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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Les trois mousquetaires - Alexander Dumas This is a kick-ass novel, and I am indeed kicking my own ass for not having read it earlier. I'm ashamed to say that I thought it was a children's book. My wife indignantly refuses any responsibility for my mistake... as she points out, it's entirely my fault if I drew the wrong inferences from the fact that her mother read it aloud to her as an eight year old. It turns out, on closer examination of the facts, that Elisabeth's mom must have skipped about a quarter of the text - but I digress. No, far from being a children's book, this is a noirish thriller, stuffed to the gills with violence, sex, nudity, dangerous blondes, corrupt politicians and random acts of mayhem and destruction. I should have known that. Anyway, better late than never.

Quite apart from being a terrific read - I just couldn't put it down - Les Trois Mousquetaires is a remarkably interesting book for anyone who's fond of French literature. The merest glance at my French shelf will show you that I like both so-called serious novels and trash - as everyone knows, the French write the best trashy novels in the world. But what do these two literary traditions have to do with each other? I feel like a paleontologist who's discovered one of those missing links in the fossil record. A kind of literary coelocanth, it's exactly halfway between the two genres. Too well-written to be dismissed as trash, it still has so many of the defining characteristics of the modern French trash novel that it can't possibly be anything but a direct ancestor.

I'd hate to give away any of the plot - there's a twist every other chapter - but let me explain in terms of generalities. Dumas is firmly in the great French tradition of Tragic Love. People in his world are divided into two classes: those who are motivated by Love and Honour, and those who want Money and Power. To be a superior person means belonging to the first group. Unfortunately, living only for Love and Honour isn't very practical, so these superior people generally have rather tragic lives; a theme you see over and over again in mainstream French literature. A particularly clear 20th century example is Belle du Seigneur.


Ariane's husband is only interested in Money and Power, and his dreary monologues about his prospects of being promoted bore her to tears. Naturally, she's drawn to the dashing Solal, who never misses a chance to show how much he despises money (it helps that he's very rich). Equally naturally, it all ends up very tragically indeed.

But let's get back to Les Trois Mousquetaires. Dumas takes real historical events, and reinterprets them through the prism of his ultra-romantic world-view. On his account, the political events of 1625-27 were all about a complicated tangle of love affairs. The beautiful Anne of Austria is Queen of France, but she has at best lukewarm feelings for her husband, the pathetic Louis XIII. Cardinal Richelieu, the true ruler of the country, has made advances towards her, but been rebuffed; he's eaten up by jealousy and spite, especially since he knows through his network of informers that Anne's heart in fact belongs to the handsome Lord Buckingham. To keep the story bubbling, Dumas invents some more people, who play key roles in this complicated game. One of Richelieu's main agents is the psychotic blonde temptress, Milady; her opposite number in the Queen's camp is the ambitious young swordsman, D'Artagnan. Needless to say, both of them are involved in their own intersecting webs of romantic intrigue.

The startling thing to me is that the Dumas formula is still going strong, nearly 200 years later. The immeasurably popular SAS series, which you can buy at any French airport bookstall, is written to almost exactly the same specification. The central figure, Malko, is a modern D'Artagnan: vaguely on the side of the Good Guys, each episode sees him dispatched to a currently topical destination, where he's charged with some weighty task. For example, in Bagdad-Express


Malko's assignment is to prevent the Iraq war by kidnapping Saddam Hussein. He and one of Saddam's sons (I think Qusay) get involved with the same woman, there's a lot of random sex and violence, and, of course, the deal falls through. A still clearer example is Djihad


A Chechen rebel group gets hold of a Russian nuclear warhead, and they pass it on to an Islamicist faction led by a sexy blonde woman. (I know what you're going to say. In the SAS world, Islamicist factions can be led by sexy blondes). This time, after the usual toing and froing, Malko shoots down the blonde when she's just a few seconds away from detonating the bomb in New York. It's all remarkably similar to D'Artagnan's battle against the nefarious Milady.

So what is it that makes this formula so incredibly effective? It's fun to see history rewritten so that politics and economics are less important than who's sleeping with whom. The camaraderie displayed by the Musketeers has become proverbial, and that's also inspiring. But, really, it's Milady who makes the book, and she's the character who's been copied most often in modern trash fiction. (Look at those girls on the covers of the SAS novels. Miladies, every one of them). Although D'Artagnan is a sympathetic hero, she effortlessly steals the show every time she appears, just as easily as Sharon Stone upstages Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct.


What a shame Stone never got to play Milady in a serious adaptation of Les Trois Mousquetaires! Now that would have been worth watching.