Monday, June 30, 2014

Book review: Baudelaire's Revenge, by Bob Van Laerhoven

In Belgian writer Bob Van Laerhoven’s ominous, squirm-inducing Baudelaire’s Revenge, a police procedural set in a besieged Paris in 1870, two detectives investigate a series of crimes as creative and twisted as the novel’s macabre plot.

During the Franco-Prussian war, the city is a hotbed of unrest, its residents hating the upstart emperor, Napoleon III, for keeping them impoverished and hungry and for leading France into a futile conflict. Prominent poet Charles Baudelaire has been dead for three years, his syphilis having infected his mind as well as the content of his most celebrated and controversial collection, Les Fleurs du Mal ("The Flowers of  Evil").

When the bodies of men who may have offended Baudelaire in life start turning up throughout Paris, bearing exotic poisoned tattoos and mysterious handwritten lines from his verse, people wonder if he’s come back from the dead to wreak vengeance.

A burly, hirsute man who loves literature and regularly visits his favorite brothel, commissioner Paul Lefèvre may be an unexpected crime novel protagonist, but his haunted personality suits the book. He and his old friend/assistant, Inspector Bernard Bouveroux, once fought together in Algeria, and Lefèvre still suffers flashbacks from the war. During their search for the killer, they’re forced to confront some of the city’s most repugnant venues and vices, which give rise to scenes of tortured death, drug-induced imaginings, and perverse sex.

One handicap to reading is the disjointed writing style. Viewpoints switch frequently, and evocative passages are broken up with dropped-in facts; the prose demands close attention while its content simultaneously repels it.  The sections featuring one unusual woman’s viewpoint exert a bizarre fascination, though, and the surprising conclusion will reward brave readers.

With his tribute to the poet and his work, Van Laerhoven has mirrored Baudelaire’s darker themes in assembling an intensely felt novel out of images of physical and moral decay.

Baudelaire's Revenge, translated from the original Dutch by Brian Doyle, was published by Pegasus in April ($25.95, hb, 256pp).


  1. I exited at "squirm-inducing"!

  2. Sarah, do you think the book may have lost something in translation? Overall, I'm a fan of 19th century slasher novels. I like the cover. Steampunk/gaslight type of vibe. I can almost hear an echo of "Dante Club".

  3. Anonymous9:28 AM

    Sometimes translations give me trouble too - so much can be lost between languages, and much depends on the translator's skill.

  4. I know what you mean, although in this case I don't think the problems I had are translation-related. The language isn't awkward, but I was frustrated at times by the structure and confused about why some information was imparted. Some characters' viewpoints were featured only one or twice. This type of "head-hopping" may not disconcert others as much as it did me. I also found some of the descriptive detail extraneous. Not the gruesome bits, but one scene had a character thinking in detail about the manufacture of some weapons he came across, and that seemed random to me. That's just one example. I knew the book was going to be dark going in, and I think the author did an excellent job conveying atmosphere, but the style disagreed with me. It's an award-winner, though, and nearly all of the other tour stops have been glowing, so chacun à son goût :)

    I agree - the cover is fabulous!