Dumas and the Devil
I don’t know why, but whenever I begin one of these reviews, I feel compelled to tell you where I got the book from. Perhaps this is an attempt to bring the personal into an otherwise fairly impersonal and critical form. Or perhaps it is ego that drives these autobiographical beginnings. Or perhaps it is simply factoidal and serves absolutely no purpose beyond preserving a little story about my life for the future (setting aside the debatable permanence of something so seemingly fleeting as a blog). Were I a character in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s bookish The Dumas Club, my compulsion would be part of the my job. I would be doing more than just sharing a little story. I would be establishing provenance.
Pérez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club tells the story of Lucas Corso, a morally ambiguous book dealer of what I would call uncommon intelligence but which everyone else in the book just sees as normal. Corso, soon upon entering the novel, is drawn into two seemingly divergent and also seemingly similar cases, one involving a lost manuscript of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and the other involving a book supposedly written by Lucifer himself called The Nine Doors. Corso starts off on a journey through the Iberian Peninsula and into France on the trail of something he doesn’t quite grasp, gaining and losing companions along the way with equal alacrity.
Were it not for the undeniable bookishness of The Dumas Club and the equally clear intelligence of Pérez-Reverte, one could easily see this book falling into some kind of proto-Da Vinci Code category. (Dumas predates Da Vinci by a good decade or so.) However the book is so filled to stuffing with bibliomanic, literary in-jokes and stunning research that Dumas quickly lends itself to a category all its own. As Umberto Eco remarks on the US cover, <i>Dumas</i> is a “beach book for intellectuals.” As conflicting as that sounds, it is the unique position of <i>Dumas</i>.
One of the more enjoyable in-jokes in Dumas features Corso’s mysterious female companion, known primarily as “the girl” throughout the book. Corso happens upon her in a train where she is reading a Sherlock Holmes novel. Corso asks her what her name is, to which she calmly answers, “Irene Adler.” The scene continues without a whisper and, just when you think Pérez-Reverte is really going to let that go, Corso turns as he lives:
“Irene Adler,” he repeated, as if trying to remember. “A Study in Scarlet?”
“No,” she answered calmly. “A Scandal in Bohemia”
For Holmes, she was always “the woman” and for Corso the false Irene Adler becomes just “the girl.” Dumas is a book intelligent enough to make the unspoken comparison.
But like many other novels so aware of their own intelligence, Dumas stumbles a little at the very end into confusion with one too many twists. Not to give too much away, but the fact that one of the characters turns out to actually be a fallen angel/demon, that another is possibly destroyed by hellfire (or his own ambitions?), and the bizarre appearance of the narrator (who is interestingly not Corso) at the end all combined to make the last two chapters a little rough going and more than a little disappointing after such a clearly well-researched and smart novel.
The Dumas Club made me wish there were more books with antiquarian book dealers as the protagonists that don’t have to resort to demons and the Devil to get mass readership. Surely there must be a bookish mystery out there to be told that doesn’t involve the occult!