An elaborate title belies a rather simple novel set in pre-Revolutionary Paris, where political unrest fails an already unsympathetic citizenry. While royalty wallows in comfort, poverty spreads throughout Paris and a “scribbler”, a young fellow desirous of becoming a man of letters, carefully guards the few coins that keep a roof over his head and food in his belly.
Walking the streets in his threadbare black suit, Aristide Ravel seeks a new life in the city, his infamous family history still a matter of great embarrassment, a violent situation that titillated the press and left his family name forever blighted. It is in the author’s description of daily life in a Paris lived at poverty level that the story is the most enlightening, the contrast of Aristide Ravel’s paltry existence to that of the nobles who remain untouched by the suffering of the poorer folks. Aristide does enjoy some appreciation for men of means, a former school chum instructing him on the best tailors and the finer points of sartorial splendor.
On his tour of the city, Aristide happens upon a number of disturbing scenes: random fires, symbols scrawled in vague political messages, and finally the body of an unidentified man whose throat is slashed and abdomen covered in carvings that relate to the Freemasons. More shocking, the body of the dead man disappears from police custody. Strangely befriended by a police inspector, Ravel is at first suspect but later heartily recruited as police spy, a condition greatly reviled by his fellow Parisians.
Seduced into discovering the identity of the murdered man, Ravel finds himself deeply if illogically involved in a situation rife with political implications: either the Freemasons are behind the disturbances or the scapegoats. Propelled into a world where his own lack of funds and prospects weighs on him like a cheap suit, Ravel finds he has a talent for investigation and a nose for dishonesty. Although his social prospects are grim, his involvement in the murder case delivers this would-be writer to a more interesting existence, at least for a time.
For all the intrigue, political ramifications and public disturbances, Ravel remains an unimpressive figure, a man caught by circumstance, dallying for a time at a level of society formerly unavailable to him. Certainly any innocence Aristide harbors is quickly disabused, betrayals imminent, his stint as a police spy short-lived and filled with conflict. Nor am I any more familiar with the Freemason society than when I first started this book, a disappointment.
I feel, like Ravel, as though I have stumbled into an 18th-century drama where the major players are the Parisian people, French royalty, secret organizations, and the hope of a short dalliance with a beautiful woman, only to be summarily tossed into the street when the drama has ended, the mystery solved.