by Arnold Goldman

Perhaps because Paul initially regarded mystery-writing as not requiring the same demands as the novel proper, he could release playful elements in his prose and his imagination previously held in abeyance in his fiction. Like his later "whodunits," The Mysterious Mickey Finn is less a straightforward example of the genre than, in Philip Eppard’s words, "almost... a burlesque" of it, more a comic fiction which appropriates the whodunit as an object of fun and a springboard. Whatever the cause, the narrative is distinctly more energetic and successful than in its labored fictional predecessors Concert Pitch (1938) and The Stars and Stripes Forever (1939).1

Paul eagerly seizes his opportunity to recreate the Montparnasse street-life of the later 1920s:

they strolled back and forth along the sidewalk between the Select and the Rotonde, enjoying the contrast between the chorus of American voices on the terrasse of the former and the Scandinavian inflections which poured from the latter. Rug peddlers with fezzes and brightly colored wares walked to and fro in a half-hearted way, a fire-eater filled him mouth with gasolene, sprayed it out and lighted it, long-haired sketch artists with portfolios braced likely groups of tourists and were enjoying a fairly brisk trade. The foliage of the trees showed yellow-green around the street lamps. Montparnasse was hitting its evening stride of those unforgetful days gone by when mankind was dancing without thought of the fiddler’s recompense.

He thus began to write about the life of Paris - which with the gathering of the new European conflagration he would of necessity abandon - without himself having yet to face that "fiddler’s recompense."2

Real or faintly disguised figures people Mickey Finn’s Paris, from "a batch of disciples of Raymond Duncan" to the alleged Mohammedan visitor "Vincent Ben Shee’an." Paul wittily captures the literary scenery:

James Joyce was making the sixth revision of page two thousand and forty of his magnum opus called "Work in Progress"; Harold Stearns was sitting at the Select Bar, murmuring that murders were unusual, therefore banal, consequently uninteresting; Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas were drinking brandy and soda, Gertrude the brandy and Alice the soda; Ernest Hemingway was in the Bois thinking what he would do if the Bois was Wyoming, the swans were wild ducks, and he had a gun.3

Paul makes his American protagonist very much at home on the terrasse of Montparnasse’s Café du Dôme, in the heyday of the 1920s. Writing against the background of the 1930s disdain for the alleged aesthetic "irresponsibles" of the previous decade, Paul creates "an American dilettante" as his hero, shamelessly of no visible occupation; Paul was himself a working journalist, short and growing stout: Homer Evans was, however,

a tall, broad-shouldered, fair-haired young man who looked sturdy without being athletic, and responsive although indolent. He did not lounge awkwardly over table and chair like a character from Mark Twain, and decidedly he did not sit erect and perform moral gymnastics like an American business man. He looked as if he had lived easily and well, neither rich nor poor, but nobody in Montparnasse knew how he did it, where his funds came from or what his antecedents were. His friends, and he had scores of them, secretly wondered why a man of such brilliance and poise was content to let his talents lie fallow.... His output was small. He had written one short monograph entitled, "Democracies, Ancient and Modern" and had painted only one picture....

Like some of the background figures in Mickey Finn, Homer Evans wasn’t wholly invented. Samuel Putnam recalled Evans’s "original":

Not all our Montparnasse characters were picturesque or fantastic ones. Some were tragic: fine lives that had somehow been strangely twisted out of shape. I think of Homer Bevans - Homer, who would sit all day long on the terrace of the Dôme, a highball in front of him, staring off into space across the boulevards as though they were some illimitable plain, and then, when night came, would move around the corner to the Dingo to stand for long

hours at the bar and be jostled by a crowd of strangers with only now and then some acquaintance to nod to him. Get to know him, as a few of us did (everyone knew him by sight), and you would find him to be gentle, generous, lovable, cultivated, and urbane; and this was the man whom Elliot Paul was later to take as the prototype for his detective story hero, Homer Evans.

Bevans had been an engineer, a flautist in the New York Philharmonic, and a sculptor, but "somehow, he had come to abandon... everything, for his highball glass." In his hero, Paul captured the essence of an expatriate idea, imagining the career of which Bevans may have dreamed as he stared into space, one which would have justified his existence.4

By his own admission, Evans is "eccentric, wilful and selfish... an idler, escapist, and expatriate." He asserts his aim in life:

"The great loafer. That’s what I want to be. I have written a book and painted a portrait, only to prove to myself that I don’t have to loaf if I don’t want to. But that’s what I want to do. I like it. I have activity and bustle. I don’t want to carry on the torch of civilization...."
  "As you know," Evans said, "I’m not a man of action. I deplore action. All my life I have avoided unnecessary exertion and fuss. I do not work because I have money, not unlimited wealth but enough. Quite enough. My duty is to spend it, to keep it in circulation."

