Olivier Barde-Cabuçon wrote the book Casanova and the Faceless Woman, a case for the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths in French. It was expertly translated from French to English by Louise Lalaurie Rogers.
I usually shy away from translated works. One of my favorite German books is Das Parfum by Patrick Süskind. Years after it was released, I read a translation. It made me furious. The story was butchered into an English version just so it could conquer the English reading world and in doing so, the integrity of the story and the devilish-mind of the main character became weak tea. I digress. This is not the case here.
Louise Lalaurie Rogers deserves nothing but praise for bringing this work to life. She has translated this book so well that you don’t realize that you are reading a translated work. Each language runs in its own pace and she masters them both. The success of this book is not just Barde-Cabuçon’s but hers as well.
Olivier Barde-Cabuçon is the architect behind the Inspector for Strange and Unexplained Deaths. Our Inspector has embarked on a series of historical mysteries. This one, Casanova and the Faceless Woman, won the Prix Sang d’Encre for crime fiction in 2012 and it is the first of the series to be translated into English.
The book centers on characters who did exist. Just do a quick online search. We are in the City of Paris. The year is 1759. During this period, Louis XV (15 February 1710 – 10 May 1774) is the King of France. He is known as Louis the Beloved (in French: le Bien-Aimé) and he served from 1715 until his death in 1774. His Queen is Maria Karolina Zofia Felicja Leszczyńska, daughter of the Polish King Stanislaus I. She served as Queen from 1725 until her death in 1768. She is the longest serving French Queen and was extremely popular. Louis XVI succeeded Louis XV. In this book, the King is front and center in the events. His character is a despicable one.
On January 5, 1757, just as King Louis XV was leaving his Versailles Palace with his son and heir, a man called Robert-François Damiens (42) ran towards them. He stabbed the King in his side. A commotion followed to save the King and the Dauphin, and to capture the assassin. The knife had penetrated Louis’ side between his fourth and fifth rib. However, the wound was shallow. It didn’t reach any vital organs. Still, the wound was bleeding profusely and Louis was afraid he was dying. For a while, it made him more introspective. It didn’t last.
After his arrest, Damiens was of course tortured to find out if he acted alone, or if there was a widespread conspiracy to assassinate the King. There was not. He went on trial on February 12 and it lasted until March 26, 1757. He was found guilty of parricide against the King which was of course, a capital offense. He was horrifyingly tortured and executed on March 28, 1757.
The book takes a slight deviation on the historical events. The attack on Louis XV could have been fatal if Damiens had been able to get any closer and stab the King a second time in either the neck or heart area. This is where the book inserts our main character, de Volnay. We do not learn his first name or, I missed it. If I missed it let me know and we update this page. It was de Volnay who stopped Damiens.
During this before mentioned brief period of more insightful ruling, Louis XV expresses his gratitude to de Volnay, knights him, and appoints him as Inspector for Strange and Unexplained Deaths. By order of the King, de Volnay now investigates every strange or unexplained death in Paris. This sounds phenomenal to keep the citizens and the city safe until you realize that Louis XV is terrified of dying so he wants to be informed about every way he could perish.
The First Victim
We are in the City of Paris. The year is 1759. The precinct Chief of Police has been called to a gruesome scene. We find him bent over the murdered and mutilated body of a young woman. Her face is gone. Naturally, de Volnay takes over this investigation. And just like we see nowadays, taking over is never without friction. But even this stubborn precinct Chief must agree, this is highly unusual. There is no blood on the woman’s clothes despite her disfigurement, no blood stains or trails around her remains, and no trauma other than soft bruises on her knees and elbows due to her collapse. Cause of death: heart failure. She most likely lost her face while still alive. The palms of her hands and finger tips are partially gone too. And to add to the mystery, she was pregnant.
