A murdered man is found in a Parisian cemetery in 1786, where struggling writer Aristide Ravel recognizes the strange symbols surrounding the body to be Masonic.
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SUSANNE ALLEYN lives in Albany, New York.
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The Cavalier of the Apocalypse
By Susanne Alleyn
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Susanne Alleyn
All rights reserved.
Sunday, 1 January 1786
Family-minded bourgeois Parisians spent New Year's Day attending Mass, exchanging gifts, and hosting convivial dinner parties. Bachelors, students, and the literary cliques, on the other hand, tended to spend the holiday in taverns or cafés, which were invariably crowded and lively with those who had not yet settled down to respectable marriages and the producing of heirs. More than that, Aristide thought, as he hurried toward the Cordeliers district with an icy wind at his back, the cafés would be far warmer than his attic room — which had no fireplace and was heated only by a small charcoal brazier — in the midst of a miserably cold winter.
He was feeling unexpectedly wealthy, having earned another ten louis for a political pamphlet, with nearly sixty livres still at his disposal after clearing up accounts with his landlord. Giving way to an extravagant impulse, he established himself, with a demitasse of strong coffee, at a corner table in the Café Zoppi, wondering if anyone he recognized might come past.
He recognized a few faces, though no one whom he knew intimately, and at last he contented himself with pulling out the manuscript upon which he was currently working, and scribbling notes to himself with a battered pencil. Around him, the coffee drinkers came and went and clustered about the tall heating stove, conversing earnestly about the sad state of literature, and the even sadder state of current affairs. Inevitably the gossip would turn to the continuing delicious scandal of what people were calling "the queen's necklace," though it had never, it seemed, been hers. By now the chief characters in the drama — Cardinal de Rohan; his avaricious mistress, Jeanne de la Motte; and the notorious alchemist, soothsayer, and mystic Cagliostro — were safely locked away in the Bastille, awaiting trial. Though all legal proceedings were supposed to be conducted in the greatest secrecy, leaks, from time to time, oozed from the fortress to enliven the thousands of illegal handbills, pamphlets, and satirical songs that circulated around the city without benefit of the censor's stamp of approval.
"But it's impossible to be bored in Paris," a young man declared, some hours later, in loud, offhand tones to his companion, as they seated themselves at the table next to Aristide's. "Can't be done."
Aristide cast a sideways glance at him. He wore his hair long and unpowdered, following the careless fashion of the younger generation who patronized Zoppi's; but his clothes, well cut and crisp, betrayed him as a pampered young sprout from a comfortable bourgeois family, playing at the literary life in Paris.
Aristide glanced at his own frayed cuffs and immediately loathed him.
"There's so much to do, so much to see," the young man continued, for the benefit of his friend, who as clearly, by last year's cut of his redingote, was a country cousin. "The theater, the opera, the Italian comedy ... Why, even if your purse is feeling a bit light, you can get cheap tickets to seats up in Paradise and go to the theater every night if you want. Or you can buy tickets to the costume balls at the opera house and perhaps find yourself dancing with a duchess."
"A duchess?" echoed the country cousin, impressed.
"Or a prostitute. You'll find both there. They say even Antoinette goes sometimes."
Aristide could have told him that the queen hadn't been spotted at the opera balls for years; her giddy days as the spoiled, thoughtless, pleasure-seeking young princess were behind her, now she was past thirty and the mother of three children, though popular opinion was ready to believe anything of her, the more scurrilous the better. The salacious details that had been turning up in café talk and the gutter press about the diamond necklace affair, and the queen's alleged sexual relations with both the cardinal and the so-called Comtesse de La Motte, the adventuress behind the notorious theft, had been titillating Parisian scandalmongers for months.
He signaled to a waiter, who elbowed his way across the crowded, candlelit room toward him — insolently slowly, Aristide thought, acutely aware of his threadbare clothes.
"Another coffee." He stifled a yawn and glanced at his watch, the only thing of value he presently owned. Twenty past eleven. "With sugar."
Nearby a pair of earnest-looking young men were looking furtively about them as they talked, a newspaper lying forgotten on the table between them.
"You know anyone with any sense wants the Duc d'Orléans on the throne, even if it's just as regent for the boy, but first you'd have to ensure that the king's brothers were out of the running."
"How do you get rid of Louis, though? Certify him as an imbecile?"
The first man smiled sourly. "Please. He's not stupid, no matter what people say: just inept at the role he's forced to play. I heard he has his own private library on mechanics and the sciences. Of course, it's a tragedy of fate that he had to be a king; I expect he'd have made an excellent professor of natural philosophy instead."
"Like Father Houdelot at school," said the other man, grinning.
"Exactly. The woolly-headed sort of intellectual monk —"
"'Monk' is right. He must be the first king of France in about five hundred years who's never had a mistress!"
