The Club Dumas
by Arturo Perez-Reverte
The Da Vinci Club
A review by Chris Bolton
I recently had a brief, somewhat heated, debate with my mother over The
Da Vinci Code. Admittedly, I'd only skimmed the opening chapters of the trillion-copy
bestseller before deciding I wasn't interested in reading further. My mom, who's
read the novel three times and listened to the audio book twice and loves the
thing, was flabbergasted. She demanded to know on what grounds I could dismiss
Dan Brown's opus.
"Well," I replied, tactful as ever, "the writing sucked."
Just like that I suddenly, unexpectedly, found myself on the offensive end
of a debate about the literary merits of a book.
In other words, I traded places with so many friends and coworkers who believe
writers with names like Foer,
McEwan, and DeLillo
are elevated beings of pure light due to their skillful prose. I've turned blue
in the face (literally; people have had to remind me to breathe) arguing against
a boring, bloated, obvious, and/or pretentious book deemed brilliant solely
on the basis of its writing -- and here I was, switching places, essentially
devaluing a novel on precisely those grounds.
So I agreed (somewhat reluctantly) to give The Da Vinci Code an honest
read, from first page to last, and then formulate my opinion. And I will. I
just haven't gotten around to picking up a copy yet.
In the meantime, my mom challenged me to counter with a title that was just
as exciting but better written. The first book that sprang to mind was The
Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte.
Mind you, The Club Dumas has a couple of advantages on me. First, it's
about old books and satanic invocations. And if there's anything my inner teenager
loves more than a story about dusty old volumes (preferably in archaic tongues)
that invoke supernatural forces, I've yet to find it.
Secondly, although I've never fully been a fan of Alexandre
Dumas, I enjoy swashbuckling narratives and appreciate any writer who shares
that enthusiasm, as Perez-Reverte clearly does.
While The Club Dumas is a thriller, it's considered a "literary"
thriller. Which is a fancy way of saying it adheres to a certain degree of dignity.
So, even when femmes fatales are throwing themselves at our hero, who's on the
run from dastardly villains (who may or may not be of this world) and dodging
speeding cars and ducking gunshots and fleeing from unexpected dead bodies,
it's all done with a respectable veneer. Meaning, the femmes aren't too fatale,
the villains are dastardly with a knowing smirk, and the writing isn't excruciatingly
pulpy in the style one finds with, say, Clive
Cussler or (sorry, Mom) Dan Brown.
It helps that our protagonist, Lucas Corso, is something of a cad. I wouldn't
say "unlikable," exactly, because... hell, I liked him. But he's not
afraid to screw someone -- in any and every sense of the word -- for personal
gain or satisfaction. He's certainly not the sort of guy you bring home to Mother,
mostly because you're not entirely sure he won't make a play for your mom when
you aren't looking.
Corso is something of a book mercenary, hired to track down rare volumes for
various clients -- or to prove the authenticity of a volume. Time and again
Corso is accused of being a bibliophile, and time and again he denies it: "I'm
not a book lover." Despite his careful handling and his extensive knowledge
of rare books, Corso insists he does this for money, not pleasure.
The Club Dumas pits Corso on parallel tracks that, naturally, will converge
(though not as satisfactorily as I'd hoped): first, to authenticate a "lost
chapter" of Dumas's The
Three Musketeers that was found near the hanged body of a frequent client;
the second, to validate an edition of The Book of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom
of Shadows, a very old text of which only three copies are said to exist,
after the author and nearly every copy of his opus were burned by the Spanish
The Book of the Nine Doors contains nine engravings based on illustrations
in a much older book called the Delomelanicon, which is said to have
been written by Lucifer, himself. These engravings are said to hold the key
to opening a door into hell, but the current owner, an esoteric book collector
named Varo Borja, believes his copy is a fake. Borja hires Corso to check his
copy against the remaining two -- and when the owners of the other books die
of mysterious causes (to put it mildly), Corso suspects that Borja's intentions
aren't exactly pure.
This is the sort of story that either intrigues you, or leaves you cold. Consider
me intrigued. I've read The Club Dumas twice -- but there are passages
and chapters that I've reread many more times, mostly dialogue exchanges between
Corso and another character, discussing arcane lore, legends, and the checkered
histories of disreputable texts. For a certain type of reader, this book is
The language is almost effortlessly atmospheric, by which I mean you never
actually catch Perez-Reverte trying too hard. He manages to keep his story suspenseful
while offering an erudite bit of trivia about Dumas or the history of a three-hundred-year-old
folio of which few copies presently exist. His characters are complex without
being impenetrable, and the mystery elements click into place with the clockwork
efficiency of a Chandler novel (though with a good deal more coherence than,
for instance, The Big Sleep).
This is a thriller for bibliophiles, puzzle fanatics, fans of the supernatural,
and mystery lovers -- and a perfect antidote for those who find The Da Vinci
Code about as interesting as a book of Sudoku puzzles. But I'm still going
to read it. Eventually...