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About The Book

From the New York Times bestselling author of Leaving the World and The Moment comes the riveting story of a luckless college professor for whom Paris becomes a city of mortal danger.

A runaway bestseller in the UK and France that has been made into a film starring Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas, this suspenseful tour de force from the internationally renowned Douglas Kennedy is the quintessential sophisticated commercial novel.

Harry Ricks is a man who has lost everything. A romantic mistake at the small American college where he used to teach has cost him his job, his marriage, and the love of his only child. Hounded by scandal, he flees to Paris, where a series of accidental encounters lands him in a grubby room with a job as night watchman for a sinister operation. Just when he begins to think he has hit rock bottom, romance enters his life in the form of Margit—a cultivated, widowed Hungarian émigré who shares Harry’s profound loneliness but who keeps her distance, remaining guarded about her past. As Harry wrestles with Margit’s reticence, he begins to notice that all those who have recently done him wrong are meeting unfortunate ends—and it soon becomes apparent that he has stumbled into a nightmare from which there is no escape.

The Woman in the Fifth further establishes Douglas Kennedy as an author who “always has his brilliant finger on the entertaining parts of human sorrow, fury, and narrow escapes” (Lorrie Moore).


The Woman in the Fifth One
THAT WAS THE year my life fell apart, and that was the year I moved to Paris.

I arrived in the city a few days after Christmas. It was a wet, gray morning – the sky the color of dirty chalk; the rain a pervasive mist. My flight landed just after sunrise. I hadn’t slept during all those hours above the Atlantic – another insomniac jag to add to all the other broken nights I’d been suffering recently. As I left the plane, my equilibrium went sideways – a moment of complete manic disorientation – and I stumbled badly when the cop in the passport booth asked me how long I’d be staying in France.

‘Not sure exactly,’ I said, my mouth reacting before my brain.

This made him look at me with care – as I had also spoken in French.

‘Not sure?’ he asked.

‘Two weeks,’ I said quickly.

‘You have a ticket back to America?’

I nodded.

‘Show it to me, please,’ he said.

I handed over the ticket. He studied it, noting the return date was January 10.

‘How can you be “not sure”,’ he asked, ‘when you have proof?’

‘I wasn’t thinking,’ I said, sounding sheepish.

Évidemment,’ he said. His stamp landed on my passport. He pushed my documents back to me, saying nothing. Then he nodded for the next passenger in line to step forward. He was done with me.

I headed off to baggage claim, cursing myself for raising official questions about my intentions in France. But I had been telling the truth. I didn’t know how long I’d be staying here. And the airplane ticket – a last-minute buy on an Internet travel site, which offered cheap fares if you purchased a two-week round-trip deal – would be thrown out as soon as January 10 had passed me by. I wasn’t planning to head back to the States for a very long time.

‘How can you be “not sure” when you have proof?’

Since when does proof ever provide certainty?

I collected my suitcase and resisted the temptation to splurge on a cab into Paris. My budget was too tight to justify the indulgence. So I took the train. Seven euros one-way. The train was dirty – the carriage floor dappled in trash, the seats sticky and smelling of last night’s spilt beer. And the ride in to town passed through a series of grim industrial suburbs, all silhouetted by shoddy high-rise apartment buildings. I shut my eyes and nodded off, waking with a start when the train arrived at the Gare du Nord. Following the instructions emailed to me from the hotel, I changed platforms and entered the métro for a long journey to a station with the aromatic name of Jasmin.

I emerged out of the métro into the dank morning. I wheeled my suitcase down a long narrow street. The rain turned emphatic. I kept my head down as I walked, veering left into the rue La Fontaine, then right into the rue François Millet. The hotel – the Sélect – was on the opposite corner. The place had been recommended to me by a colleague at the small college where I used to teach – the only colleague at that college who would still speak to me. He said that the Sélect was clean, simple and cheap – and in a quiet residential area. What he didn’t tell me was that the desk clerk on the morning of my arrival would be such an asshole.

‘Good morning,’ I said. ‘My name is Harry Ricks. I have a reservation for—’

Sept jours,’ he said, glancing up from behind the computer on his desk. ‘La chambre ne sera pas prête avant quinze heures.’

