20 October 2014

Review: Baudelaire's Revenge by Bob Van Laerhoven

Baudelaire's Revenge by Bob Van Laerhoven book cover
* Copy courtesy of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, Pegasus Books and Edelweiss * 

It is 1870, and Paris is in turmoil.

As the social and political turbulence of the Franco-Prussian War roils the city, workers starve to death while aristocrats seek refuge in orgies and seances. The Parisians are trapped like rats in their beautiful city but a series of gruesome murders captures their fascination and distracts them from the realities of war. The killer leaves lines from the recently deceased Charles Baudelaire's controversial anthology Les Fleurs du Mal on each corpse, written in the poet's exact handwriting. Commissioner Lefevre, a lover of poetry and a veteran of the Algerian war, is on the case, and his investigation is a thrilling, intoxicating journey into the sinister side of human nature, bringing to mind the brooding and tense atmosphere of Patrick Susskind's Perfume. Did Baudelaire rise from the grave? Did he truly die in the first place? The plot dramatically appears to extend as far as the court of the Emperor Napoleon III.

A vivid, intelligent, and intense historical crime novel that offers up some shocking revelations about sexual mores in 19th century France, this superb mystery illuminates the shadow life of one of the greatest names in poetry.

My Review
Here's a fact I didn't know, Charles Baudelaire was a French poet and lived from 1821 to 1867.  Baudelaire's Revenge by Bob Van Laerhoven is essentially a historical fiction crime novel, featuring Commissioner Lefevre and his 'wingman' Bouveroux investigating a spate of murders; the killer leaving snippets of Baudelaire's poetry on the body three years after the poet's death.

Despite the exciting and promising premise, unfortunately Baudelaire's Revenge never really took off for me. My first problem was that there was simply too much character background and research inserted into the novel for little reward or purpose.

Here's an example:
"Her collarbone reminded the commissioner of the willowy skeletons of tiny mammals on exhibit at the city's natural history museum."  Page 56

Another reason I didn't enjoy the novel were the frequent and unnecessary references to modern times. The writer goes out of his way to make sure the reader knows that although we're reading a novel set more than 140 years ago, it is an era of new technology and change for the characters.

Here's an example from Page 99:
"The owner of the house had followed the modern trend and built a toilet detached from the rest of the house." 

Any lover of historical fiction will know that the characters are at the cutting edge of change and modernity without being reminded, however Van Laerhoven uses the term 'modern' at least 19 times in 268 pages which slowly began to grate on my nerves.

The last sticking point I had was with some of the descriptions, check out this one from page 56: 
"...cushions under her belly so that his penis, its head the size of a plump radish, could penetrate..."

Just ridiculous. However in order to balance the criticism, I'd like to share my favourite quote from the novel, which appeared on Page 147:
"I remember its corridors better than the faces of those who walked them."

Lines like this were a blessing, but what really kept me reading was the character born with a tail. Abandoned at a convent, she was the most exciting character of the novel, and when I began to read the story from her perspective I was thoroughly entertained. If I had my way, I'd lose Lefevre and Bouveroux completely and read the entire life story of this character (name withheld to avoid spoilers).

Baudelaire's Revenge didn't conclude satisfactorily and ultimately was a disappointing read for me. Such a shame.

My rating = **

Please don't take my word for it though.

About the Author
Bob Van Laerhoven became a full-time author in 1991 and has written more than thirty books in Holland and Belgium. The context of his stories isn't invented behind his desk, rather it is rooted in personal experience. As a freelance travel writer, for example, he explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from the early 1990s to 2005. Echoes of his experiences on the road also trickle through in his novels. Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar to name but a few.
Author Bob Van Laerhoven

During the Bosnian war, Van Laerhoven spent part of 1992 in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Three years later he was working for MSF - Doctors without frontiers - in the Bosnian city of Tuzla during the NATO bombings. At that moment the refugees arrived from the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. Van Laerhoven was the first writer from the Low Countries to be given the chance to speak to the refugees. His conversations resulted in a travel book: Srebrenica. Getuigen van massamoord, Srebrenica. Testimony to a Mass Murder. The book denounces the rape and torture of the Muslim population of this Bosnian-Serbian enclave and is based on first-hand testimonies. He also concludes that mass murders took place, an idea that was questioned at the time but later proven accurate.

All these experiences contribute to Bob Van Laerhoven's rich and commendable oeuvre, an oeuvre that typifies him as the versatile author of novels, travel stories, books for young adults, theatre pieces, biographies, poetry, non-fiction, letters, columns, articles... He is also a prize-winning author: in 2007 he won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best thriller of the year with his novel De Wraak van Baudelaire, Baudelaire's Revenge.

For more information please visit Bob Van Laerhoven's website.

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