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Book Review: Marcus Sedgwick's Mister Memory is Unmissable

SultanaBun By SultanaBun Published on June 7, 2017

The facts of the matter are these:
At a little after eight o’clock in the morning of the first Friday in June, Marcel Després landed in my postbox in the form of a book called Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick. I flicked, as I am wont to do, to the first page and read a paragraph.
And then another.
And didn’t stop, except to make coffee and point my family towards food, until I had read, and revelled in, the last paragraph.

This book is that good.

Falling into the broad category of historical crime, Mister Memory is not so much a whodunit as a whodunwhat, and how and why. The book opens thus:

The facts of the matter are these:
At a little before ten o’clock in the evening of the first Saturday in July 1899, Marcel Després returned home to his studio apartment in the Cour du Commerce, the narrow passage that connects the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts and the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
Reaching his rooms on the sixth floor, he discovered his young wife, Ondine, in flagrante delicto with an American man not unknown to the couple. Deprés shot his wife dead, then, at the urging of her lover, fled down into the passage, where he suddenly stopped, falling to his knees.
He was arrested by two gardiens de la paix and held in the local Commissariat de Police for two days, when he was declared insane by the Préfecture, and committed to the asylum of Salpêtrière, under the care of Dr. Lucien Morel.

Such were the facts of the matter and so would the story have ended which wouldn’t have been much of a book. Enter, a clumsy, bungling, young police inspector called Laurent Petit who, labouring under his own grief following the violent killing of his fiancée, refuses to accept that a murderer should get away, as he sees it, scot free.

‘The guilty should be punished, the guilty should be punished. He doesn’t even have to tell himself that, it just runs through him. Deep inside, rotting away, like an abscess forming.’

French law, you see, allowed that a crime of passion such as Marcel’s was a pardonable murder and, furthermore, the declaration of his insanity puts Marcel beyond the reach of the law. Not to be deflected by legalities, and feeling certain that there is something amiss with the case, Inspector Petit persists in his investigation.

‘But if Petit is right, that there is something very strange about the entire business, he has no idea just how strange it will turn out to be, and he is wrong about one thing, one very important thing indeed.’

Dr. Morel, meanwhile, coaxes Marcel from a catatonic state and discovers that his patient is extraordinary in a number of interesting ways.

Marcel doesn’t lie, ever. In fact, as far as Dr. Morel can ascertain, Marcel is unable to lie, a not unheard of condition which is usually taken as an indicator of certain personality disorders. To function normally in society it is considered essential to tell a few lies every now and then. As a person who claims to be unable to lie, I had to think about that one for a while.

Even more extraordinary is Marcel’s prodigious memory. Marcel claims to remember everything, every sight, every smell, every inflection of voice of every conversation of his life. And he doesn’t lie.

Marcel suffers, and suffers is the right word, from too much memory, from hypernesia to use Dr. Morel’s term. In even the simplest conversation, he gets lost in the byways of the minutiae. He is unable to distinguish the relevant memories; all memories have equal status in the vast repository of his mind. Marcel is incapable of making a long story short.

In the aftermath of shooting his wife, Marcel is doomed then, to relive, over and over, every moment, every last detail, of Ondine’s final hours in an attempt to understand what happened.

‘Marcel’s prison is not one made with walls and bars.’

The plot moves between Dr. Morel’s painstaking exploration of Marcel’s memory and Inspector Petit’s methodical investigation.

Developing rapidly from murder mystery to sordid political intrigue, Mister Memory is a cut above your average crime writing. Set at a time when forensic science was in its infancy, Petit’s solution of the case is built upon a series of proper clues, not bribery or thuggery, but legwork and hard thinking. The plot, very cleverly, hinges on memories and photographs. After all, a memory is one thing, but a photograph is evidence.

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Mister Memory is one of those books that keeps your brain so busy you have difficulty knowing when you have been handed a clue and when you are being led down a blind alley of irrelevant detail. The plot itself is a perfect illustration of Sedgwick’s thesis. He blindsides the reader and, at precisely the same time, tells them exactly how he is doing it.

Beyond the plot, Mister Memory is an intriguing investigation of memory, personality and identity. Memory, according to Dr. Morel, is like an archive of captured images.

‘This makes what Marcel can do even more extraordinary, if you think about it. He can go into any file, any memory at all, and recall it. A perfect memory, or so I hope to prove. So if memory consists of a series of moments, then where, in all that, is the self?’

For most of us, it is the distinction between what matters and what doesn’t matter that sorts our memories. We let the vast majority of those files go, or we consign them to a deeper level, a dark basement archive. To remember everything equally would be a huge impediment to our comprehension of the world about us.

Without memory we would have no identity but equally, it is our choice of which memories to highlight which determines our personality.

‘Through a self-narrated linking of moments from our past, we create ourselves, define ourselves.’

Marcus Sedgwick writes a solid plot with engaging, nay, unforgettable, characters and left this reader with plenty to think about.

The facts of the matter are these:

I will be recommending this book to everyone I know, and possibly a few strangers on the street. 

Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick is available here. Don’t miss it.

Irish blogger and book reviewer. Official contributor to Bookwitty.com and author of Bookwitty's monthly 'Cooking the Books' feature. Erstwhile microbiologist with an MSc in Food Science, she ... Show More