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I was sitting reading this in the bar one evening when one of the people running the workshop joined me and started talking about the book. We had a five minute conversation which didn’t make any sense to either of us, until I realised he was talking about The Dante Club. An easy mistake, I suppose, not just because of the similarity of title, but also because they both belong to that curious recent sub-genre of ingenious thrillers based on literary subjects. I suppose the granddaddy of the type is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, certainly Eco seems to be invoked in more blurbs these days than just about anyone else I can think of, though I can’t think of anywhere else where he is bracketted with Anne Rice, as he is in the blurb to this book. But it is Eco who gets a walk-on part in one of the climactic scenes of this novel, Rice isn’t actually mentioned; take that as a measure of the intellectual pretensions of the work.

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte (1993, Vintage 1998, trans. Sonia Soto) is the story of a middle-aged loner who undertakes dodgy missions for book dealers, acquiring antique volumes the owners don’t want to sell, establishing the authenticity of volumes that may be bogus. In this instance he has to authenticate the manuscript for a chapter of The Three Musketeers whose original owner has just committed suicide in curious circumstances; at the same time he is charged with comparing a work of 17th century demonology with the only two other extant copies of the work. But the two jobs seem to overlap in disturbing ways. The other two owners of the demonology text die in gruesome circumstances, and their copies of the book are destroyed. Meanwhile our hero’s quest is constantly hampered by a blonde who behaves like Milady de Winter, even to the mark of the fleur de lys, and a mustachioed and scarred henchman just like Rochefort. The only solution to this increasingly dangerous mystery appears to lie in interpreting the book for summoning the devil, a book which seems to have been previously owned by Cardinal Richelieu and by Alexandre Dumas. And among all this, what is he to make of the beautiful girl who joins his quest, and who will identify herself only as Irene Adler of 223B Baker Street? More and more, it seems that real life is being shaped by a novel – but who is the novelist?

It’s all tosh, of course, but very entertaining tosh. And though it is a slight novel it flatters its readers that they are being drawn into something much deeper and more intellectually challenging than it actually is.

First published at Livejournal, 24 July 2005.

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