I was given a paperback copy of this book as a gift and I voluntarily chose to review it.
I’ve always admired the skill of writers who compose historical fiction, as together with the difficulty of creating a sound story that engages readers, they also have to accomplish the task of ensuring the setting is accurately rendered, the characters actions, dress, vocabulary and manners fit in the era chosen, without producing a dry work of scholarship marred by endless descriptions and explanations as to historical background.
I read plenty of thrillers and mystery novels (perhaps the genre fiction I read the most), but not so many within the historical fiction subgenre. This novel intrigued me for several reasons: the murders had a literary component (there were fragments of poems by Baudelaire left at the scene of the crimes, and there was a suggestion that the people murdered might have been Baudelaire’s enemies), they were set in the Paris of the 1870s, at a time of social and historical turmoil (with the Prussian invasion at its doors), and the protagonists sounded interesting in their own right. Both, Commissioner Lefévre and Inspector Bouveroux are men haunted by their pasts and by their losses.
The author manages to create an oppressive and gothic atmosphere that reeks of lust, drugs, poverty, decadence, corruption, misery and illness. The wealthy and the aristocrats of the time stop at nothing to obtain pleasure, although some eventually come to pay the price for it, and there’s no safe refuge for virtue or right. There are no heroes coming to the rescue and even the characters we feel we should root for are deeply flawed. On the other hand, despite the subject matter that reflects Baudelaire’s choice of themes for his poems, and as happens with the poet’s own writings, the language is lyrical and beautiful in the extreme, and not only in the fragments of poems shared. I haven’t read the original novel in Dutch, but the translation by Brian Doyle is wonderfully written.
The story is told, for the most part, in the third person, alternating the points of view of the two main characters, Lefèvre and Bouveroux. Lefèvre is the more passionate of the two, a man tortured not only by the war in the North of Africa, that they both experienced together and has marked them but also by the loss of his sister, that we only get to fully understand very late in the story. Bouveroux is the rational one, a widower who still mourns his wife, but for whom books and research are a haven and, perhaps, the only way forward. He understands his superior better than others might and tries and cover up for him. Unfortunately, he´s not always a party to all of his adventures. He’s more of John Watson to Lefèvre´s Sherlock Holmes; his morals are less dubious and he appears to be less complex. Apart from those two characters’ points of view, there are also parts written in italics, in the first person, that seem to belong to the diary of a rather strange character who was brought up under difficult circumstances. I must confess to changing my mind about this character (and I’m trying to avoid spoilers) quite a few times throughout the novel, although, at least for me, that was one of the beauties of the book. And, being a psychiatrist and enjoying complex characters, this particular individual is one of the most disturbing and disturbed fictional creations I’ve read about.
I´ve seen comments that mention Poe’s writing, and there is a similar sense of oppression, atmosphere and claustrophobia, with the gothic setting of the background, although here Eros and Thanatos have a pretty similar weight in driving the narrative, perhaps more evidently so that in Poe’s stories.
Despite the beauty of the writing, the bizarre and atmospheric mystery, and the literary background, this is not a book for everybody. There is much that could offend sensibilities (child abuse, incest, prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse, exploitation, violence…) and there is a grey area when it comes to who the good and the bad characters are (nothing is black or white and it’s more a matter of degree than of deeply held moral beliefs). Despite how well it captures the historical era, it is neither a biography of Baudelaire nor a treatise on the socio-political situation in France at the time, and some of the historical characters might be used as inspiration rather than accurately portrayed. The story is also demanding and challenging with regards to plot, so it’s not recommended for someone looking for a light and fun read. This is definitely not a cosy mystery. But if you’re looking for a complex and challenging historical novel and don´t shrink from dark subjects, this is a pretty unique book.