As the Second Empire wanes, a series of murders baffles a dissolute Parisian police commissioner and his long-suffering factotum.
Van Laerhoven packs much complexity into 256 pages, giving this historical mystery the heft of a far longer work—but not the coherence. In 1870, Napoleon III is losing the Franco-Prussian war, Paris is under siege, and aristocrats are girding themselves for yet another revolution. Amid the chaos, police commissioner Paul Lefèvre, whose police work is often derailed by his unbridled lust for courtesans and cocottes, and his dour assistant, Bernard Bouveroux, who still chastely mourns his long-dead wife, are puzzling over a series of grisly murders that have a common element: All the corpses are found with scraps of Charles Baudelaire’s verse. Although the notorious author of Les Fleurs du Mal died in 1867, the poetry appears to be in his handwriting. As the investigation continues, the narration fragments as other characters add their voices to the puzzle. The diminutive Simone Bourbier, aka Poupeye, a charlatan and sometime clairvoyant, lures Lefèvre to her lair with promises of an orgy, from which he emerges dazed and addled as Simone, along with Claire de la Lune, Lefèvre’s favorite lady of the night, vanishes. Simone’s diary reveals that she is actually Baudelaire's twin sister, born with a deformity that caused the twins’ mother to consign her to a convent. Simone confesses her incestuous affair with Charles, which resulted both in her infection with syphilis and the birth of her daughter—Claire de la Lune. As the revelations pile up—the twins’ guilt-ridden mother makes an appearance, as do scenes from Lefèvre’s and Bouveroux’s military service in Algeria and episodes from Lefèvre’s tormented childhood—the whodunit aspect quickly becomes secondary, since one of the many characters is the obvious culprit. Instead, the book’s main preoccupation is the conclusive demonstration that everyone is guilty of something—the only mystery is, to what degree?
The flowers of evil, sketched in lurid botanical detail.