat, whisks the reader through sweet European locations with the lightness of a perfect croissant. Despite the tongue-in-cheek tone of this review, I found Marston a much more pleasant companion than the more vocal gun-toting Texans in the Legislature.

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