A workmanlike and intermittently interesting novel about the heyday of the guillotine, from the author of Mercedes and the House of Rainbows (1988) and Speak Sunlight (1996). Jolis's somewhat frantic story, set in Paris in the Revolutionary year of 1793, is focused on the crises supervised and suffered by Robespierre's "chief concealer, chief bloodhound and first spy" (a.k.a. police commissioner), former priest Joseph FouchÇ. While heads are rolling and "The Incorruptible One" orchestrates a continent-wide search for "the widow Capet" (Marie Antoinette), FouchÇ nervously pulls strings; his beloved mistress Nenette, who closely resembles the reviled Queen, is substituted for her when Marie escapes a jail cell on the eve of her trial. Robespierre, told that "a substitute" exists, orders her execution— precipitating FouchÇ's plot to murder his master. It all gets pretty tangled, though Jolis has amassed an impressive amount of lively period detail. This is vitiated, however, by occasional anachronisms ("gang-raped"), romance-novel effluvia ("What a fool I was to believe you"), and melodramatic clichÇs ("FouchÇ is a spider, and his web spins out across all of France"). Short sentences and paragraphs are clearly intended to suggest the onrushing momentum of great events, but the story seems merely hurried. Characterizations are generally thin, even though cameo appearances are made by historical luminaries Danton, military commander (and sometime mercenary) Axel Fersen, and American radical Thomas Paine. The best single scene, in fact, details Paine's plan "to spirit the Queen out of France" in order to save the Revolution's reputation by denying it this single opportunity for bloodthirsty excess. If FouchÇ and Nenette were a little more like Bergman and Bogart and a little less like the protagonists of Now, Voyager, Jolis's novel might have exhibited rather more of both emotions. Skip this one, and reread Les MisÇrables.
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