|Charles du Luc
(creator: Judith Rock)
|Maitre Charles Matthieu Beuvron du Luc is 28 years old at the start of the first book. After being wounded while in the army, he had joined the Jesuits seven years before. He had finished the two-year novitiate and taken his first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He was now (in 1686) "in what Jesuits called the scholastic phase of his training, a long period of study and teaching, his final vows and ordination as priest were still some years off".
He was “good to look at, big and broad shouldered and brimming with life". He had straw coloured hair and "his face was tanned to pale gold. More than a few women still sighed over the sad fact that Charles had chosen a cassock."
He had been hurriedly sent away by his cousin, the newly appointed Bishop of Marseilles, to teach rhetoric (the art of communication, including dance) at Louis le Grand in Paris “the flagship of the Jesuit schools in France", because he had helped his Huguenot second cousin Pernelle (whom he had loved when they were both teenagers) escape the country. This meant his life could be in danger, but he could never understand why the Huguenots had to be persecuted for it was his deepest certainty "that the beginning and end of God was Love, Love beyond human grasp or measure."
Judith Rock had been an ordained Prebyterian minister but she had given this up, preferring to tackle the question of (the) meaning (of life) as an artist rather than a clergywoman. So she became a dancer and choreographer, actress and playwright, professor and police officer, lecturer and researcher before she wrote her first novel, The Rhetoric of Death (reviewed below) that was based on her Ph.D. research in art and theology that had been concerned with the Jesuits' use of dance as part of teaching rhetoric at their college of Louis le Grand in Paris. She and her husband currently divide their time between Louisville, Kentucky, and Sarasota, Florida.
The Rhetoric of Death (2010)
On stage, Hercules slays monsters, but what happens offstage is even stranger. And a lot more dangerous. The ballet's star dancer disappears then his dead body is found under a latrine. And it seems as though an attempt an attempt is made to kill his younger brother too. Charles gets more and more involved and find himself forced into the service of the Paris police chief. His rector too orders him to find the killer. He has to face up to all sort of hazards, and as if that's not enough, his long ago first love. Pernelle, amazingly shows up and once again desperately needs his help.
The author builds up a vivid picture of the teeming, narrow streets of 17th-century Paris and it makes an intriguing story that holds the interest right from the start, even if the pace slows down just a bit in the middle. There are arresting descriptions of life at the time describing, for example, how dragoons were used to force conversions. They were billeted on Huguenot families and allowed to “pillage, torture, and rape, until their victims either went bruised and bleeding into Mass, or died".
The details of French life at the time help bring the story to life, as when we are told that Charles “uncorked his little pot of wine vinegar, salt, alum, and honey and gave his teeth a sketchy cleaning with the end of the towel. Not something most people would have done, but another thing he had to thank his mother for. He cleaned his teeth most days, and he even washed with water fairly often, instead of only changing his linen all wiping himself down with a dry towel".
Another little detail, just mentioned in passing, was the fact that although not everyone yet followed the fashion, the Jesuit College “had used forks for 100 years, ever since a Jesuit inspector from Rome had been appalled at the state of the college tablecloths after so many fingers were wiped on them and recommended the Italian innovation. Athough from what Charles could see of the cloths on the students' tables, forks hadn't made all that much difference."
There's a mention too of praying before the shrine of the Le Saint Prepuce in Chartres for the safe delivery of a child. Charles had to smother his laughter as “One of his aunts was a fervent believer in the childbed virtues of Le Saint Prepuce, our Lord's Holy Foreskin. Treasured since His circumcision, it was touted as the only part of Him left behind on earth. Charles had often thought that it must have been of an impressive size, since so many places claimed parts of it."
There's a memorable description too of the manufacture of papier mache by women sitting beside a mound of paper: “Their jaws worked ceaselessly and, as Charles watched, mystified, two of them spit wads of something into a basket. They then passed a jug back and forth vinegary wine, by the smell of it crumbled some paper from their pile, stuffed it into their mouths, and started chewing again .... Then it hit him. Papier mache. Chewed paper."
An author's note explains that, “I have tried to make the story's people true to their own century, and not just us in costumes. My hope is that their humanity reaches out and touches the reader, so that the reader can touch the past." She succeeds admirably. It makes such a contrast with all those historical novels which swamp the reader under a deluge which of historical facts and explanations. This book not only succeeds in bringing the past to life, but is written with a gentle humor that makes it enjoyable to read and is to be recommended.
The author ends the book with a list of discussion questions such as, “Do you think the Society of Jesus and the Roman Catholic Church were like the other power structures in France at the time?" You would need to do more than read the book to answer this one! Perhaps the publishers found themselves with a few blank pages at the end of the book and thought this would be a good way for the author to fill them in. It isn't.
