Alleyn (Palace of Justice, 2010, etc.), author of several historical mysteries set in France, fashions a dramatic tale based on an actual family of executioners in 18th-century Paris.
In a hereditary position as the son of the executioner, Charles Sanson is required to carry on the distasteful occupation first assigned to his great-grandfather or else be left disgraced and without a source of income. Although a necessary job to maintain discipline for the rulers of the Regime Ancien, the executioner was reviled, called a butcher and torturer by his countrymen. With few friends and a small pool of available women to wed, an executioner could be assured only of financial security and a restricted social life. When, due to his father’s illness, teenage Charles is forced to take over the role of master executioner of Paris, he struggles to find solace with family and then with women who don’t know his secret. When his lover learns of his true profession and abandons him, he rails: “I’ve nothing to be ashamed of! I’m a good Christian, a gentleman, the king’s servant, an officer of the law, and equal of any of them—I only follow orders the judges give me. Why should I be pointed out, hissed at, despised?” When his path intersects with that of François, a bright, high-spirited teenager of petty nobility with no money and little family, Charles realizes that his role as master executioner compels him to carry out horrific punishments on people whose crimes are often more political and vindictive than felonious. Charles realizes that, despite his father’s belief that they serve the law and avenge the innocent, he is “a tool of a regime that’s revealed itself to be corrupt, malicious, and brutal.” Yet Charles continues to carry out the duties of his hereditary post. No detail is spared in describing the heinous punishments demanded by the judiciary and the king. Alleyn’s exhaustive research pays off handsomely in well-drawn characters and colorful historical context. In particular, her female characters are refreshing in their range and willingness to defy stereotypes. A sequel would be welcome to this deftly imagined tale of the years before the French Revolution.
A well-researched, robust tale featuring an endearing executioner.