He spoke this sentence quickly, and I didn’t catch much of what he said.

Désolé, mais … euh … je n’ai pas compris …

‘You come back at three p.m. for the check-in,’ he said, still speaking French, but adopting a plodding, deliberate, loud voice, as if I was deaf.

‘But that’s hours from now.’

‘Check-in is at three p.m.,’ he said, pointing to a sign next to a mailbox mounted on the wall. All but two of the twenty-eight numbered slots in the box had keys in them.

‘Come on, you must have a room available now,’ I said.

He pointed to the sign again and said nothing.

‘Are you telling me there isn’t one room ready at this moment?’

‘I am telling you that check-in is at three p.m.’

‘And I am telling you that I am exhausted, and would really appreciate it if—’

‘I do not make the rules. You leave your bag, you come back at three.’

‘Please. Be reasonable.’

He just shrugged, the faintest flicker of a smile wandering across his lips. Then the phone rang. He answered it and used the opportunity to show me his back.

‘I think I’ll find another hotel,’ I said.

He interrupted his call, turning over his shoulder to say, ‘Then you forfeit tonight’s room charge. We need twenty-four hours notice for cancelation.’

Another faint smirk – and one which I wanted to rub off with my fist.

‘Where can I put my suitcase?’ I asked.

‘Over there,’ he said, pointing to a door by the reception desk.

I wheeled over my suitcase and also took off the computer knapsack slung over my shoulder.

‘My laptop is in this bag,’ I said. ‘So please—’

‘It will be fine,’ he said. ‘À quinze heures, monsieur.

‘Where am I supposed to go now?’ I asked.

Aucune idée,’ he said. Then he turned back to his call.

At a few minutes past eight on a Sunday morning in late December, there was nowhere to go. I walked up and down the rue François Millet, looking for a café that was open. All were shuttered, many with signs:

Fermeture pour Noël.

The area was residential – old apartment buildings interspersed with some newer ones from the ugly school of seventies brutalism. Even the modern blocks looked expensive; the few cars parked on the street hinting that this corner of town was upscale and – at this time of the day – lifeless.

The rain had quieted down into an insidious drizzle. I didn’t have an umbrella, so I marched back up to the Jasmin métro station and bought a ticket. I got on the first train that arrived, not sure where I was heading. This was only my second trip to Paris. The last time I had been here was in the mid-eighties, the summer before I entered graduate school. I spent a week in a cheap hotel off the boulevard Saint-Michel, haunting the cinemas in that part of town. At the time, there was a little café called Le Reflet opposite a couple of backstreet movie houses on the rue … what the hell was its name? Never mind. The place was cheap and I seemed to remember that they were open for breakfast, so …

A quick study of the métro map on the carriage wall, a change of trains at Michel-Ange Molitor, and twenty minutes later I emerged at Cluny-La Sorbonne. Though it had been more than twenty years since I’d last stepped out of this métro station, I never forget my way to a cinema – so I instinctually turned up the boulevard Saint-Michel and into the rue des Écoles. The sight of the marquee of Le Champo – advertising a De Sica and a Douglas Sirk festival on their two screens – provoked a small smile. When I reached its shuttered doors and peered up the rue Champollion – the name of the street I had forgotten – and saw two other cinemas lining its narrow wet pavement, I thought, Fear not, the old haunts still exist.

But at nine in the morning, none of them were yet open, and Café Le Reflet was also shuttered. Fermeture pour Noël.

I returned to the boulevard Saint-Michel and started walking towards the river. Paris after Christmas was truly dead. The only working places nearby were all the fast-food joints that now dotted the streets, their neon fronts blotting the architectural line of the boulevard. Though I was desperate for shelter from the rain, I still couldn’t bring myself to spend my first hours in Paris huddled in a McDonald’s. So I kept walking until I came to the first proper café that was open. It was called Le Départ, located on a quay fronting the Seine. Before reaching it, I passed in front of a nearby newspaper stand and scored a copy of Pariscope – the ‘What’s On’ guide for the city and my cinephile bible back in 1985.

