Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths (2020)

Author: Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

Title: The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths

Format: E-book

Pages: 384

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.

François Boucher: Madame de Pompadour

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.

Score: 7,5/10

42 thoughts on “Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths (2020)

  1. If more get translated, I might give this a go. However, I am always leery of books set in this time frame, as I can hear the drums (Dr Who!!!!) of the revolution coming and the french revolution does nothing but horrify me on almost every level.

    Was the translation smooth? Or was it awkward and apparent that it was a translation?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, well – it’s a French book and it feels. You can detect it’s a translation, but I think it would be apparent in any language – the structure of sentences is simply different. So it’s pretty solid as translations go, but you’d notice it right away anyway.
      As for the French revolution, this takes place a few decades prior, but all the causes of the revolution are already very clearly noticeable. I’m pretty sure you’d like de Volnay, but I can also see you rolling your eyes at the main female character! 🤣

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I’m sure you’ve read bad translations? I guess I should have been more explicit. When a book feels like it was translated instead of smoothly flowing, then I consider it a bad translation.

        The Night Watch books were a good example of being a good translation imo. You could tell the author was thinking in russian and telling a russian story, but the translator smoothed out the really rough edges.

        I’ve read a bad russian translation of another fantasy book, but I can’t remember the name or the author. I’m stymied and it’s bugging me now.

        If this stands alone, even if part of a series, I might add it to my tbr just so I don’t forget 😀 THAT happens a lot for longer series…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It has that old 19th century vibe to it; I’d say the translation is decent but not amazing, so you’ll find some rough edges or a mistranslation or two, but in general it flows smoothly and doesn’t detract from reading.
          I think you might enjoy it, considering your Dickens love, but it’s definitely a lighter read, and French to boot 😆

          Liked by 1 person

  2. S.D. McKinley

    I’m not sure this would fit in my cup of tea. Although, now that I’m thinking about it, I guess I would have to either read the book to find out or literally cut the book up into small pieces and see if it would fit?

    Although, reading a french book instead of cutting it up might give me an opportunity to learn, which isn’t always a good thing.

    What a conundrum I have. . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Especially if you pick an ebook… 🤣
      You may always choose a big cup and try to fit your Kindle in, but it may be problematic – or very expensive. I know it sounds suspicious, but you may be better off actually reading this… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

          1. S.D. McKinley

            Ola G, when you get a chance, can you tell me if my posts are showing up in reader or not? I did some research over the weekend and then totally disconnected the jetpack and then reconnected it. Those guys over there at the WordPress place have some sort of duality going on about whether people should self-host or be on the WordPress cloud, it is like they are confusing themselves ( I can only assume ).

            I am self hosted, which is where the disconnect is happening at. People go on the forum, looking for help, only to be shut down saying it’s not WordPress.com problem, because it’s WordPress.org and not .com, but the fact of the matter is that if you load jetpack plugin, that connects you to WordPress.com from org. In my understanding, that is the whole purpose of jetpack, to bridge the gap.

            When I started blogging again, after a ten-year hiatus, I thought nothing has changed, but it has. This cloud shenanigans is not a cloud but a power struggle, because as a technical professional I know that there is actually no cloud, just interconnected systems. The cloud is a fluffy word to make it sound cool where they control 100% of your system ( which can be a great thing for some ), heck they even try to con you into transferring your domain name during the .com setup process. No thanks! 🤣

            I hope didn’t mind my rant and off-topic-ism on your blog and thanks again for pointing it out to me, as I wouldn’t have known.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I feel your pain, S.D.! Unfortunately, I still can’t see your posts in the feed (checked a minute ago) 😦

              Btw, this is why we haven’t decided to go self-hosted – we see that our fellow bloogers have a lot of problems with blogs that are self-hosted and linked to WP – comments, likes, the whole thing.

              I think WP is going through a rebuilding/change period that is not working well. The new editor is a pain, too. I know some bloggers simply stopped blogging because of it.

              Good luck!

