Winner of the Hercule Poirot Prize for Best Crime Novel – Winner of the USA BEST BOOK AWARD 2014 in the category Fiction: mystery/suspense
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 séances. 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.
Life and death had taught commissioner Lefèvre to love poetry and wenches, and in spite of his fifty-three years, he still wasn’t certain which of the two he admired the most. Poetry is an abstract emotion rooted in the primordial world, before the existence of language. The act of copulation skulks through the human brain like a prehistoric lizard, biting randomly.
The commissioner had decided to feed the reptile that evening and was in search of a warm haven. The prospect increased his sensitivity towards the aesthetics of a visit to the brothel. His burly frame, covered with coarse grey hair, had been washed and perfumed, reminiscent of years of abundance, handsomely oiled and gleaming. Lefèvre had trimmed his pubic hair as neatly as his short beard. He was ready to bear the burden of the flesh.
He had spent more money on cocottes in his life than he cared to remember. But he wasn’t interested in expensive suits or alabaster handled walking sticks. In exchange, he had memories: a lock of hair covering the eyes, ample dangling breasts à la levrette, trembling thighs in muted lamplight. They took him by surprise at times and soothed his restlessness.
The commissioner’s favourite of the last six months was a faun-like creature, an outsider like himself. He thought it best not to get attached to one woman, even when it came to courtesans. The talons of a woman’s heart are greedy and it was wise to avoid them. But the commissioner was fascinated by the wench’s tender coquetry. She was a firefly trapped in amber. Compared with her, the other cocottes paled into insignificance.
An agreeable sensation in his chest inclined him to walk with a jaunt. What had started off as sexual necessity – Lefèvre was in his early forties at the time – had become more intoxicating than opium. The commissioner usually swaggered along the splendid Chausée d’Antin, brandishing his walking stick in the cool light of L’Opéra, which had been refurbished three years earlier in 1867 at considerable expense. But this evening, his rugged, stocky yet well-tailored frame seemed agitated. Lefèvre’s gaze drifted towards the gleaming coaches bringing courtesans of name and fame to the inner courtyards of the city’s palaces, where liveried servants waited to escort each to her aimant. The ‘skulls and Pickelhaube helmets’ – a designation much favoured by Le Moniteur – of the Prussian troops advancing towards the border appeared to be having a significant effect on the aristocratic libido.
Lefèvre had read in the same Moniteur a couple of hours earlier that Baudelaire was now considered one of France’s greatest men of letters, a mere three years after his death. The article also claimed that Baudelaire had predicted this disastrous war. Lefèvre had only witnessed a single performance of the deathly pale poet, a genius if many were to be believed. But traces of the poet’s words – rumour had it he was already suffering from syphilis at the time, which explained his bulging eyes and their metallic lustre – had left their mark on the commissioner, like the tracks of a vineyard snail. Typical of the French bourgeoisie to cherish a poet years after his death, when they had loathed and persecuted him while he was alive.
Lefèvre involuntarily mouthed the words of Les Deux Bonnes Soeurs, as strophes of the poem with their vigorous timbre invaded his mind. His head told him he had garbled the lines. His heart told him that a few shreds of the poem contained everything he wanted to know about life.
Debauchery and Death are pleasant twins (…)
Both tomb and bed, in blasphemy so fecund
Each other’s hospitality to second,
Prepare grim treats, and hatch atrocious things.[i]
The last line rubbed against the commissioner like an invisible satyr when he heard a woman scream behind the chic facade of one of the Chausée d’Antin’s sumptuous bordellos.
[i] Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon, 1952)