The Inspector of Unexplained Deaths by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

This light but intelligent novel augers well for The Inspector of Unexplained Deaths series. This is exciting historical crime writing – sharp witted and enjoyable. Chevalier Volnay is a fascinating detective, the Sherlock of the ancien régime; young, contradictory and enigmatic but quite, quite brilliant. A man of his times but a passionate and revolutionary thinker with a shadowy side. Volney was made a Chevalier and appointed to the post of Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths as a reward for his part in saving Louis VX from the regicide Damiens two years earlier. The would-be king slayer was a servant who stabbed and wounded the Louis XV in 1757, there is a brief recounting of his grisly torture and execution here. The story has fascinated French historians, school children and even the philosopher Michel Foucault – it appears in his book, Discipline and Punishment. Barde-Cabuçon knows what he is doing using that event as a spring board for this novel. Volney has further proven himself by solving the Pecoil affair. The Inspector of Unexplained Deaths, previously published as Casanova and the Faceless Woman (2019) gets into murky territory; the cesspit of the royal court; it’s machinations, intrigue and plotting. Volney is caught up in the clash between the religious orthodoxy, Father Ofag and the Devout Party, and the liberal challenge supporting the ideas of Rousseau, Diderot and the Enlightenment. Crucially, Barde-Cabuçon manages to maintain a light tone, The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths is a real page turner. Barde-Cabuçon is a stylish crime writer and this mystery cooks up philosophy, history and murder and turns out a soufflé.
I love a playful historical novel that weaves fact and fiction but has gravitas; The Inspector of Unexplained Deaths has depth in its portrayal of time and place, this is a revealing glimpse of the past – a masterly evocation of Louis VX’s France; the politics, the early enlightenment and the growing revolutionary spirit. Dark doings mingle with clever detective work, a wonderful mix of nefarious deeds and real historical events and people. Central to the story is the self styled Chevalier de Seingalt, the notorious spy, diplomat, soldier, banker, escaped prisoner, swindler, illusionist and, of course, seducer: Giacomo Casanova.
The early exchanges between Volney and Casanova established their characters in a way that is both revealing and fun. Add into the mix Mademoiselle Chiara D’Ancilla, an intelligent and very progressive young woman: “I don’t believe in God, Monsieur, I believe in nature.” And the story is fired by love rivalry, burgeoning relationships, sparring and romancing. But beware not everyone is as they seem and trusting the wrong person could be fatal.
1759, Paris. A young girl steps down from a carriage into the darkness, a male occupant warns her to take care as she strides into the distance towards the only light to be seen, then a scream is heard… The body is discovered by Casanova, it’s an unpleasant spectacle, a girl with the skin torn from her face. Young inspector Volney suddenly appears, he has not been summoned. The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths takes charge of the crime scene. Casanova and a spy for father Ofag see Volney hide a letter he takes from the corpse. Volney is only too aware that the king is known for debauching young girls and working-class children, aided by his mistress Madame de Pompadour and his pimp, la Bal. Could this be one of the king’s girls, attacked when leaving the palace? The Devout Party, particularly Father Ofag, want to remove la Pompadour, could this be part of a plot to get rid of her? Volney knows it is too early to draw conclusions.
Later, Volney is visited by a beautiful young woman wishing to visit the morgue to satisfy her scientific curiosity. Her lady in waiting has gone missing.
Casanova also turns up at Volney’s house, both men distracted by Chiara. Casanova’s attempt to seduce her is rebuffed, redoubling his ardour, but for now he is thwarted. The murder of the faceless girl is only the beginning. These are turbulent times and the warring factions at court have their knives sharpened. Even the king is not safe.
As an avid reader of historical fiction I have come across Casanova in a number of novels and this version is a lot of fun, a very convincing sketch of the infamous lothario.
The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths is a real cracker. Published as Casanova et la femme sans visage in 2012 (there are six others adventures in French). Louise Rogers Lalurie’s translation adds to the pleasure of the novel.
For more fictional interpretations of Casanova see: Conversations in Bolzano by Sandor Marai, A Night with Casanova by Wolf Mankowitz and Casanova by Andrew Miller (all brilliant in their own way). Ian Kelly’s Casanova is a richly entertaining biography. As for Volney, you will have to stick to Barde-Cabuçon’s novels. More please.

Pushkin Vertigo, paperback, ISBN 9781782276234, 2/4/20

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