The patrons of the Montparnasse bistros recognise Evans as a kindred spirit (and afford him a monthly account). He commiserates with them over the daily mountains of broken glass inflicted on their cafés by Scott Fitzgerald’s "crazy boat-loads" of his increasingly uncouth compatriots. Paul in fact splits the historical Homer Bevans into two fictional American expatriates, the good Homer Evans and the repulsive Ambrose Gring, the very worst of the type, "murdered" in his chair at the Café du Dôme.5

Evans’s friends and acquaintances turn to him for assistance, and he complies by inventing schemes for their succor. Significantly it is his intuitions of criminality coupled with his well-intentioned interventions which get some of them arrested, some endangered, more than one abducted, and others even killed. Later, when increasingly and troublingly aware of his accumulating author-like responsibilities for mayhem, he perseveres in good part to undo the unforeseen consequences of his own earlier actions. The plot of The Mysterious Mickey Finn concerns the disappearance in Paris of the American millionaire art collector and patron Hugo Weiss - modelled on Otto Kahn of Kuhn, Loeb and Company. Realising that Weiss has been kidnapped because of information which Evans once gave to the collector, it becomes "the least I can do... to devote myself to finding Weiss." Or as he puts it later, "‘At that point I took a hand in the case because it seemed my obvious duty.’" The dilettante becomes a detective for the first time. Being unchosen, it is no career, careers being what Americans have created to valorise their working lives. And we are invited to consider that it is the fate which had been waiting for him. The decision alters him instantly from idler to man of action: "It was surprising... to note the change that had come over Evans. Gone was all his indolence. He radiated energy and decisiveness." The nature of the change is underscored when Evans’ own life is threatened: "The split second during which his life should have passed before his eyes was occupied by a wistful glimpse of his former self, in pre-detective days, sitting quietly in his seat at the Dôme thinking easy thoughts and sipping [sic]...."6

At first Evans and his ingénue sidekick from Montana, Miriam Leonard, are themselves suspected by the Paris police. To evade the restrictions this is likely to create, Evans prevails on the amiable, witless buffer of an American Ambassador to have him "appointed special agent of the U.S. government to cooperate with French authorities in the finding of Weiss and the exposure of an important smuggling ring." Thus instantly, parodically legitimised, Evans commandeers the forces of the law - the catastrophe-expecting Sergeant Frémont and the gloomy Alsatian Schlumberger - to save Weiss, solve subsidiary murders, defuse land mines, rescue his abducted sidekick (a dead shot who, eager to please Evans, plugs a number of villains), and inadvertently demolish a chateau and its dubious inhabitants with TNT. By the end, Evans brings to justice a dastardly art-forgery and smuggling ring comprised of U.S. tax evaders, French Royalist plotters, and their Paris underworld agents, "the St Julien rollers."7

Once he had matters worked out, says Evans in terrific understatement, "the rest was simple, although mishaps occurred." When the aristocratic forger Paty de Pussy accuses him of being "an interloper and a busybody," Evans flushes: "‘I’m afraid that is true,’ he said. ‘I assure you that I shall never try sleuthing again.’" That was his idea, but not Elliot Paul’s.8


1 The same demands: Amy Sinberg, however, recalls a visit of Paul and Flora to Flora’s step-father’s summer home, where all the books on the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves appeared to be whodunits: "Flora began to apologise for the literary taste of her step-father. Elliot broke in with a defense of mysteries. He gave us a long lecture on how great mystery stories could be." The visit occurred most likely after Paul had begun writing them (Sinberg, unpublished note, 2; private collection). Eppard: Philip B. Eppard, "Elliot Paul," in Rood, Karen Lane, ed., American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939, Dictionary of Literary Biography 4 (Detroit: Gale, 1980), 308.
2 Paul, The Mysterious Mickey Finn (New York: Collier edition, 1962), 33.
3 Ibid., 92, 190, 101.
4 Ibid., 59, 11. Samuel Putnam, Paris Was Our Mistress: Memoirs of a Lost and Found Generation (London: Plantin Publishers, 1987), 84, 85. In the his text for Fritz Henle’s photographs of Paris, Paul recalled "sitting on the terrasse of the Closerie des Lilas having breakfast one morning with Homer Bevans and Hendrik Willem Van Loon (Henle, Paris [Chicago, New York: Ziff Davis Publishing Company, 1947], n.p.).
5 The Mysterious Mickey Finn, 21, 53, 81. In one twist among many, the "murder in the Café du Dôme" of Ambrose Gring turns out not to have been a murder after all, but the effect of an otherwise harmless soporific - the "Mickey Finn" of the title - on the Evans-doppleganger Gring’s enervated constitution.
6 The Mysterious Mickey Finn, 21, 53, 81. In one twist among many, the "murder in the Café du Dôme" of Ambrose Gring turns out not to have been a murder after all, but the effect of an otherwise harmless soporific - the "Mickey Finn" of the title - on the Evans-doppleganger Gring’s enervated constitution.
7 Ibid., 80-1, 105.
8 Ibid., 240, 242.

This analysis of The Mysterious Mickey Finn is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. ©Arnold Goldman 2001.

go to the Elliot Paul bibliography

go to the Elliot Paul homepage

go back to the top of the page