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Saturday, March 11th, 2006


 

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 Inquisition.

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 irresistible.

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...


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