"— not blessed with too much practical sense —"
"What does that say about him?"
"— who's vastly knowledgeable about just one or two abstruse subjects and knows nothing at all about any others."
"Or indeed about much of life."
"But instead he had to be king, and concern himself with administration, power, and politics, which he obviously has no talent for, and probably detests ... the duke's far better suited to the part —"
"Lord, nearly anyone would be ..."
"Or of course you can go to the Palais-Royal," the young man at the next table continued, raising his voice above the din.
"Oh, it's quite new, and it's the latest sensation! We ought to visit tomorrow. It's part of the Duc d'Orléans's hôtel particulier, you know, the family's Paris mansion."
"Orléans? The king's cousin?"
"They say he was badly in debt by the time the old duke finally breathed his last and Philippe inherited; at any rate, he knocked down the old walls and houses about the garden — it's immense — and he's building new houses with covered arcades all the way around on three sides, and collecting shop rents."
"But he's a prince," protested the younger man. "A prince of the blood!"
"That's what makes it so delicious. They say the king, when he heard about it, said 'I hear, cousin, that we'll only see you on Sundays, now you've turned shopkeeper.' But that's beside the point. The gardens are simply the latest rage. Ever hear of Vauxhall or Ranelagh in London? Well," he continued, as his companion nodded, "it's much the same. You can stroll through the Palais-Royal and visit a dozen different gaming houses or brothels within a hundred steps. And there are plenty of cafés and theaters and luxury shops and bookstalls if your tastes are tamer," he added, with a dismissive shrug.
"Is it expensive?"
"Well, yes, of course. It's fashionable. But the police aren't keeping watch over your shoulder, saying what you shouldn't do and shouldn't read. Orléans keeps them out — of course, someone like him can get away with doing that — because he believes people should be able to think and read as they please. If they're reading satires about the king, at any rate!"
"Father said I wasn't to spend all —"
"Oh, if you just want to see the sights for a fortnight, and you haven't much money, you can admire the royal art collection — that's at the Louvre Palace, but anyone properly dressed can get in — or the queen's formal court gowns ..."
The fellow prattled on. Aristide endeavored to ignore him and leaned on the tiny table, chin balanced on fists, drowsily surveying the room from his dim corner. Zoppi's prices were outrageous — coffee was only two sous elsewhere, even at the Palais-Royal — but it was a good place to meet people; everyone in the lively Cordeliers district eventually turned up there. You were also paying for the privilege of drinking your coffee or hot chocolate beneath the same gilded chandeliers under which, twenty or thirty years ago, Voltaire and Diderot had once sipped theirs and discussed the philosophy of the day. Zoppi kept a bust of Voltaire on the mantel to remind his customers of this fact, although people said that when the canny Italian had bought the Café Procope and renamed it after himself, Voltaire was in no condition to visit his favorite café, having already been dead for several years.
His coffee arrived at last. He sipped it, slowly coming awake again. Coffee for wakefulness and as much sugar as you could stand for a burst of energy: that was the trick to keeping late hours. That night he had to finish copying Maître Carriau's brief before the next morning. Only two or three hours' work left on it, thank God!
"It's all about privilege," said a man to a companion as they passed and found a table. "What about the frustration of the ambitious, talented commoner who knows he'll never rise past a certain level in the army, the government, the Church, because all the top positions are reserved for sons of the nobility — plenty of whom are brainless fops who have done nothing besides being born into the right families?"
"You sound like Figaro: 'You took the trouble to be born and that's all.'"
"Or," continued the young man beside Aristide, raising his voice again to be heard over the increasing noise — would he never shut up, Aristide wondered — "you can visit the Place de Grève."
"It's the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville. But it's what goes on there, now and then, that's exciting."
"Hangings?" said his companion.
"Better," said the young man, lowering his voice. "Ever seen a murderer broken on the wheel?"
Evidently the country cousin had not, for he paled and mutely shook his head.
"Oh, then we must go, if we're lucky enough to have a breaking while you're here. We have one or two a year, when there's a particularly notorious crime. Usually they hang murderers, but if it's certain circumstances — parricide, or multiple murders — I saw Derues broken, you know, a few years ago. The poisoner. Fascinating stuff. Drama right before your eyes — the best sort of theater."
Theater? Aristide repeated to himself as the strong coffee he had just drunk on an empty stomach abruptly nauseated him.
"Some of my friends at school once sneaked out to see a man broken," the country cousin ventured. "They — they talked about it for weeks."
"I'm sure they did. Much more impressive than a hanging." ... Condemned to be taken to the scaffold, and his limbs and body there broken, and his living body shown on the wheel, staring at the sky, for as long as it pleases God to grant him life ... and the corpse burned and the ashes scattered to the winds ...
