In the aftermath of 9/11, talk of sleeper cells and suicide bombers has become daily fare in the news media, making it all too easy to assume terror attacks are events particular to twenty-first century life. However, London's failed Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and Chicago's 1886 Haymarket Square bombing are but two incidents historians could cite to disprove this assumption. A conspicuous third would be the Christmas Eve bombing in 1800 on the rue Nicaise in Paris -- the subject of historical novelist Catherine Delors's riveting new novel, FOR THE KING (Dutton, July 8).
Six years after the end of the Reign of Terror that culminated the French Revolution, Napoleon has overthrown the constitutional government and installed himself as First Consul. This power grab pleases neither the radical Jacobins, whose egalitarian philosophy fueled the Revolution, nor the royalist Chouans, who want to reinstate the monarchy and recenter the country on its Catholic foundations. So when an "infernal machine" hidden in a cart explodes along Napoleon's route to the Opera, sparing the Consul but killing twenty-two bystanders, maiming fifty-six and destroying the forty-odd houses that line the street, either group could conceivably be responsible. Convinced the Jacobins organized the attack, Napoléon orders over one hundred of them arrested, including the outspoken but harmless aged father of the city's Chief Inspector, Roch Miquel. The powerful Minister of Police, Fouché, blames not the Jacobins but the Royalists. Roch's self-serving mentor grants the young inspector one month to prove him right, ensuring Roch's assiduity in cracking the case by threatening to deport Old Miquel to Guiana. In a race to save his father, Roch quickly links two suspects proposed by Fouché to the crime, but the suspects' whereabouts -- as well as the identity of a mysterious third man, mastermind of the attack -- prove frustratingly difficult to determine.
FOR THE KING is a thriller, not a mystery, for unlike Roch, the reader knows from the outset who orchestrated the crime: Joseph de Limoëlan, a member of the royalist insurgency, aided by two accomplices, the men fingered by Fouché. Delors paints a fascinating portrait of Limoëlan, a nobleman whose father and kin were guillotined during the Revolution and whose anger and hatred allows him to disregard the suffering he causes in his quest for revenge. In contrast, Roch, a parvenu struggling to establish himself in the new republic, displays an honor and integrity his father ingrained in him despite years of poverty and wandering. In committing the crime, Limoëlan fights for his father in a figurative sense; pressed to prosecute it, Roch fights for his in a literal one. Antagonist and protagonist are further linked through the protean Fouché, father to nothing but his own interests, and the beautiful, secretive Blanche Coudert, trapped in marriage with a man old enough to be her father. Place all this in the context of a country that has just executed its king and whose inhabitants now consider themselves "children of the fatherland" (enfants de la patrie, according to La Marseillaise) and FOR THE KING becomes a rich exploration of identity, loyalty and the dynamic tension between past and future in the creation of self and nation.
Delors, an attorney, spent many hours researching the rue Nicaise attack in the archives of the Ministry and Prefecture of Police Paris and it shows. Her meticulous research allows her to reconstruct with convincing verisimilitude what has been called the first modern police investigation. Even readers who do not usually choose thrillers or mysteries (like myself) will find themselves fascinated as the investigation unfolds and Roch pieces clues together. The realities of life in the early nineteenth century become achingly real as Roch struggles to solve a crime without the benefits of modern forensic technology. Victims die of their wounds before they can be interviewed; witnesses stand in line for hours at the police station for the chance to tell their tales; blacksmiths are forced to examine the putrifying carcass of the wagon horse in the hope that one of them will recognize the animal and identify its owner. Police procedure aside, Delors, without ever resorting to didactic exposition, manages to make sense of the confusing political factionalism that both inspires the crime and determines the course of the investigation. In so doing, she opens up an era of French history little familiar to modern American readers.
Detailing the attack from the perspectives of both perpetrators and police gains Delors entry to all corners of early nineteenth century society, from Napoleon's elegant drawing room to the cramped offices of minor functionaries, from the noisy, wine-stained taverns of the working class to the damp, infested prison cells of the condemned. With a sharp eye for detail and a keen ability to depict nuances of convention and behavior, Delors resurrects the gritty, turbulent, and often dangerous Paris of the common man at a time when egalitarian ideals are struggling to survive. Her characters, even minor ones, are fully fleshed beings with quirks, habits, and histories of their own. Fictional characters prove indistinguishable from historical ones, interacting as equals in the interstices of the historical record where the novelist gives her imagination free rein.
FOR THE KING is quite different from Delors's first acclaimed novel, MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION (Dutton 2008), and in my opinion, ultimately more satisfying. Roch comes to recognize and appreciate the love of a devoted woman in the course of the novel, but readers looking solely for romantic adventure will be disappointed. Delors shatters readers' expectations as thoroughly as the infernal machine blows a gaping hole in the Parisian street. Bucking current trends in historical fiction, she abandons the frolics and foibles of the royalty to offer an intelligent and compelling depiction of common people struggling to make sense of an uncertain new world. A writer to watch, Catherine Delors continues to delight and surprise. I, for one, can't wait to see what she offers us next.
Catherine has provided a copy of FOR THE KING to be awarded to one lucky reader. If you're looking for a compelling summer read, leave a comment with your email address by 10 pm PST Sunday, July 18. US and Canadian readers only, please. Winner's name will be drawn at random and posted by noon on July 19.
Check back tomorrow for an interview with Catherine. In the meantime, be sure to visit her website and her always informative and entertaining blog, Versailles and More.