01/04/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Subterranean Press. 325 page illustrated signed limited edition hardback. Price: $125.00 (US. ISBN: 978-1-59606-292-4.
check out websites: www.subterraneanpress.com and www.vincentchong-art.co.uk
Arturo Pérez-Reverte is a Spanish writer of accessible literary fiction. You may therefore be wondering what a review of 'The Club Dumas', one of his best-known novels, is doing on SFCrowsnest. You may even be wondering why the book is being reviewed now, given that it first came out in 1993. The answer is that this is a gorgeous new edition of what is, at heart, a fantastical mystery story produced by Subterranean Press, the specialist publisher of collectors' editions of horror, suspense and dark mystery books.
'The Club Dumas' follows Lucas Corso, a Spanish book hunter. He is a man who will do almost anything to obtain a rare book for a collector or dealer if the price is right. Corso is hired to authenticate two rare documents. The first is the manuscript of one chapter of Alexandre Dumas' nineteenth century classic, 'The Three Musketeers'. This was sold to a book dealer friend of his shortly before the previous owner, a millionaire cookbook publisher and would-be novelist, was found hanged. The second is 'The Book Of The Nine Doors Of The Kingdom Of Shadows', one of three surviving copies of an infamous black magic text, alleged to be a guide to summoning the Devil. Its current owner thinks it's a forgery and wants Corso to find out whether he's right. Corso decides to deal with both commissions at the same time.
To do so, Corso travels to Portugal and then Paris in order to compare the copy of 'The Nine Doors' in his possession with the other two, both of which are in the private collections of eccentric old bibliophiles. At the same time, he seeks out experts on Dumas to get their opinions on the authenticity of that manuscript. However, he is followed around Europe by the attractive widow and last owner of the Dumas manuscript, who wants it back and is prepared to go to almost any lengths to get it. When sex doesn't work, the widow brings in a heavy-handed henchman, at which point Corso is joined by a mysterious young woman who offers to act as his guardian angel. However, when the owners of the other two copies of 'The Nine Doors' both wind up dead shortly after Corso has visited them, he starts to wonder what he's got himself mixed up in and how he can get out in one piece.
As the story progresses, Corso notices ever-closer parallels between the characters he meets, the events that are happening to him and the storyline in 'The Three Musketeers'. He starts to wonder who the author of his own story is, what they have planned for him and whether he can protect his own sanity as real and fictional worlds start to coalesce.
'The Club Dumas' is an engaging and enjoyable mystery story which will appeal to anyone who loves books. It is shot through with literary references, from 'Moby Dick' and Sherlock Holmes to 'The Name Of The Rose'. Like the latter book, this is a novel that plays with the conventions of fiction. At one point, towards the end of the book, one of the characters lectures Corso on his mistaken inter-textual reading of his own story, arguing that he has wrongly intertwined the Dumas and black magic storylines. Is he arguing with Corso or with us?
For me, the three highlights of the book were the lead character Corso, the investigation of Alexandre Dumas' novelistic legacy and the fascinating insights into the secrets of book restoration and forgery. Corso is a deeply flawed but ultimately sympathetic hero. He initially appears to be a mercenary with few personal or professional qualms but, as the book progresses, we see him learn to care about others as much as himself. The book has awakened in me a real interest in reading some of Dumas' novels which, until now, I did not know other than through the inevitable film adaptations from decades past. Finally, for a book lover like me, reading about how you might forge a five hundred year old tome convincingly added a depth of interest and realism to the novel.
There are two aspects of this book that I was less convinced by. The first is the ending, which is rather abrupt and does not resolve the black magic element of the plot convincingly one way or the other. The second revolves around the initial premise of the book, which is that Corso decides to investigate the Dumas manuscript and the black magic text at the same time. Although several linkages are made between the two parallel quests, for me they were not quite strong enough to avoid the story appearing at times to split apart like the two halves of an Easter egg. To be fair, however, the author might retort that both of these 'failings' are an integral part of the meta-fictional nature of the story. Perhaps.
The book itself, even in proof, is a beautiful thing. It is illustrated with five colour plates and sixteen duotone images, all by the well-know genre artist Vincent Chong. If you're interested, you can see some of them on his website, www.vincentchong-art.co.uk. The final published copies will be signed limited edition hardbacks and seem likely to be of great interest to collectors, even with a price-tag of $125.
To conclude, 'The Club Dumas' is a highly enjoyable work of literary fiction. If you enjoy books that make you think, I think you'll like this one.
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