A Man in Uniform
One of the great things about suspense novels is that they are primarily a duel of wits. While technology may – I should say always does – change, the heart of crime solving remains outwitting the criminal. It has been awhile since I’ve read a novel that wasn’t caught up in what technology could and couldn’t do but simply relied on wit and cunning to save the day. It was a pleasure to remember that long before DNA or fingerprints were on the scene, there were men willing to go to almost any lengths to find the truth.
Parisian lawyer Francois Dubon is pleased with his scheduled, predictable life. To keep things running like clock work in the office he has his assistant Lebrun. To keep things running smoothly at home he has his lovely wife Genevieve. To spice up his afternoons he has his mistress Madeline. But Lebrun’s mothers’ cat – a creature he has not even met – sets into motion a set of events which disrupts his well ordered life in ways he could never imagine. For Lebrun’s absence, caused by the feckless animal’s harm to his mother, allows a widow in to Dubon’s office who brings him a case he is in no way prepared to handle. And yet, always a man with an eye towards the pretty ladies, he simply can’t turn her away. As Dubon goes undercover as a military man to get the answers he needs, he becomes embroiled in a legal drama which questions the very legitimacy of the French legal system – and whether those in government truly believe in a system that provides justice to all.
This book is beautifully written and well researched. The author has a knack for providing just the right amount of detail to place us in her world but never so much as to drag down her story. The world she takes us into is a sophisticated and complicated one, with social interactions that are carefully layered, encounters that are carefully planned to look casual. The novel introduces us to many different patriots, from Dubon’s zealot military brothers-in-law to his dear friend who works in some vague government office. We get a taste for the difficulty of political ideals, where one must question where decency ends in pursuit of the greater good. The work Dubon does on behalf of his lovely client quickly goes beyond a favor to a pretty lady, raising questions about loyalty: When does it cease to be admirable and become a thing to fear?
This book is layered, and uncovering each layer is much of the joy of reading. While the set up was a tad slow, once we are in the heart of the novel things move quickly. And surprisingly. One of the many pleasures was discovering allies – and enemies – in unexpected places. I loved the way the world moved at a slower pace in that time and place, yet the author was able to add suddeness and suspense to many encounters. And I liked the way the novel challenged political questions by simply placing them out there, never battering us over the head with them, but asking us always if things have changed as much as we would like.
Dubon was a difficult character for me. I didn’t really like him per se so much as I admired his ideals. Equally admirable was the fact that he was willing to risk a great deal for them – it is easy to espouse them in the comfort of a ballroom, far more difficult when you risk a comfortable income and family life for them. He was clever and willing to admit when he was wrong. But he was so far removed from me that I often struggled with understanding him. Still, that attests to the author’s skill – he became very much real to me.
Her skill was shown equally with the supporting cast. While we remain distant from them, we do learn enough about who they are as people that when they act, we understand their motivations. Each character is sketched, and yet the sketch work is so brilliant that the image is as clear as a full blown photo. I was as impressed with the her ability to enlighten me regarding the cleaning lady and Luc, the butler, as with her ability to lose me in the maze of her mystery.
What kept such a well written, well researched piece of literature from being a DIK for me were two things. One was that the women in the novel, while very important to moving the plot forward, were regulated to decidedly secondary positions. It wasn’t just that they weren’t much a part of the action, which was probably historically accurate, it was that I felt that even in the ways they were painted and portrayed, there was a sense of scorn towards them. This could be what we were seeing through Dubon’s eyes – perhaps these were his feelings toward them coming through – but I still found it disturbing enough to mention. The second was that there was some convenience to the solving of the mystery, which kept it from being quite perfect in the suspense sense.
While these two things lowered the grade, I hope they will not keep those interested in the plot from reading the book. It really is an excellent historical, with a good suspense plot and characters who posed lots of relevant questions. While there is no romance, there are romantic interludes. A definite recommend for those who enjoy their history a bit more dense than offered in your standard historical romance novel.