Author: Olivier Barde-Cabuçon
Title: The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths
Series: The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths #1
The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, from now on TISUD for the sake of me finishing this review this year and you ever reading it in full, is the first instalment in a 7-book series, a recipient of a Prix Sang d’encre for 2012, and the only Barde-Cabuçon book currently translated to English. Published by Pushkin Vertigo imprint in their series of non-English mysteries and crime novels, it had earlier existed on the market under a probably less sellable but more faithful to the original title, Casanova and a Faceless Woman. So, if you’ve read Casanova, TISUD is not a sequel, but the same exact book, just republished 😉. Ooof. Since this book is about mysterious, mistaken and hidden identities, the whole affair with the English title is simply delightfully ironic.
TISUD is a historical crime novel, and a very peculiar one at that. It takes place in 1759 in decadent Paris, somewhere between the shiny halls of Versailles ruled by debauched Louis XV and his cohorts, and the dirty, dangerous hovels of Parisian suburbs inhabited by the desperate poor. The social climate is the most compelling character in this novel, as the general population of Paris is seething with resentment, misery and anger, and seems on a brink of revolution, while the decadent elites seem oblivious to both the inequity and the inherent risks (and since it’s historical fiction, TISUD gets this part to a t).
On the streets of Paris, a horribly mutilated body of a young woman is discovered; the inquiry into her death quickly leads into a very dangerous territory – to the boudoirs of Versailles, where terminally bored Louis XV is mostly preoccupied with his newest sexual conquests, be they consensual or not, or even adult or not. But since the inquirer in question is Chevalier de Volnay, named the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths by Louis XV himself as a reward for saving the king’s life two years prior, we may hope he’ll get to the bottom of the case. And what a case it is, linking Louis XV, his extremely influential mistress Madame de Pompadour, the mysterious Count Saint-Germain, the Enlightenment philosophers, Church fundamentalists, Freemasons, secret societies conspiring in a very Ra’s al Ghul style to topple existing social order and put themselves on top, desperate prostitutes and would-be alchemists, and many, many more – and last, but not least, none other than Chevalier de Seingalt, the famous lover, womanizer, spy, courtier, scammer, memorialist and adventurer Giacomo Casanova.
While de Volnay is the titular character, the novel spends curiously little time on his own secrets and development. De Volnay springs from the first pages of the novel fully formed, almost like Athena from the head of Zeus – and like Athena, he changes very little over the course of TISUD events, being to the very end notably headstrong and suicidally stubborn, rigid in his beliefs and in his behaviours, awkward and judgmental, while at the same time keeping himself scientifically curious, open-minded and courageous. These later traits are clearly fostered in him by his faithful sidekick, a mysterious monk with uncanny knowledge and sword fighting abilities. De Volnay’s characer might be summed up neatly in just few words: human relations – total fail; scientific rigor and application of logic – excellent. This internal incongruency works exceptionally well here – de Volnay is torn by conflicting impulses, makes bad decisions, behaves terribly toward people he should value and pamper as his only allies, and generally bumbles through his social life all the while doggedly solving the main mystery. To be fair, though, we ultimately do learn a bit about his past, which gives more depth to his peculiar personality.
Interestingly enough, Casanova’s character comes off as much more well-rounded and his development arc is vastly better realized throughout the novel – it’s very interesting to see this living legend in a vulnerable moment of his life: aging, losing money and patronage, falling in love with someone much younger and more audacious while feeling that life’s future choices are ultimately slipping from his grasp… He resorts to old tricks but at the same time tries bravely, again and again, to form a deeper connection with others, to maybe change his ways – only to fail. In that context, the old French title is a much better fit to this novel – at least it manages to pinpoint the real titular character 😉.
Of course, as many classical French novels, to which TISUD clearly pays tribute, Barde-Cabuçon’s book wouldn’t be complete without a romantic triangle – and the third vertex of this relationship is formed by Mademoiselle Chiara D’Ancilla, a very progressive and feminist young noblewoman. To be fair to the author, D’Ancilla’s progressive views don’t seem too anachronistic as she’s depicted as a very sheltered, rich, and only child of an old aristocratic family, due to her status allowed extensive private education, free rein and plenty of resources. She does what she wants to do, and from our modern perspective this seems feminist 😉. But she’s a child of her times: fascinated by alchemy, easily swayed by the temporary authority of the powerful, she remains a slave to the society’s expectations and changing fashions, including a shift from religion to natural philosophy and the need to take lovers.
As I mentioned on GR, this novel seems very French to me. What I mean by it is that TISUD doesn’t concern itself too much with the criminal mystery at its core – it is much more interested in exploring the human relationships, the secrets of human hearts and minds, the social games played by big and small. Blackmail, verbal sparring, double entendres, innuendos – this seems the true forte of Barde-Cabuçon. The mystery gets solved in the meantime, right between the romantic drama and the political intrigue. In that context, TISUD reminded me very much of Theophile Gautier’s novel, Captain Fracasse, via Alexander Dumas’s Count of Monte Christo, or even Gustave Flaubert’s books, where the plot often serves as a background for the true drama of the clash between characters’ personalities, between their dreams, needs and reality. It’s also written in a charmingly old-fashioned style, with long, unusually structured sentences, stilted conversations and much care for social niceties. It might be the style, or the translation – after all, English and French are structurally different enough for it to matter.
TISUD is a meandering affair; many pages are spent on the detailed description of clothing, food, interiors, lazy conversations. Even more – on the intangible tortures of hearts and souls. There’s a bit of a social commentary, a delightful sprinkling of historical figures and events – such as the aforementioned assassination attempt on Louis XV by Damiens, so meticulously described by Michel Foucault in his seminal work, Discipline and Punishment, or the mystery surrounding Saint-Germain.
All in all, The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths is an interesting addition to the popular mystery/crime genre. If you’d like something a bit different to the usual American fare, a mystery wrapped in a period drama/romance and tied with a nice ribbon of historical social commentary, this might be just the book for you.
I have received a copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.