              Liked by 1 person

  3. This could be an interesting reading or a complete disaster for me. Your review was fascinating and, as per usual, it makes me want to read this book, but what you wrote on the writing style gave me pause.
    And there is the fact that usually I have some problems with English translations, (especially when they are translation from language and culture “near’ mine. I have read a couple of Japanese books in English and with them I didn’t have problems, but I can’t really say because” a couple” is not an estensive comparison.) so maybe it would end with me disinterested in the story. But what you wrote about the characters is just too good to pass! And I need to meet the mysterious monk!!! I have to seriously think about it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This novel’s setting looks interesting, and I like the fact that there are actual historical figures present as characters (be they faithful to their real selves or not). I’m also intrigued by the figure of De Volnay: your description makes him sound like an 18th century version of Sheldon Cooper, which makes me smile in anticipation… 😉

    Like

    1. Yeah, it’s my favorite Foucault and an absolute masterwork. It’s a very thought-provoking and inspiring read. If I could I’d make it a required reading! 😀

      Like

  5. piotrek

    That does sound interesting, I’m adding it to my list. Older Casanova was explored in a nice mini-series with Peter O’Toole and David Tennant, no genre elements there, but highly recommended 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He’s not Donald Sutherland-old, still years before he became the librarian in Bohemia, but it’s nice to see him entering the middle age crisis 😉. I saw something about the Tennant series but haven’t seen the series itself yet. Good to know it’s solid!
      Btw, have you seen The Queen’s Gambit? 😀

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I watched UA up to the third episode and had to pass 😉 But i can wholeheartedly recommend The Queen’s Gambit – it’s just perfect! And Dorocinski plays a major role there, which is pretty neat too! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  6. buriedinprint

    This doesn’t sound like a great match for me, particularly not having read the first book (yes, I agree, that translated title might not have drawn very many readers!) but I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it, especially your general feel for French novels’ preoccupation with the psychology of it all. And I’m glad to have your recommendation of The Queen’s Gambit; I was unsure from the trailer and some of it seemed a little cookie-cutter at first glance (even in its efforts to look anti-cookie-cutter, if that makes sense). BTW, I am nearly finished the novella you recommended. I’ll have to search out your post on it now (7th Perfection).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry I didn’t do a great job of explaining this – this is the first book, republished under a new title 😀 But I agree it may not be for everyone, it has this Flaubertian/Proust-like feel that one has all the time in the world to consider the depths of one’s psyche while looking at pretty dresses and gemstones and whatnot, and the mysterious crime will solve itself in the meantime ;).

      The Queen’s Gambit trailer is exactly like this, and at first I was hesitant to watch it – but when I started, I couldn’t stop! I love how it conforms to certain expectations while at the same time completely defying the rest 😀

      Like

    1. As I said to Bookstooge, this translation is not bad. It can be awkward from time to time, but after a while you get used to it enough to not notice. I just felt it’s very very French in its structure and storytelling, quite different from English. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was enjoyable and fresh and I liked it quite a lot. The story might be a bit forgettable but the characters stay with you – that is, if you like Dumas! 😄

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sounds truly fascinating; it has a very appealing historical setting to work with too. I know I’ll have to give this guy a chance now if I’m craving for this historical fiction/mystery series. I’ll remember to pick up the French edition and avoid any translation weaknesses. Great review, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 😊

      I wish I knew French to read this without translation! Lucky you, Lashaan! 😄 Did you learn it at school or was it your first language? I’m so curious now! 😀

      Hope you’ll enjoy this – I’d like to read your thoughts on it!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Wow, three languages! Are you fluent in Tamil?
          I used to learn Latin and Russian and German, but while I still use a bit of Latin here and there, sadly I’d need a solid refresher in German and Russian to be able to read in them! 😂

          Like

    1. I liked it quite a lot, to be fair – and it stayed with me, which in my mind is always a sign of a good book. I gave it 7.5/10 as it was an enjoyable book, and unique in many aspects, but it was not a masterpiece and, to me at least, this being a mystery/crime novel could sure use some more focus on the plot 😉
      But I do recommend it – it’s different, and interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is probably a book that I would enjoy tbh. I like historical fiction and especially so when real characters make an appearance and so that, coupled with the fact that I’m enjoying more mystery/crime fiction atm makes me want to add this to my wishlist.
    Thanks
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Go ahead and read it! 😀 It’s a memorable read, with believable characters and wonderfully recreated mid-18th century Paris, and I think you might enjoy it quite a lot, Lynn.
      Happy reading! 😀

      Like

  9. This sounds very interesting. What a different world 18th century France would be. I can only guess that the title is even longer in French, which is frightening, but it would be a nice title to have!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It actually sounds more mysterious in French, but maybe just because I don’t know French 🤣
      It is very interesting, indeed – the world of that era seems so unlike ours and yet people inhabiting it are just the same, with the same vices and virtues and all between (and a marked fondness for conspiracies, too! 😉)

      Like

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