The person who found the victim is none other than Giacomo Casanova, Chevalier de Seingalt a.k.a. the Venetian. Yes, that Casanova and de Volnay is not a fan. Despite his name in the book’s title, Casanova is not the main character. Casanova explains to de Volnay that he was walking home a lady friend and they just stumbled over the dead body. They had heard nobody, they saw nobody, and they don’t know the identify of the victim.
While they speak, de Volnay continues his search of the victim’s clothes and finds a letter. Recognizing the seal he immediately tries to hide it but Casanova sees him steal that letter. The seal on the letter belongs to His majesty King Louis XV. de Volnay then lies and claimed it was his, falling out of his sleeve as he reached for the victim. That could have been the truth as indeed during that time sleeves held many items as men didn’t carry bags and pants had no pockets. But Casanova is sure of what he saw and keeps an eye on de Volnay.
de Volnay works with a partner to investigate the victim’s death and to retrieve, during autopsy, as many clues as possible to solve the case. His partner is a monk and he arrives at the scene with his cart to take the victim away for examination. And while all this is going on, a very pale man is watching them all. He watches the precinct Chief of Police, the monk, de Volnay, and Casanova. He too saw de Volnay take the letter. But what’s more important, he remembers having seen the monk before. He smiles and quietly disappears.
The monk is very skillful and makes a mask of the faceless victim in hopes that if de Volnay shows it to someone, they might recognize her. He ponders how she lost her face. Cut? That requires surgical skills on a very high level and plenty of time would be needed. Was she attacked by an animal? Then the edges would have been jagged and there were no traces of an animal. And how would an animal attack just finger tips?
The Second Victim
Various networks now roam the streets of Paris all in search of that letter: the Devout Party (religious group) led by Father Ofag and his accomplice Wallace, the network from Jeanne Poisson a.k.a. Madame la Pompadour (she provides “entertainers” to the King), the Protestants, and of course Paris Police under the guidance of Chief Antoine Raymond de Sartine, who has his own special interest in the case, in the monk, and in de Volnay.
And the longer de Volnay holds on to the letter, the more attacks he suffers. But it isn’t the beatings that get to him. He is torn between doing what is right and what is just. He is torn between his love for his country, his disgust and envy of Casanova, loyalty to the King or what it represents, and for the second time, there is a love interest he cannot trust.
And then, a second victim. Another woman, faceless but her hands are intact and her facial wounds are different. Is this a copycat or was he killer rushed by a heightened risk of detection? Is this a different killer? This victim was also strangled. One small clue lies near her body: a small grain. Who is killing women?
Realizing new alliances are needed to advance these two cases, de Volnay learns an important detail about the first victim from none other than that very pale man who watched at the first crime scene.
We learn more about the upbringing of Casanova who lost his father at a very young age and his opinion about his mother. de Volnay’s father was almost burned at the stake for heresy. He was then raised by his father’s best friend who protected him throughout his life. The clash between de Volnay and Casanova is well-done.
The book’s pace is good but the story feels overly complicated. It is heavy on details as to chemicals, alchemie, the Brotherhood of the Serpent led by a mysterious Grand Master (they want an end to the monarchy and a government for and by the people), other societies such as the Freemasons and the Protestants, and various alliances. It can be confusing at times. The title Chevalier is used frequently however, it refers to several male characters. Chevalier, translated “horseman” is a title of nobility like the English title “knight.” Within the very detailed scenes, it can be confusing.
The author has a keen interest in history, is a great storyteller, and has a flair for forensic examinations of dead bodies. The plot is well-layered but I would have preferred a few layers less. The chapters seem long but I suspect that has more to do with all the details than with the actual number of pages.
If you like to read about forensic sciences in its infancy, France, historical details, secret societies, a multilayered plot with loyalty, hardship, and redemption, then this is for you. Last but not least, take a moment to admire the cover art by Leo Nickolls.
Note: I received a copy of this book from Tabitha Pelly, Publicist for Pushkin Press, in exchange for an honest review. My other book reviews are here.