Jean-Christophe Portes, L’Affaire des Corps Sans Tête (French, 2015)
My husband told me that I’d enjoy this book, and for once I took it up almost at once. (Ahem, I must confess that I often put my husband’s recommendations on my TBR pile, condemning them to a long, long wait before I finally take the book). I was game for a good mystery and the historical context looked promising. I read this book in parallel with Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War 1, and the French revolution was much less dark and gloomy than the trenches.
The setting of the novel is in the middle of the French revolution, in 1791, when the first enthusiastic movements have passed and that the French population is torn between moderates who wish for a British-style constitutional monarchy and radicals who want to take the revolution further and get rid of any remaining privileges. Major events are painted in the book such as the death of super-popular Mirabeau (who was more on the moderate side), the rise of Marat who was very radical, and the flight of the king to Varennes, seeking help from other kings to reinstate his absolute power (that didn’t work, in case you’re wondering). It is nicely woven into the plot, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who wouldn’t have had a primer on French revolution beforehand.
The main character of the book is a young “gendarme”, Victor Dauterive, who comes from nobility but has fled his abusive father to choose his own path. He’s a protégé from Lafayette, who asks him to find the extremist Marat. This mission is more dangerous and politically-loaded than what he naively thought, and by asking far too many questions, Victor soon is in over his head. He’s also discovering that revolutionary heroes he admired and worshiped aren’t always so pure and nothing is easy and black and white in the aftermaths of the Bastille day. In the meantime, in several places of Paris and suburbs, headless bodies are found by the river Seine. An old man is intrigued enough to start his own investigation. It’s only a matter of time until both stories overlap, and that Victor meets the old man to join forces and seek the truth, even if it might be costly.
The book is quite a slow burner, and it gives time to the reader to discover the complexities of the Revolution, and the particular atmosphere of Paris in 1791 (food, smells, colors, clothes, we really are spoilt with details that make the setting very real). Of course, I was reminded of Jean-François Parot and the series with Nicolas Le Floch, that ended a few years before the start of the revolution (Parot died in 2018 so we’ll never know how Le Floch would survive the turmoil). This is the first book of a series, so it feels less balanced than a mature Le Floch novel. At times I felt just like poor Dauterive, that I was in over my head too with historical events, famous figures, subtle politics and conspirations. By the middle of the book, the pace picked up and I also felt more comfortable because I knew of the famous flight to Varennes.
I would enjoy to follow Dauterive into further adventures. In fact, my husband read the second novel but the book seems to have disappeared, victim of a ruthless culling. That’s the guillotine for you…