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Friday, November 26, 2010


Our guest author today at Book Club Friday is Susanne Alleyn. Susanne has had an unwholesome fascination with the French Revolution ever since she read the Classics Illustrated comic book version of A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Her debut novel, A FAR BETTER REST, was a reimagining of that story through the eyes of Sydney Carton. She began writing historical mysteries when she found herself creating a plot suggested by a series of murders that had been committed in Paris in the early 1800’s. PALACE OF JUSTICE is the fourth Aristide Ravel novel, set in the middle of the Reign of Terror. You can read more about Susanne and her books at her website.

Susan is offering a copy of
PALACE OF JUSTICE to one lucky person who posts a comment to the blog this week. -- AP


“Wow! You write novels!” people sometimes exclaim when they meet me. “What are they about?”

“Well, I, um, write historical mysteries . . .” I reply (they perk up, thinking perhaps of a nice medieval whodunit with a sleuthing nun), “. . . set in the French Revolution.” And then I wait for that familiar, baffled expression to flicker across their faces. Because I know that the next question, or at least the next question that they’re dying to ask me, is probably: “Why do you write about such a grim, violent, horrible period of history as the French Revolution? Yuck!” (Insert thought balloon above the questioner, featuring a crude guillotine, some severed heads, and lots of blood.)

Actually, I write about it because I don’t think it’s horrible--or at least not nearly as horrible as two centuries of overwrought pop fiction (plus Hollywood) have made it seem. I write about the French Revolution because, while I’ll be the first to admit that most of it wasn’t a jolly happy funfest, honestly I think it’s a pretty darn cool era to set a mystery in.

OK, I’m a history geek. And before I was a history geek, I was a theater major and drama geek with a taste for the melodramatic (“passion, bloodshed, desire, and death,” as it says on my home page). So as I grew more and more geeky about history, I found myself inevitably becoming fascinated with periods of history that featured high drama and life-or-death struggles between issues and personalities. (After all, don’t the books on fiction writing all tell us that the essence of good fiction is conflict?)

Let’s face it, most people’s knowledge of the French Revolution begins and ends with A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel, both of which are stupendously exaggerated depictions of the “horrors” of the Revolution (or rather the Terror, in which those large multiple guillotinings featured so prominently in the above novels actually happened for only about eight weeks). I’ll bust some myths here and add that as numbers go, the “horrors” of the Revolution are dwarfed by, oh, massacres in the ancient world, the religious wars and repressions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and various atrocities in our own dear old twentieth and twenty-first centuries. (Many more people died in a single one of the battles of World War I, or in a few days of the Holocaust, or on 9/11, than were guillotined in Paris between 1792 and 1794.) But ordinary life went on during the Revolution and even the Terror, as it always does.

So there’s much more to the French Revolution than the guillotines, as any Rev fan-girl can tell you. The Revolution, in fact, was viewed by a lot of contemporary witnesses, for at least the first couple of years after the fall of the Bastille, as the greatest event in the history of civilization, and it was really the beginning of our modern world.

Radical ideas like social justice, equality under the law, and representative democracy were not entirely new even then, of course; but when France--the biggest, richest, most intellectually sophisticated, and most powerful country in Europe--started to put such ideas into practice, and shake up the system of absolute monarchy, aristocracy, and privilege that had governed Europe for centuries, everyone had to sit up and pay attention whether they wanted to or not.

But to get back to those dramatic situations and life-or-death struggles that I crave in the midst of a good story . . . naturally there are plenty of them available. Suddenly a whole society was breaking up and re-forming itself, and hundreds of highly educated, incredibly complex, gifted people, who had never before had a say in government because they weren’t aristocrats, were abruptly given the opportunity to take part in running their (big, rich, sophisticated, powerful) country.

Suddenly these people, who would otherwise have probably lived long, dull, comfortable middle-class lives as lawyers and career army officers, were throwing themselves into public life and, eventually, taking complete control--and often losing their freedom and sometimes their lives in the process as the party squabbling heated up (party squabbling--sound familiar?). And some of them, fundamentally decent people, ended up caring so much about their ideals and how they thought the Revolution and the French Republic should be managed that they finally became willing--“for the sake of the Republic’s safety”--to kill anyone who disagreed with them, including their best friends.

Right then. Yes, the French Revolution, on the whole, was no laughing matter. But neither is homicide. And crimes have to be solved even during revolutions and periods of crisis. So that’s why I set my novels in revolutionary Paris, and why my latest mystery, Palace of Justice, is set smack in the middle of the murderous politics--and life-or-death struggles--of the Terror. That’s the rich, fascinating, thought-provoking history that has inspired me to write five novels set in the period. And all that great conflict will undoubtedly provide me with endless stories for future novels.

So what’s not to love about the French Revolution?

Thanks so much, Susanne. I’m sure you’ve made some fans today. I know I certainly would like to read more about the period after reading your post. What about the rest of you out there? Let’s hear from you. Post a comment to be entered in the drawing to win a copy of PALACE OF JUSTICE. And don't forget to check back Sunday to see if you're the lucky winner. -- AP


Unknown said...

An interesting view of the French Revolution. I am interested in reading more.

caryn said...

I read quite a bit historical fiction and historical mystieries, but I can't think of a single one that I've read set during the French Revolution. Sounds interesting.

Unknown said...

This does sound like a fascinating and unique period to set a mystery series in.

pennyt said...

I also enjoy historical mysteries and think I would love this book!! And yes, my current knowledge of the period is indeed based on A Tale of Two Cities!!

Carol M said...

I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities and I love mysteries! I would love to read this book!


Thanks for stopping by today, Shirley, caryn, Janel, Pennyt and Carol M. Don't forget to check back on Sunday to see if you're the winner of a copy of PALACE OF JUSTICE.

Susanne Alleyn said...

Thanks for your interest! I think you'll find, if you read PALACE, that you'll see the French Revolution in a different light -- at least in more depth than in Dickens; he had a point to make in his novel, but he did a disservice to history (and Hollywood really went over the top!). :-)