Aristide could bear no more. He pushed his coffee aside half drunk, snatched up the pages of his manuscript and thrust them into his worn leather dispatch case, and launched himself across the room past laughing, chattering customers bent over newspapers, literary journals, and games of chess or dominoes.
Someone turned as he shouldered his way through a group of half a dozen men who had just entered. Aristide thought he heard his name but dismissed it as a trick of the clamor all about him, until he heard it again and abruptly paused a few steps from the back door.
"Ravel?" Someone was approaching him, impatiently pushing past the loitering newcomers. "Aristide Ravel? It is, isn't it?"
"Derville?" Aristide said after an instant's hesitation, suddenly recognizing him.
"Faith, I didn't think I could have mistaken that mug of yours! It's been years!"
They embraced, whooping. Olivier Derville looked much the same as he had when they were schoolmates, Aristide thought, somehow drawn together despite the three years' difference in their ages: pale watery-blue eyes, sandy hair, a good-humored, sarcastic expression. His redingote, cut simply in the latest English style, hung well on his lanky frame, and the cloth was good, and looked new.
"You're not going?" Derville said when he had stepped back and taken a look at Aristide. "No, I demand that you sit down and take something with me. What'll it be?"
"Chocolate?" Aristide said, feeling unable to consume another mouthful of Zoppi's robust coffee.
"Hot chocolate it is. Sit, sit."
"What are you doing with yourself?" Aristide asked as Derville nudged another patron out of the way and seized a vacant table. "Do you live here in Paris?"
"Of course I live in Paris," the older man said. "Where else would one live? And you?"
"Right now, in the faubourg St. Marcel," Aristide said, grimacing. "Only temporarily, of course. Tell me, what do you do these days? Does your family still own Parnassus?"
Parnassus was a literary journal that Derville's father, a wealthy dilettante and patron of the arts, had begun a dozen years before. Subsidized by Derville senior's fortune, it had lasted long enough to gain several thousand subscribers and become profitable.
Derville nodded. "Yes, I've still got it around my neck. It's a frightful bore. The censors have the journals tied up so tightly you can't print anything interesting, just the muck they consider proper ... poems about flowers, you know, and fawning tributes to minor royalties. Waiter! A half bottle of red over here, and a cup of chocolate. I really only keep on with it to spite my uncle," he continued. "Uncle Albert is a complete stick-in-the-mud and hates the way I run it. He thinks he could do better, of course."
"God, I'd give my teeth to have my own paper!"
"The last time I saw you, you were a couple of years shy of getting out of St. Barthélemy, and you were talking about taking a degree in law. Shouldn't you be in Bordeaux in a wig and gown?"
"I preferred to come to Paris," Aristide said. "Bordeaux finally became unbearable."
Derville nodded, without speaking. He had known about Aristide's family since their years together at school, where it was impossible to keep secrets. Unlike the great majority of the other boys and their parents, however, he had been broad-minded enough to ignore the scandal and treat the solitary, taciturn, furiously touchy boy Aristide had been at thirteen with a certain amount of careless kindness.
"Besides," Aristide added, "I thought there must be more to life than my uncle's law practice."
Derville grinned. "I don't blame you! What about that friend of yours — Alexandre — have you seen much of him? Is he in Paris, too?"
"No, he's still at home. Family business." Mathieu Alexandre, his closest friend at boarding school, was the son of a wealthy merchant and shipowner, and had returned to Bordeaux to join the family firm. "He's already married and respectably settled down."
"While you're living — if you can call it living — in the wilds of the faubourg St. Marcel?" Derville clucked sympathetically. "Oh, Lord, Ravel, you didn't decide to try making your fortune in Paris as a scribbler — you haven't become a backstreet hack, have you?"
"Well ... not exactly ..." He summoned a smile. "All right, then, I do write ... though to pay the rent, with a background in law, frequently I do drudge-work for lawyers. Copying and clerking and such."
"But you call yourself a writer, I suppose?"
"I think I have some talent for it," Aristide confessed, avoiding Derville's eyes.
"What kind of writing?" The waiter arrived and Derville poured himself a generous glass of wine while casting a cynical eye at the three men loudly discussing literature two tables away. "Please, please, please tell me you're not a poet."
"I do a little of everything. Poetry now and then, but mostly essays. Literary pieces." He tried the chocolate, scalded his lip, and set down the cup. "I write some satirical verse, and I've thought of trying a play or a novel."
