Who knew that Sabatini (1875–1950) dabbled in crime fiction before undertaking the period romances that made him famous? Yet it’s easy to draw a line from the dozen short stories and two long tales collected here to Scaramouche, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk.
Even when he isn’t spinning yarns about the French court or the Spanish Main, Sabatini is always most comfortable with period settings. Many of the stories here take place in the Never-Never-Land of Cardinal Mazarin’s minions. Unequal rivals match wits to the death for the favors of an unusually resourceful maiden in “The Face of the Clock.” An unwilling spy agrees to romance a lady in order to betray a conspiracy fed by her salon in “His Last Chance.” A crooked spiritualist plies his trade in “The Spiritualist” and “Monsieur Delamort,” and his schemes are echoed in “The Pretender.” Mazarin himself narrowly avoids death in “The Red Mask.” All these stories are courtly, slight and eminently conventional. The biggest surprise is how little Sabatini changes his formula when he updates it to the present in the two long stories. “The Dream,” overlong and undernourished, presents a modern-day spiritualist plot; the more successful “The Valet Mystery” shows a reformed criminal struggling to break free from a blackmailer without violating the demands of chivalry.
For fans only—but they’ll surely be charmed.