Bobbi Mumm is a mystery and thriller writer in Saskatoon, Canada where she works half-time as an event planner at the University of Saskatchewan. On the speaker’s bureau for UNICEF, Bobbi delivers presentations at dozens of schools every year. She speaks French fluently and continues her language studies. Married to a nuclear physicist, she has four children, two of whom are college-age. The twins remain at home. Bobbi practices Karate, as do her kids.
In 2009 Bobbi wrote her first novel, Cream with Your Coffin. This past year, Bobbi signed with a U.S. literary agent who is now pitching Cream with Your Coffin to New York editors. Almost finished her second novel, thriller De Rigueur Mortis, Bobbi has fallen in love, all over again, with the mystery that is Paris.
Catacombs are Swell When You’re Wearing Chanel
By Bobbi Mumm
Twenty years ago, nothing, not even the laughing taunts of my French boyfriend, could persuade me to face my fear and enter the Catacombs of Paris. So what compelled me to swallow my terror and venture down there two summers ago? It wasn’t a great dose of courage or even a bit maturity acquired over two decades.
I was, and still am, morbidly afraid of rats. And I’ve only seen two rats. Neither was here in Canada. One was in a Paris Metro station, that same year, and the other was in Hong Kong. To my way of thinking, an underground Parisian catacomb—some parts of which are millennia old—equals rats.
The Catacombs of Paris have an ancient and fascinatingly horrible history. Ever since the time of the Gauls and Romans, Paris has been quarried—limestone for buildings, sand for glass, green clay for bricks and tiles. Paris’s unusual compulsion to devour itself from below is how the Catacombs came to be.
Even in more recent history, miners still exploited the rock under the Latin Quarter to produce the finest building stone in Europe. Notre Dame, the Palais Royal, and most Parisian mansions were constructed from this limestone. The hundreds of years of mining left a foundation of modern Paris that was, until recently, not much more than a honeycombed bed. Almost 300 kilometres of tunnels made Paris streets dangerously prone to sinkholes.
In the eighteenth century a Paris city administrator, Charles Axel Guillaumot, realized that the city was in danger of collapse. Sinkholes swallowed entire buildings and street intersections. For years his crews reinforced underground tunnels, matching them to the streets above—matching even to the extent of street names and building numbers.
When Guillaumot’s consolidation of the tunnels was complete he turned his attention to the problem of Paris’s cemeteries. And this is where it gets gruesome.
Cemeteries were overflowing with the dead. It was so bad that body parts burst through retaining walls and found their way into Parisian cellars.
Guillaumot decided that his newly reinforced catacombs would solve the problem of the overfull cemeteries. Workers hauled human remains from Paris’s graveyards to the ossuary beneath the streets of Montparnasse. When it was complete, the population of the ossuary was ten times the population of the Paris above. The underground ossuary of Paris covers an area of three acres.
In the summer of 2008 my family rented a large house in the centre of Paris, very close to the Catacombs. It was a wonderful place to gather our friends and family and we found that on most nights we had eight to ten people seated around the courtyard dinner table. That summer I cooked and I explored. Explored everywhere, that is, except the Catacombs.
The last week of our visit I knew that I couldn’t put off any longer the visit to the Catacombs. All of our guests had gone there, the entrance being only three blocks from the house. Not one had admitted to seeing a single rat.
From our guests came stories of how, in WWII, the catacombs had housed the headquarters of the Paris Resistance. Amazingly, the Resistance fighters were only a few hundred yards away, through the labyrinth of tunnels, from a German underground bunker. Neither knew of the other’s nearby existence.
In 2008, it wasn’t a newfound bravery that caused to me visit this probable rat-lair. It was something much more compelling. Research. A drive to do research for a novel that was already simmering in my brain.
Finally, one day, with my husband and children, I visited the Catacombs. I wish I could say I did it without fear. But the truth is that, for most of the visit, my rat-radar was on high-alert and I was teetering on the edge of running in blind, adrenalin-fuelled panic. But no rats were to be seen.
Later, in a much calmer state I began forming the idea to a story which would become my now, almost complete, De Rigueur Mortis.
De Rigueur Mortis is a mystery thriller is set in 1954 Paris. American school teacher, Amelia Erickson, has come to Paris to uncover the truth about her brother—a brother long thought killed in WWII. Amelia poses as an au-pair and through her investigations finds that, hidden beneath the elegance of the haute couture houses, secrets fester.
British scientist, Nate Hall, is swept into this conspiracy and he, together with Amelia, must race to stop a former Nazi war criminal, who is intent on forcing the United States into another world war. A war against Britain.
De Rigueur Mortis is a story that couldn’t have come about had I not forced myself to swallow my fear and go down into the Catacombs of Paris.
For a riveting history of the catacombs I highly recommend reading Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb.
So tell me, readers of Meanderings and Muses, have you had to conquer a fear to accomplish something important? What fear was it?