ARC Review: “The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths,” by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

First of all, I would like to thank Netgalley and Pushkin Press for the opportunity to review this ARC. This imprint of Pushkin, Vertigo, has the unique job of publishing crime fiction from around the globe and providing translations where needed. Such was the case for The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, originally published in the French in 2012 under the name <<Casanova et la femme sans visage>>, or “Casanova and the Woman Without a Face.” Thus, we should also thank Louise Lalaurie Rogers for the translation.

I am at loath to give such a book a low rating because of everything that could have gone wrong in this process. Was the text edited for clarity / an Anglophone audience? Did something, quite literally, get lost in translation? However, since most of my readers on this blog are also Anglophone, I figured that I should at least explain my low review instead of pretend I liked this book. Truth be told, I was relieved to finish it.


From the Publisher:

Fans of Abir Mukherjee and Sarah Waters will love this gloriously macabre romp racing through the glitzy Versailles Palace by way of the shady criminal underworld of Paris on the brink of the revolution

Everyone has secrets. Especially the king.

When a gruesomely mutilated body is found on the squalid streets of Paris in 1759, the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths is called to the scene. The body count soon begins to rise and the Inspector is brought even further into a web of deceit that stretches from criminals, secret orders, revolutionaries and aristocrats to very top of society.

In the murky world of the court of King Louis XV, finding out the truth will prove to be anything but straightforward.

This wasn’t much of a synopsis, in my opinion. As a quick recap, an attractive woman of the oldest profession is found in the street with her face and skin on her hands missing (you read that correctly). This is just the type of case for Volnay, King Louis XV’s own Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Crimes, Volnay rose to this honor by saving the king’s life from an assassination attempt years prior, and has the ability to take on cases seemingly at will and with or without the local police cooperation.

However, when Volnay finds a letter on the body bearing the royal seal, he realizes he is in over his head as multiple special interest groups converge to try and both get the letter and influence/coerce the Inspector to their side of thinking. Will the Inspector be able to solve this case, or will he be another victim to end up dead on the Paris streets?


What I Enjoyed:

The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths has many flaws, but some elements did keep my attention and I think other readers will appreciate them more than I did. There is a wealth of French history and historical lore here that Barde-Cabuçon brought in expertly. King Louis XV is debauched and clearly a predator; Casanova is a society darling; the Comte de Saint Germain is as mysterious as ever; and Madame de Pompadour is more regal than the king. The Parc-aux-Cerfs, or stag park, features prominently here as the place of the king’s harem of young girls (largely disproven, but still fun historical lore), and if you know anything of French geography or 18th century French history, you will probably enjoy the scenes set in Paris and Versailles. This was clearly a well-researched book.

The intersection between science and folklore is also on full display here, as is the debates surrounding it both then and now. The Church was significantly more powerful then, so even questioning Christian values was cause for heresy claims and being burned at the stake, but many men and women sought to discover the secrets of the universe at this time. Most notably, the book shows how many people dabbled in alchemy to discover how to turn lead into gold, and the formula for Nicholas Flamel’s philosopher’s stone, thus gaining the power of immortality. Some of my favorite scenes, despite them being verbose and repetitive, are when Volnay, the monk, Compte de Saint Germain and other characters get into religious and philosophical discussions – Volnay is a man of strict scientific rules, while the monk, Compte, and Chiara the love interest all find that alchemy is true science. They are all heretics in the eyes of the law, but believe that the pursuit is worth it. I loved how well the Age of Enlightenment is displayed here.

Lastly, the mystery was fun to solve at its bones. I say this because there is so much going on that is extraneous to the actual mystery, as in solving who killed the two women with missing faces, but when the plot finally circled back to what was important (in my humble opinion), Inspector Volnay pointed to clues that the reader could follow and brought the whole story back full circle. It was cathartic at the end of this very long and mostly tedious book to see “whodunnit.”


What Killed it for Me:

As I am sure you can guess from my description above, it was the unnecessary length and wildly inconsistent pacing that ruined Inspector for me. Here is a book that exemplifies the faux pas of telling instead of showing, with every detail belabored and whole swaths of descriptions are given to the locations and the people. Personalities are only gleaned by how other characters describe them (Casanova is a shameless rake, Inspector Volnay is a conflicted man with unimpeachable morals, etc), and these conversations that are written to show off these characters are normally pages long and repeated multiple times.

As for pacing, it took almost fifty percent of the book before the more interesting characters are introduced, and I was genuinely concerned that I wouldn’t be able to finish it. Then all of the sudden, the book took about six different wildly and unnecessarily complex turns, brought in a whole slew of new plot points and secret organizations, and all of the sudden solved every single “strange and unexplained mystery” within the last twenty pages. It was then that I realized this book didn’t know what to be – it was not a straight murder mystery anymore, but rather a massive condemnation of 18th century French society wrapped in a Da Vinci Code-esque conspiracy theory about Church influence and cloaked in a veil of magical realism, with the secret to immortality at some characters’ fingertips.

Lastly, here is another male writer that could benefit from a female editor, because the male lens is insufferable. Chiara, the main female character, is supposed to be a smart and well off woman that is politically savvy and an experienced chemist, and yet both Casanova and Volnay cannot stop staring at her chest. Her figure is talked about ad nauseum, while the reader is told in passing about her philosophy and her chemistry lab. The rest of the women follow classic “Madonna and the Whore” complex, where prostitutes are being literally killed or judged and not a single woman is shown positively. Both of the main male characters, Casanova and Volnay, have deep seated Mommy issues – Volnay’s mother is quite literally never mentioned, and Casanova’s mother abandoned him. This was actually part of the reason I almost abandoned the book not even 20 pages in, when Volnay falls head over heels for Chiara due almost solely to her heaving bosom. Not a good opener for a guy whose character and moral fiber is supposed to be unimpeachable.


Conclusion:

While I tried to maintain a fairly balanced view and temper my opinion with the fact that this is a translation, The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths felt more like a strange and scathing criticism of 18th century France and a massive conspiracy theory cloaked in half truths. The mystery itself was engaging but not enough to carry two dimensional characters and, simply put, bad writing. I would love to have read this in the original French, but now my opinion is fairly soured towards it. Maybe I will pick up the second book for fun. Either way, it is two waves for me. I think that people who liked the Da Vinci Code may enjoy this for the conspiracy theories and the religious uproar, and people who are major French history buffs will delight in ripping this apart. Order here or here (e-book) for the October 6 debut!

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