“However scientific our cast of mind, it always comes down to this, does it not? […] How to get rich and remain forever young. The universal dream of mankind.”
Casanova and the Faceless Woman, by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon (translated by Louise Rogers LaLaurie), is crime fiction set in and around Paris and the Palace of Versailles a few decades before the French Revolution. Its protagonist is Volnay, a serious young man living in frivolous, dangerous times. Granted the title, Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, after he saved the life of King Louis XV, the local police chief does not appreciate Volnay’s incursion into what he regards as his territory.
Volnay works with a disgraced monk who has an interest in and keen knowledge of the latest scientific thinking. He examines the bodies of the dead in an attempt to uncover clues as to how they met their end. This is the age of enlightenment, although there is wider interest in associated gossip, along with wild exaggeration, than in deduction and proof.
The story opens with the discovery of a body – a mutilated young woman. The skin on her face, palms and fingertips has been removed. When Volnay arrives at the crime scene he is dismayed to find it was the renowned philanderer, Casanova, who first came across the victim. Casanova watches as Volnay removes a letter from the woman’s clothing and is then intrigued when the policeman claims it fell from his sleeve.
This letter proves key to the investigation. Influential and shadowy figures are eager to read what it contains as it affects the dissolute and capricious King. His Majesty’s detractors are seeking ways to bring down the monarchy. Others advise caution until those who would grasp power after such a revolution may be put in place.
Casanova regards his involvement in the investigation as another entertainment, especially when a beautiful young aristocrat, Chiara, shows an interest. Volnay is also drawn to the girl and this unlikely trio find they must share secrets if the case is to be solved and the reason the letter is so sought after understood.
Then another young woman is found dead, with her face removed, this time outside a property used by the King to meet with the young girls he favours. Despite the similarities in the victims’ demises, Volnay is perplexed by the differences. With his life endangered from multiple sources, he discovers that trusting Chiara may have been a mistake.
Although this is crime fiction it will appeal to those who enjoy vividly depicted historical fiction. There are sumptuous descriptions of dress and setting, of food consumed and the decadent lifestyles of those who found favour within the Palace of Versailles at this time. Their wealth and privilege may be contrasted with the dangers lurking in the dark and dirty streets of Paris where penury is widespread. Small coins are earned by whatever means necessary to survive, with little loyalty. Death is common and rarely investigated. Punishments are brutal, meted out to those who would not assist powerful figures whose spies are everywhere.
Volnay is an interesting character although I regarded the romantic element of his story an unnecessary distraction. Casanova’s role is well developed – the reasoning behind his behaviour credible even if his performance abilities are overplayed. As I have little interest in dress and lavish furnishings I found the pace unduly slow due to the many details. It also disheartened me to consider the risks people take with their health in order to achieve what is widely accepted as beauty.
“Nothing of all this was real, or true. It was all a carefully maintained illusion.”
Although well written and structured there were too many elements within the story that personally irritated. I grew tired of the lily white skin, rustling silk and gleam of gilt furnishings. I was curious about the science until the unlikely denouement – again, this flight of imagination felt unnecessary (authors are, of course, free to write as they choose).
For those with an interest in the lifestyles of the wealthy the tale offers a colourful portrayal. Centuries later plutocrats are still seeking personal advantage over the greater good of scientific discovery. Aging is rarely regarded as a privilege with outward beauty highly valued. I may well be taking an entertainment too seriously, but I found this tale depressing.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.