The café was empty. I took a table by a window and ordered a pot of tea against the internal chill I felt coming on. Then I opened Pariscope and began combing the cinema listings, planning my viewing for the week ahead. As I noted the John Ford retrospective at the Action Écoles and all the Ealing comedies at Le Reflet Medicis I felt something that had been absent in my life for months: pleasure. A small, fleeting reminder of what it was like not to think about … well, everything that had so preoccupied me since …

No, let’s not go there. Not today, anyway.

I pulled out a little notebook and my fountain pen. It was a lovely old red Parker, circa l925: a fortieth birthday gift, two years ago, from my ex-wife when she was still my wife. I uncapped the pen and starting scribbling down a schedule. It was a blueprint for the next six days that would give me space in the mornings to set up my life here, and spend all other available waking time in darkened rooms, staring up at projected shadows. ‘What is it that people love most about a cinema?’ I used to ask my students in the introductory course I taught every autumn. ‘Could it be that, paradoxically, it is a place outside of life in which imitations of life take place? As such, maybe it’s a hiding place in which you cannot really hide because you’re looking at the world you’ve sought to escape.’

But even if we know we cannot really hide from things, we still try. Which is why some of us jump planes to Paris on forty-eight hours’ notice, fleeing all the detritus we’ve left behind.

I nursed the pot of tea for an hour, shaking my head when the waiter dropped by to ask if I wanted anything else. I poured out a final cup. The tea had gone cold. I knew I could have sat in the café for the rest of the morning without being hassled. But if I just continued to loiter without intent there, I would have felt like a deadbeat for hogging a table all that time … even though there was only one other customer in the café.

I glanced out the window. The rain was still falling. I glanced at my watch. Five hours to go until check-in. There was only one solution. I reopened Pariscope and found that there was a big cinema complex over at Les Halles which started showing movies at nine every morning. I put away my notebook and pen. I grabbed my coat. I tossed four euros down on the table and headed out, making a quick dash for the métro. It was two stops to Les Halles. I followed the signs to something called ‘Le Forum’, a bleak concrete shopping center, sunk deep into the Paris earth. The cinema had fifteen screens and was like any American multiplex in some nowhere suburban mall. All the big US Christmas blockbusters were on show, so I chose a film by a French director whose work I didn’t know. There was a screening in twenty minutes, which meant first sitting through a series of inane advertisements.

Then the film started. It was long and talky – but I followed most of it. It was largely set in some slightly rundown, but hip corner of Paris. There was a thirty-something guy called Mathieu who taught philosophy at a lycée, but (surprise, surprise) was trying to write a novel. There was his ex-wife Mathilde – a semi-successful painter who lived in the shadow of her father, Gérard. He was a famous sculptor, now cohabiting with his acolyte, Sandrine. Mathilde hated Sandrine because she was ten years her junior. Mathieu certainly didn’t like Philippe, the info-tech business executive that Mathilde had been sleeping with. Mathilde, however, liked the lavish way Philippe treated her, but found him intellectually exasperating (‘The man has never even read Montaigne …’).

The film began with Mathieu and Mathilde sitting in her kitchen, drinking coffee and smoking and talking. Then it cut to Sandrine who was posing naked for Gérard in his country atelier while Bach played on his stereo. They took a break from this modeling session. She put on some clothes. They went into his big country kitchen and drank coffee and smoked and talked. Then there was a scene in some expensive hotel bar. Mathilde was meeting Philippe. They sat at a banquette and drank champagne and smoked and talked …

On and on it went. Talk. Talk. More talk. My problems. His problems. Your problems. And, by the way, la vie est inutile. After around an hour, I lost the battle I was fighting against jet lag and lack of sleep. I passed out. When I came to, Mathilde and Philippe were sitting in a hotel bar, drinking champagne and smoking and … Hang on, hadn’t they done this scene already? I tried to keep my eyes open. I didn’t succeed. And then …

What the fuck?

The opening credits were rolling again – and Mathieu and Mathilde were sitting in her kitchen, drinking coffee and smoking and talking. And …

I rubbed my eyes. I lifted my arm. I tried to focus on my watch, but my vision was blurred. Eventually the digital numbers came into view: 4 … 4 … 3.

Four forty-three?