The historical Paris background is again well described, as when we are told about the work of the Necessity Man who gave his customer an old theatre mask then “took off his voluminous cloak and held it up while his customer settled himself on a large bucket. Then he wrapped the cloak around both man and bucket and turned his back, leaving his masked customer to answer nature's call in disguise, if not in privacy."
It is interesting too how single women could then adopt children from the foundling hospitals (and “even married women, though they must have their husbands permission"). However “people made an inflexible distinction between the orphans of respectable married parents and those nameless foundlings left on the street. The children were received in different institutions and faced vastly different fates. The best a foundling could hope for was to be taken in and raised as a servant, or sometimes as a future apprentice."
However the plot proves to be less gripping than the previous one, and the book seems overlong and there are some distinctly tedious patches involving much questioning and answering but comparatively little action. The author still employs a nice turn of phrase as when she describes how “Snow came. It settled on his (Charles's) shoulders, stuck to his eyelashes and half blinded him. It comforted him, silencing the streets and seeming to shroud the houses in cold white mourning." And there is agreeable use of humor too as when one of the Jesuit's dislike of riding is graphically described: "Dear God," he exclaims, “it's sixteen hundred eighty-seven, why hasn't someone invented a comfortable saddle?"
There are the usual (too many?) elaborate descriptions of Jesuit dancing, about which the author knew so much. Indeed the whole book climaxes with a description of the performance of the musical tragedy Celse, rather than with the capture of the murderer that happens more than thirty pages before. You can tell where the author's real interest lies!
There then follows a list of rather condescending questions for book clubs, such as “Were you shocked to learn the killer's true identity and motivations?" A more realistic question would have been, "Did the plot hold your interest, throughout? If not, why not?"
Finally there is “a sneak peek into Charles's next adventure, A Plague of Lies. It seems that Charles is to sent "off to Versailles to play the courtier". Let's hope he gets involved in a more arresting story.
A Plague of Lies (2012)
The story presents a convincing picture of ceremonial life at court, as when Charles discovers he has to bow to the king's dinner when it is carried past him, "because it is the king's dinner" and "soon to be part of the king." Charles had to bite "his tongue to keep from asking if they must bow to Louis's chamber pot as well." The author has done her research well and sheds light in unexpected places, as when we learn that, when saddling a horse, you should "be sure to check the mare's girth. She'll blow up like a bladder to keep it (the saddle) loose."
The characters come to life as real people. This is particularly true of Charles who remains in "the scholastic phase of his long Jesuit formation, with ordination and final vows still some years away." His desire to be a priest is very real to him, so he is pleased to get the chance to serve at a funeral Mass. When his friend, Father Damiot, "held up the Host like a small rising sun, Charles knew with almost physical pain that he wanted more than anything on earth to do what Damier was doing, knew it in spite of his struggles with obedience, in spite of his arguments with God."
But it is his skill as a detective that saves the day, for no sooner had he reached Versailles than a Comte meets a mysterious death - and rumour has it that he was poisoned. Another death follows, followed by more possible poisonings. But Charles thinks that "everyone at court is obsessed by poison" and at first is not convinced. But then the king's own life seems in danger and he has to act fast.
Charles is surprised to find that one of his own pupils, Montmorency, has turned up at court and fallen in love with Lulu, the 16-year-old (fictitious) daughter of Louis XIV, who is about to be sent off to marry a 10-year-old Polish prince.
This sort of gentle humour enlivens the whole story, as when Prince Conti tells Charles, "I have a great devotion to Saint Ursula and her companions, the eleven thousand pious virgins." He grinned at Charles.
It makes an interesting story (even if it does get rather confusing at times), and is to be recommended.
Meanwhile, Amaury de Corbet, a fellow soldier who had once saved Charles's life, had joined the Jesuit Novice House. He is driven by guilt for the way he had been unable to prevent the slaughter of women and children, which, as Charles tries to tell him, "is not a good reason for becoming a Jesuit". But Charles himself has his own "burden of guilt" over the same incident.
Then another Jesuit disappears from the college of Louis le Grand and Charles himself is attacked, so when King Louis himself asks for Charles's help, the rector has to agree. Charles meanwhile is appalled to discover that a copy of the bitterly anti-Jesuit book, Le Cabinet Jesuitique (a real book), has been smuggled into college. He is in for a busy time.
The story gets off to a good start and is thoroughly researched. The historical background (and especially the college of Louis le Grand) is convincingly described. The author writes in an entertaining way, even if some of the incidents seem a little repititive (Charles suffers one stabbing and two knock-outs, we are twice told the story of the attack on women and children, and the whole plot is summarised in Charles's report back to his rector), and the melodramatic ending is not as exciting as it should have been. The author is not at her best when describing fights, and here they seem to go on and on.
Charles du Lac himself, "a man who attracted dead bodies", remains an engaging character, and the author really succeeds in "inviting readers to touch the past". Her historical reconstruction is stronger than her story-telling - but you can see why the books have their appeal.
|The unusual cover effectively sets the scene.|