Excerpted from The Cavalier of the Apocalypse by Susanne Alleyn. Copyright © 2009 Susanne Alleyn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Harstan ( Harriet Klasner) no longer writes reviews for B&N and has not for several years. I agree the first two reviews were plot spoilers and the third was not a review at all. This book did not hold my interest. It is free standing, the third in a series and full of prose, I did not care for. The author gives excellant details, sometimes going overboard and this book jumps from several different time frames. It is violent, with pretty gritty details and vivid murder. There are many adult subjects, vices and langauges. This is more rooster lit and for adults. AD
Rating:***** Susanne Alleyn has written a third riveting, well-plotted mystery starring Aristide Ravel, this one set in Paris shortly before the French Revolution and I think it is definitely the best yet in the series! For you folks who have not yet discovered this talented author, and who like to read a series "from the beginning", you have the rare chance to begin with "The Cavalier..", as it is a prequel to the two prior books featuring Aristide Ravel and gives us a glimpse into how Aristide is induced, reluctantly, to help the police inspector, M. Brasseur investigate and ultimately solve murder amidst the turbulent political unrest and scandals of the time. The earlier two books are set after the Revolution, but the murder at the center of this book, Aristide's first venture into crime-solving, is fascinatingly and deftly linked to one of the most famous scandals of the time, the Diamond Necklace Affair involving Marie Antoinette, and the brewing discontent of many intelligent men of consequence with overweening, corrupt aristocrats and wretched conditions of the populace. What I think sets this book above so many historical mysteries is Alleyn's ability to strike just the right balance between historical context and the mystery that drives the plot. Too many times, I've read mysteries of this subgenre in which the story is interrupted by pages and pages of what are simply unrelated dumps of the author's research into the clothing, the food, detailed descriptions of place, etc. that contribute nothing to the mystery and its solution. I think most of us read mysteries because we want to follow that story. Alleyn never includes unrelated social context, even though I learned lots of interesting facts about the period. She is also very very good at creating characters that ring true and are sympathetic. Aristide, impoverished, often discouraged and suffering from self-doubt, stubborn and proud, is enormously appealing - you can't help rooting for him. Brasseur, for all his wiliness, has his own gruff appeal and sense of honor. The other main characters are well-drawn, whether aristocrat or middle class, along with some unsavory citizens that add spice to the mix. The story begins with Aristide's encounter with a mysterious church fire, one of a string of such, his meeting with Brasseur and his efforts to find a publisher for his own attempts at writing rather dangerous pamphlets. Then the discovery of a gruesomely murdered man in a cemetery propels Aristide into a fast-moving series of events, increasingly dangerous, as he tries to discern why the man was mutilated, what the strange symbols mean, and what the connections to a missing aristocrat, a powerful Cardinal, and certain secretive societies are. I don't want to give away too much, so I won't tell you any more. Read the book. I was hooked very quickly, and couldn't put it down. Then, if you haven't yet, read the prior two- Game of Patience and A Treasury of Regrets. Let's hope Alleyn has many more adventures for Ravel in store for us! I recommend this book to all those who love a good mystery, an interesting time and place, and prose so well written that you "fall into the world" of the book without the slightest effort.
In 1786 Paris Aristide Ravel struggles to earn a living from writing commentaries that criticize the church as corrupt and depraved, and King Louis XVI as feeble. Ravel also warns those in power that a great internal Revolution similar to that across the ocean will occur with much blood flowing. Ravel finds a murdered corpse wearing a fancy waistcoat that does not conceal the symbols etched on the body; markings of the Masons. His former neighbor when he could afford to eat cake, police inspector Brasseur, names Ravel as his prime suspect, but hires him to solve the homicide just in case someone else did it; if the writer fails, he will arrest him for the crime. Knowing he will be a guest of the Bastille and probably Madame Guillotine, Ravel investigates. Although the body is stolen from the morgue, Ravel finds out who is reported missing and concludes only the Marquis de Beaupreau or Monsieur Lambert Saint-Landry could have owned the waistcoat. Both are Masons. His inquiry leads to revelations about his father that shake him. Ravel keeps digging into the Masonic clues that seem to imply a conspiracy to remove Louis XVI from the throne and a scandal focused on Queen Antoinette and a missing necklace. All this occurs while the sleuth is fascinated by Lambert's spirited sister Sophie. The police procedural investigation is well written and fun to follow, but what refreshes this brisk historical mystery is the insightful look at the era just before the revolution; as Susanne Alleyn vividly depicts a period of trouble boiling over which the King, his advisors, and the Church do not believe will ignite as the prevalent theory of most of the powerbrokers start from the axiom of "the divine right of the king" and cannot make the paradigm switch. Fans of French revolutionary War whodunits will relish this great prequel that occurs before Ravel's previous starring roles (see the post Revolutionary GAME OF PATIENCE and A TREASURY OF REGRETS).
Only 2 reviews and both plot spoilers, one by harriet klausner who always ruins a book by telling everything including the ending.