Oh Jesus, I’d been asleep since …

My mouth was parched, toxic. I swallowed and tasted bile. My neck was rigid, nearly immobile. I touched my shirt. It was soaked through with sweat. Ditto my face. I put my fingers to my forehead. Intense heat radiated from my brow. I put my feet on the floor and tried to stand up. I didn’t succeed. Every corner of my body now ached. My body temperature plunged – the tropical fever turning into a near-Arctic chill. My knees caved a bit as I attempted to stand up again, but I managed some sort of forward propulsion that moved me out of the aisle toward the door.

Everything got a little blurry once I hit the lobby. I remember negotiating my way out past the box office, then moving into a maze of walkways, then finding the elevator, then getting disgorged on to the street. But I didn’t want to be on the street. I wanted to be in the métro. So why had I gone up when I should have gone down?

A smell hit my nose: fast-food grease. Check that: fast-food grease goes Middle East. I had emerged near a collection of cheap cafés. Opposite me was a tubby guy, deep-frying felafels at an outdoor stand. Next to him, on a rotating spit, was a blackened, half-carved leg of lamb. It was flecked with varicose veins (do lambs get varicose veins?). Beneath the lamb were slices of pizzas that looked like penicillin cultures. They provoked nausea at first glance. Aided by the felafel fumes, I felt as if I was about to be very sick. A moment later, I was very sick. I doubled over and heaved, the vomit hitting my shoes. Somewhere during my retch, a waiter in a café opposite me started shouting – something about being a pig and driving away his custom. I offered no reply, no explanation. I just lurched away, my vision fogged in, but somehow focused on the plastic ventilation shafts of the Pompidou Center in the immediate distance. Halfway there, I got lucky – a cab pulled up in front of a little hotel that was in the line of my stagger. As the passengers got out, I got in. I managed to give the driver the address of the Sélect. Then I slumped across the seat, the fever reasserting itself again.

The ride back was a series of blackouts. One moment, I was in a dark netherworld; the next, the driver was engaged in an extended rant about how my vomit-splattered shoes were stinking up his cab. Blackout. More hectoring from the driver. Blackout. A traffic jam – all spectral yellow automotive lights prismed through rain-streaked windows. Blackout. More yellow light and the driver continuing his rant – now something about people who block the taxi lanes, how he never picked up North Africans if he could help it, and how he would certainly steer clear of me if he ever saw me again on the street. Blackout. A door was opening. A hand was helping me out of the car. A voice whispered gently into my ear, telling me to hand over twelve euros. I did as ordered, reaching into my pocket for my money clip. There was some dialogue in the background. I stood up, leaning against the cab for ballast. I looked up at the sky and felt rain. My knees buckled. I began to fall.


And then I was in a bed. And my eyes were being pierced by a beam of light. With a click, the light snapped off. As my vision regained focus I saw that there was a man seated in a chair beside me, a stethoscope suspended around his neck. Behind him stood another figure – but he seemed lost in the encroaching shadows. My sleeve was being rolled up and daubed with something moist. There was a sharp telltale stab as a needle plunged into my arm.


Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Woman in the Fifth includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Kennedy. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Harry Ricks is a deeply troubled man on the run. After a messy affair, a broken marriage, and a disgraced end to his career as a film professor, Harry ends up impoverished and fleeing to Paris, trying desperately to live his fantasy of writing a novel in the city of his dreams. Upon arrival, Harry realizes the city is nothing like the one from his fantasy and he finds himself living in a virtual flophouse on the wrong side of town. The one light in this bleak world is a chance meeting with Margit Kadar, a mature, beautiful, and charming woman living in the Fifth Arrondissement. They begin a torrid, fierce affair. But something very sinister surrounds Harry, as many of his enemies are befallen by sudden misfortune and death. As the bodies begin to stack up, Harry must confront the ghoulish truth about his past, his future, and the one woman who cares for him in this strange city.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Harry Ricks is a deeply flawed individual. We know virtually nothing about his life at the onset of the novel, except that he is on the run from his past. At the outset of the novel, did you think he had any redeemable character traits? How did your opinion of him change as you read more?

2. No one is warm or friendly to Harry upon his arrival in Paris. Harry feels “. . . an ominous sense that I was about to detonate at any moment. . . . The doctor was right: I had broken down.” This does not assuage the coldness and downright cruelty he experiences by the citizens of Paris. How much of this instant distaste toward Harry is deserved?

