In 1870, Paris is in a state of turmoil. The Franco-Prussian War beats at the edges of the city, and a population starves while the wealthy indulge in orgies of luxury and séances to contact the world of the dead. A series of gruesome murders distracts the city from its current harrowing misfortune and the boom of cannons. The carefully inscribed verses left by the victims mirror that of their author, the poet Baudelaire—lines from his controversial anthology, Les Fleurs du Mal.
Has Baudelaire returned from the grave to seek revenge and terrorize Parisians? Was his death, in fact, a ruse? A poetry lover and veteran of the Algerian War, Commissioner Paul Lefevre is fascinated by the possibilities, reserving judgment about Baudelaire’s ghost as he weighs the alternative possibilities. To be sure, Baudelaire is at the heart of the series of bizarre killings, but perhaps as inspiration, a motive for revenge. Assisted by Inspector Bernard Bouveroux, another Algerian vet and comrade, the two men go where they must in search of a killer, from the mean streets to the luxe debauchery of the court of Emperor Napoleon III.
Distracted by his current passion for a highly skilled prostitute, Claire de La Lune, Lefevre is a man who embraces the restorative qualities of unbridled physical pleasure. His encounters with Claire inspire the unpredictable forays of his investigation, whetting his appetite for sexual escapades with his lover, with whom he shares both intimacies and details. He finds this respite especially necessary with the growing pressure to find the murderer in the beleaguered city, scouring diligently for clues by day, indulging in sensual debauchery by night. Meanwhile, Bouveroux dives into a manuscript that describes the life of a tormented creature forced to survive in extraordinary circumstances, a journey that bridges exotic lands, secret curses, magical spells and the vast melting pot of Parisian society.
This tale is tethered to the destructive forces of war, greed, anarchy and the secrets lurking in nighttime Paris, where only the brave or the dangerous walk the streets. The wealthy hide behind the false glitter of the court, fear obliterated by alcohol, drugs and whatever pleasure presents itself. Reflecting frequently on their years in Algeria, Lefevre and Bouveroux are painfully aware of the dark side of humanity and the ways of corruption, Paris a seething cauldron of mystical influences and exoticism. The line between their days and nights all but disappears as the killings continue, each more gruesome and elaborate than the last.
Baudelaire’s dark thoughts and poetic angst, not to mention his wastrel lifestyle, permeate the novel with a sense of looming doom. Lefevre dances close to the fires of oblivion while an unsuspecting and diligent Bouveroux comes too near the source of the truth, the city awash with nightly menace. With a natural tendency to confront his destiny, Lefevre’s pursuit of the culprit he finally recognizes brings him face to face with his own mortality, cannon fire punctuating the night with sounds of death. At times I was repulsed, at others fascinated by this novel, a preponderance of gazing into the maw of evil an unwelcome burden.