Paris just after the Napoleonic Wars was a thrilling place to be. The intellectual life of the city was in full flower, with Madame de Stäel presiding over salons and scientists like Georges Cuvier investigating the origins of life. But it was also a dangerous place: Napoleon’s defeat and exile were traumatic and the Terror, despite having occurred two decades before, had left some of its survivors feral. It’s into this ferment that medical student and narrator Daniel Connor arrives, from staid Edinburgh, in 1815.

Daniel gets into trouble immediately when he’s robbed en route to Paris by a mysterious and alluring woman who goes by the name of Lucienne Bernard. She pilfers not his money, but the items he’ll need as an entree into the world of M. Cuvier: letters of introduction, notebooks, a mammoth bone and, most precious of all, coral specimens. Distraught, Daniel turns first to M. Jagot, a crook turned private eye who has a long history with Madame Bernard, then to the thief herself. Not surprisingly, Daniel falls in love with this intriguing woman who’s nearly twice his age, and the reader can hardly wait to find out whether the young man will ever get his belongings back—and, more importantly, if Lucienne really loves him, or is just leading him on in a labyrinthine game. Stott’s skill as a writer is such that one thinks she might be doing both.

Aside from her graceful writing style and believable characters, Stott also delights with her grasp of history. Romantic, full of twists and turns and glimpses of the past, The Coral Thief is an unlikely page-turner.

Arlene McKanic writes from South Carolina.

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