3. Paris is a city that has lived in Harry’s imagination for some time. “[It] had been my dream for years; that absurd dream which so many of my compatriots embrace: being a writer in Paris.” What do you think the draw to Paris is for writers? How dangerous is it to build up a fantasy for something one has no direct experience with? What are some of the ramifications when fantasy and reality collide?

4. We learn that Harry Ricks has a lot to prove to himself and the world around him. Despite the troubles and chaos of his life, Harry believed he would “. . . find a quiet place in which to get it all down on paper, and finally demonstrate to the world that I was the serious writer I always knew myself to be. I’ll show the bastards is a statement uttered by someone who has suffered a setback . . . or, more typically, has hit bottom.” He doesn’t want to write a novel out of inspiration, but out of vengeance against the world he believes has wronged him. Can art be used for vengeance? How productive is this philosophy?

5. The writer Richard Bach comments: “Argue your limitations and sure enough they are yours.” Harry Ricks is a man drowning in self pity and depression. He continually reminds himself he is worthless and deserves nothing. “It no longer mattered what people thought of me. Because I no longer mattered—to anyone else, let alone myself.” How much does his initial attitude affect the course of his existence in Paris?

6. Harry Ricks escapes his troubles at the cinema. “The majority of my free time outside my chambre was spent haunting all those darkened rooms around town which cater to film junkies like myself. . . . Every day, I’d spend at least six hours at the movies.” What do you think the draw of the cinema is for Harry? How does watching films help him to escape life’s problems?

7. Harry arrives in the Tenth Arrondissement, a seedy, crime-filled neighborhood in Paris, in dire financial peril. After some time, he discovers a secret stash of money, an amount that could seriously change his financial and psychological situation. But instead of keeping the money, he decides to send it to the wife of the one man who showed him kindness, Adnan, who was recently deported and jailed. Why does he do this? What does this say about Harry and his judgment of his own character? Does Harry receive any repayment for his good act?

8. Harry works nights at a very shady job for sinister individuals, but decides he must do it because of his horrible financial situation. He realizes “. . . that I might be landing myself in a situation which could be potentially dangerous, or could jeopardize my future freedom. But I found myself being won over by a bleak, but consoling thought: Nothing matters.” What sort of freedom comes from this nihilistic emotion? Is hitting bottom really freedom, or just another sign of debilitating depression? How dangerous is this notion?

9. The only breath of fresh air that enters Harry’s bleak existence comes when he meets Margit Kadar, a mature, beautiful, and charming woman. They begin a tempestuous romance full of passionate sex and raw emotive dialogues. But after a few meetings, Margit bluntly pushes Harry away. “Do yourself a favor, Harry. Walk out of here now and don’t come back.” Why does Margit try to push Harry away? What is she sparing him from?

10. Margit discusses the human desire for vengeance with Harry. “The standard moral line on revenge is that it leaves you feeling hollow. What bullshit. Everyone wants the wrongs against them redressed. Everyone wants to “get even.’” (p.192) Do you agree with Margit’s philosophy on vengeance? What prevents people from taking such actions into their own hands? Do we deserve our “vengeance”?

11. Right after Harry’s sexual tryst with Yanna, he contemplates telling Margit about his encounter. But once he arrives at her front door, she knows about it immediately. How do you suspect she knew of this instantly? What gives Harry away?

12. Ghosts are everywhere in The Woman in the Fifth, both metaphorically and physically. All the characters are haunted by their pasts, and in Harry’s case, he’s haunted by a real ghost. What do these “ghosts” represent? Does it resemble the philosophy that “there are certain tragedies from which we never recover. We may eventually adjust to the sense of loss that pervades every waking hour of the day. We may accept the desperate sadness that colors all perception. We may even learn to live with the loss. But that doesn’t mean we will ever fully cauterize the wound or shut away the pain in some steel-tight box and consider it vanquished.”

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The Woman in the Fifth employs a strong narrative style, telling a story rife with human flaws, personal vendettas, and tormented pasts, all spiced with plenty of tension and gritty violence. Harry Ricks is a stranger in a strange land, overwhelmed by the seedy world of the Tenth Arrondissement.

