by Bob Van Laerhoven
(Pegasus Crime 2014, Trade Paperback) 268 pages
Yes this novel was released in 2014 but that’s no reason to dismiss it as a dusty antique. The Bible is much older and I’ve heard rumours that it’s all the rage in equally dusty parsonages worldwide.
To tell the truth, I began reading Baudelaire’s Revenge for review because its author, Bob Van Laerhoven, was recommended to me by one of those wonderful friends one acquires by spending more time browsing book racks than dog tracks. So I contacted the Belgium-based Van Laerhoven (I believe my exact words were ‘Send me free stuff’) and while we both wait for his new story collection to be released he thought he’d send this novel along.
I’m delighted he did because Baudelaire’s Revenge allows me to wander into all sorts of interesting avenues while discussing the book’s many merits. The first is that by classification this is a murder mystery, which is my favourite among genre books and has been so ever since age ten, when my late mother started pawning off her weekly consumption of Agatha Christie, Nero Wolfe or Ellery Queen paperbacks on me. I suspect her cunning intent was to shut me up, but I sure showed her who’s boss by becoming a writer.
Here’s the thing about murder mysteries: they are either intricate Chinese puzzles that delve deep into the darkest shadows of decayed human souls, or they’re utter shit whose authors and publishers should be lynched for paper abuse. Baudelaire’s Revenge not only is in the former, better class it is that truly rare species of a truly literary murder mystery. I’ll bet (or at least pretend) you’re asking, What’s the difference?
To answer the question, the difference between a good mystery and a good literary mystery is much like the separation between a good and a great kisser. You think good is great until you experience great and from there good is never great again. For both the worlds of fictional killers or passionate kissers, it’s all about delivering the expected message in unexpected yet pleasant ways. An example:
“Who had the time to take a photograph of young poet Dacaret?” said Claire de la Lune as it it was evident that she should answer immediately. “A photographic image requires time. Cameras are cumbersome things, and hard to disguise. Besides, the way you described the death of the young poet, it must have been impossible to photograph the dead body, with all my competitors fluttering around.” She tugged teasingly at the tufts of grey hair about his nipples. “I hope you behaved yourself with all those fancy whores.”
Lefevre smiled. Banlieu would have a stroke if he knew that the commissioner had discussed the details of a judicial inquiry with a cocotte…
As you do. The above quotation also tells you all you need to know for now about the plot of Baudelaire’s Revenge. A poet, Dacaret, is found dead in the bedroom workplace of a young prostitute in what the prudish refer to as a house of ill repute. Next to his body is found a sheet of paper with a freshly handwritten poem by Charles Baudelaire in the latter’s handwriting, even though Baudelaire himself has been dead and buried for several years.
This in turn leads us to the second avenue of discussion, or I suppose in keeping with the novel’s setting I should say boulevard rather than avenue. Van Laerhoven sets his story of decadence and death in 1878’s Paris. Scholars and socialists alike will recognize the significance of that confluence of date and place. For those of you who are neither of the above, 1878 saw the end of France’s last monarchy under Napoleon III from a combination of the losing campaign in a war against Prussia and the subsequent revolt of les citoyens leading to the establishment of the Paris Commune. Had that Commune not ultimately been violently crushed – and it was a close outcome – it could well have been that Paris 1878 would have ended much the same as St. Petersburg 1917, with the establishment of some version of a Marxist state.
What I truly admire about that choice of setting is how Van Laerhoven handles it. The war, the Prussian shells dropping on Paris, are no more personalized than a conventional novelist’s ominous thunderstorm. Napoleon III is referred to often in discussion yet never comes prancing across the pages for a show-off scene, which to my eyes gives Baudelaire’s Revenge its crucial atmospheric verité. It had to have been a temptation for Van Laerhoven to have done just that, yet we should be glad he resisted it. The absence of the monarch from the scene in the novel was exactly what was going on in the real world of the time. Napoleon III was sequestered in his pleasurable court leaving his people free to indulge in darker and darker speculation.
There too, just as all revolutions begin as exercises in subversive activities so too does intelligently written fiction. It has long been my suspicion that when a socially and politically clued-in writer sets his narrative in the past, it is because she or he actually intends to reveal the present while avoiding the turgid mud of active political discussion with all its on-going Presidents, organizations, media and headlines. Nothing ages quite so quickly as a novel set in the present day. Why else do you think so many novelists set their stories in the ‘near future’? They’re hoping for a shelf life longer than six weeks.
The past though exhibits a far more provocative analysis of the present than the actual present can ever hope to achieve. Oh and it is gloriously subversive. If a reader is drawn into the Baudelaire’s Revenge world of perversity, constant war, the haunting memories of recently fought desert campaigns and class struggle without a light bulb of discovery switched on, well there’s really no hope in the matter. We have met the past and its face is in our mirrors when we shave.
All that said, Baudelaire’s Revenge is not perfect, although close enough that I can heartily recommend it. The murderer of the unfortunate Dacaret (and there are others soon to drop) seems so blatantly obvious that the middle section of Bob Van Laerhoven’s story drags a bit. While the second hundred pages of the story are filled with an atmosphere equally magnetic and appalling that frames a series of vivid reminiscences, I did find myself wondering metaphorically why on earth this flight wasn’t booked non-stop instead of multiple stops. The writing though is strong enough, the scenes compelling enough and the end game played in such dazzling fashion that a draggy second act is a forgivable sin.
It may be true that Baudelaire’s Revenge is not a novel for the weak of heart or those who prefer their entertainment prissily non-sexual. However, I might suggest to those people that modern life must not be very appealing to them either. Bob Van Laerhoven presents a world well worth walking into, to notice that the streets look much like our own.
Be seeing you.
(This review has also been published in the San Diego Book Review)
Since writing this review, Hubert has also interviewed Bob in a 30-minute podcast for Thoughts Comments Opinions on the San Diego Book Review site.