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).