Another author who shares this protagonist-based, fast-action style is famed American crime author Elmore Leonard. Pick up some of his classic crime thrillers such as Get Shorty, Freaky Deaky, Cuba Libre, and Killshot if you’ve developed a taste for this addictive style of pop literature.

2. Harry Ricks is comforted by the dark rooms of the cinemas across Paris. Jean-Luc Godard says: “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world,” while another famed director, Roman Polanski, comments that: “Cinema should make you forget that you are sitting in a theater.” Pedro Almodóvar explains: “I . . . wanted to express the strength of cinema to hide reality, while being entertaining. Cinema can fill in the empty spaces of your life and your loneliness.

Imagine the films Harry Ricks would discuss in his classroom in Paris. Rent some of the great films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran to see just what these great directors are talking about.

3. The city of Paris is as varied as life itself, each arrondissement representing another form of the city’s great cultural legacy. Harry Ricks confesses “the Fifth was my preferred terrain.”

It is also known as “The Latin Quarter,” the literary and artistic soul of the city itself. The Fifth has been the home of many artistic luminaries, such as Ernest Hemingway, Paul Verlaine, Albert Camus, Gertrude Stein, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Research the history of this world-famous section of Paris to understand more of Harry’s romantic love affair with this unique and creative neighborhood.

A Conversation with Douglas Kennedy

There are remarkable twists and turns in The Woman in the Fifth. When the initial idea came to you, did you foresee these plot upheavals from the onset? What was the process that led you to the discovery of this narrative?

I never plot out a novel in advance. I start with the general premise—the narrator and his or her central dilemma—and the rest arrives during the actual writing. In the case of The Woman in the Fifth I was coming out of a difficult juncture in my life when I knew my marriage was failing, and I was beset with the onset of midlife melancholy. One of the manifestations of this was six months of profound insomnia that saw me walking the streets of Paris frequently half-the night whenever I spent my week per month in that city. Eventually I was able to put this melancholia and insomnia behind me. And a long-overdue divorce in 2009 rendered me a much happier man. But The Woman in the Fifth came out of this strange, bleak juncture in my life. As such it’s a novel that reads like a perpetual nuit blanche—an endless sleepless night, full of dread and misgiving.

The Woman in the Fifth is a novel of many forms. It applies the psychological narrative of Henry James mixed with the hard-boiled crime fiction style of Raymond Chandler. It also blends themes of the American expatriate experience with the 19th century ghost story. Could you give some examples of other novels that may have inspired this amalgamation of themes?

There’s a brilliant novel by Geroges Simenon called Three Bedrooms in Manhattan. It concerns a French actor whose marriage has just combusted and who finds himself wandering the shadowy, down at heel, neon-silhouetted world of 1950s New York. Simenon captures so superbly this nocturnal world of mid-century Manhattan; a time when the city really did wear a perpetual five o’clock shadow. Simenon’s portrait of my hometown (Manhattan) as a sinister construct—and of a man grappling with serious emotional demons—began to bounce around in my imagination. And the result was this novel, which is so wildly and radically different from Simenon’s, even though it was initially inspired by it.

Harry Ricks finds only coldness and strife in his first days in Paris. As a man who has spent considerable time in Paris, did you encounter any of the coldness Harry experiences upon your Parisian own arrival in Paris?

I decided to write a novel against the cliché of the American in Paris. I’ve read far too many of those sorts of novels, in which the character arrives in the City of Light and inhabits a picture postcard of chic apartments, chic restaurants, chic women, and (god help us) trying to write a novel in his local uber-chic café. The Woman in the Fifth subverts all these clichés and brings the reader to a very different, but profoundly real Paris that is, very much, on the other side of the tracks. 

The descriptions of the Tenth Arrondissement are so full of life that one can feel the grit underneath one’s nails while reading the passages. What personal experiences had led you to write so truly about this “other” side of Paris?

