Review by John for Baudelaire's Revenge by Bob Van Laerhoven (translated by Brian Doyle.)
John’s quick take: A complex literary crime novel, based in 19th century France and revolving around the life, death and relationships of controversial poet Charles Baudelaire.
John’s description: It is 1870 and the Franco-Prussian war is not going well for France – the Prussians are advancing on Paris while many of the French population are close to starving. The aristocracy behaves as if nothing is wrong and seems oblivious to the plight of the working classes; the French capital becomes a hotbed of discontent. Against this backdrop, a man is murdered in a brothel and Commissioner Lefèvre is called in to investigate. Lefèvre, who has a colorful past including a bloody stint in the French army, is himself no stranger to the Parisian brothels.
The Commissioner, who is a lover of poetry, finds on the body a handwritten verse from a poem by Charles Baudelaire which appears to have been written by the poet himself, though Baudelaire has been dead for some time now. Lefèvre and his right-hand man, Inspector Bouveroux, are soon embroiled in a series of grisly murders that all seem to point to the dead poet or to someone who must have been very close to him. As Paris is drawn ever closer to anarchy and chaos and the two policemen seek clues in the darkest corners of the capital, they find themselves in grave danger.
John’s thoughts: This is a clever story with an unusual plot and a cast of complex and well-developed characters. It keeps you guessing right up to the last page and in truth it still had me scratching my head long after I’d read the last page. A simple and easy read it is not.
In reading the book I learnt quite a bit about 19th century French history and also about French literature of that period – the former interested me a lot, the latter not so much. This is a reflection on me rather than the novel, as poetry and most of the associated literary circles leave me rather cold. Consequently I did find the first half of the novel slightly heavy going and had difficulty reading more than 20 pages at a time, but once I got beyond that things went much more smoothly and overall I did enjoy the read.
Putting the historical and literary connections to one side, this is actually a smart and extremely dark crime novel. You get to visit the underbelly of society and meet some gloriously twisted characters. This is not a simple whodunit.
If you like dark historical crime novels with a literary twist then you will love this book - I am sure that many reviewers will rave over it. It didn’t quite hit the mark for me personally but I’d still rate it 3.5 stars. And I do find that my mind keeps wandering back to the story which says a lot for it (the book that is, not my mind!)
Hardcover | 04/15/14 | Pegasus | 256 pages
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Publisher’s blurb for Baudelaire’s Revenge: It is 1870, and Paris is in turmoil.
As the social and political turbulence of the Franco-Prussian War roils the city, workers starve to death while aristocrats seek refuge in orgies and seances. The Parisians are trapped like rats in their beautiful city but a series of gruesome murders captures their fascination and distracts them from the realities of war. The killer leaves lines from the recently deceased Charles Baudelaire’s controversial anthology Les Fleurs du Mal on each corpse, written in the poet’s exact handwriting. Commissioner Lefevre, a lover of poetry and a veteran of the Algerian war, is on the case, and his investigation is a thrilling, intoxicating journey into the sinister side of human nature, bringing to mind the brooding and tense atmosphere of Patrick Susskind’s Perfume. Did Baudelaire rise from the grave? Did he truly die in the first place? The plot dramatically appears to extend as far as the court of the Emperor Napoleon III.
A vivid, intelligent, and intense historical crime novel that offers up some shocking revelations about sexual mores in 19th century France, this superb mystery illuminates the shadow life of one of the greatest names in poetry.