The novel was a huge hit in France—selling over 600,000 copies and receiving largely terrific reviews. But you would not believe the number of Parisians who came up to me after its publication and asked me how I had discovered this alternative Paris. My reply was a simple one: “On foot.” I happen to be quite the flaneur—a wanderer of cities (something I developed during my Manhattan adolescence), and the Paris depicted in the novel, especially the tenth arrondissement where Harry lands, is a very real Paris: grubby, tough, anti-picture-postcard. I decided to use Paris as a nightmare landscape, and one in which Harry rarely emerges into the city during the morning. As such the novel is set in a largely nocturnal and haunted city.

Harry and Margit have an interesting dialogue regarding modern attraction to the act of shopping and consumerism in general. As Margit says, “It’s what people do with their time now. It’s the great cultural activity of this epoch—and it speaks volumes about the complete emptiness of modern life.” Could you elaborate on this particular philosophy?

Shopping has, alas, become so much of the way we define ourselves in the modern world. We are all enslaved to the idea that buying stuff will make us happier. In the novel, Harry’s impecunious state—and Margit’s lack of resources as a translator—means they are both outside of the “luxe” aspect of Paris which exists throughout so many corners of the city. Harry is very much living a grubby day-today existence until he begins to enter Margit’s world, which is not all that it seems.

Infidelity is a continual theme in your works. As Harry laments after his affair with Yanna, “Do we ever learn from our mistakes? Not when it comes to sex. That’s the one arena of bad behavior in which we are recidivists, over and over again.” (p.206) Harry cheats on his wife Susan, Susan cheats on Harry. Is infidelity inevitable? Is betrayal somehow sewn into the human experience?

Well, put it this way: infidelity is an essential component of the human emotional palette. As long as the notion of a committed relationship exists there will always be infidelities because human sexuality is such an interesting minefield of desires, needs, fears and contradictions. As such, with the promise of fidelity must come the possibility of straying, of betrayal, of seeking comfort elsewhere. Infidelity is so much the third-rail vis-à-vis love and marriage—and as all novelists deal with human mess, so infidelity is such a compelling subject with which to grapple.

Another interesting conversation between Harry and Margit concerns the essential nature of American morality versus the French methodology of “compartmentalization.’”Accept that—as Dumas said—the chains of marriage are heavy and, as such, they often need to be carried by several people.” (p.000) Margit also criticizes American morality, which she claims as  hypocritical finery.” Could you discuss the essential differences between French and American culture in regards to human relationships and marriage?

Put simply: in America we rarely compartmentalize. We also believe there is a price is to be paid for bad behavior, especially as you also have to live with yourself thereafter. In France there is far greater compartmentalization—the idea that, within an individual life, there are hidden recesses which need not intermingle with each other. Granted, that’s a sweeping generalization. But one thing is very clear to me after a decade of living part-time in France: sexual guilt is not the same issue in France that it is in my own country, and I play with this moral gulf throughout my novel.

The parlay between Inspector Jean-Marie Coutard and Harry Ricks is a cat and mouse game of information desired and withheld. There is a parallel between these character’s verbal jousts and Raskolnikov’s and Inspector Porfiry’s interactions from the Russian classic Crime and Punishment. Did the Dostoyevsky classic influence these themes of a man wrestling with his own guilt under suspicion?

Of course anyone who writes a novel about guilt, self-incrimination, and fear of authority must bend the knee in the direction of Crime and Punishment. It remains the benchmark work when it comes to delineating the way that the possibility of violent malfeasance is within us all—and how so much of life is lived under the existential fear of being exposed for what you really are.

In the short story “Le Horla” by Guy de Maupassant, a man is physically dominated by a creature bent on ruling over his decisions in the physical world. This is similar to Harry’s predicament, as his decisions are dominated by Margit’s schedule of meetings that he cannot break, or face the deaths of those he cares about most. Do you have an attraction to these 19th century ghostly tales of men trapped by supernatural creatures? What do you believe the metaphor for these “ghosts” really are?

My interest in ghosts center around a very basic belief: more than anything, we are all haunted by ourselves.

About The Author

Photograph by Christine Ury

Douglas Kennedy is the author of eleven previous novels, including the international bestsellers The Moment and Five Days. His work has been translated into twenty-two languages, and in 2007 he received the French decoration of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He divides his time among London, New York, and Montreal, and has two children. Find out more at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (June 15, 2010)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451602142

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