I recently finished reading The Club Dumas, my second foray into the intellectual mysteries of Arturo Perez-Reverte. While The Flanders Panel, another book of his, delved into the world of art restoration, The Club Dumas introduces us to that of rare book collecting, through the character of Lucas Corso, a book detective or mercenary of sorts. The book has two separate plots, centering around Corso’s commissions to determine the authenticity of a hand-written chapter from Dumas’s Three Musketeers, and of an occult book—supposedly co-authored by the devil—called The Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows. The biggest mystery of the book was how Perez-Reverte could make these two disparate threads come together at the end.
I enjoyed the book quite a lot. Right off the bat, I found myself comparing it to another literary murder mystery, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. Both books center around strange (and deadly) happenings that seem to coincide with a famous work of literature. But while The Dante Club was thrown off, in my opinion, by Pearl’s attempts to write with the elaborate grammar and cadence of the nineteenth-century intellectual Oliver Wendall Holmes, The Club Dumas manages to feel simultaneously more intellectual and less pretentious. And despite the mercenary attitudes of many of the book-collecting characters, I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of rare books, especially since I am currently learning the art of bookbinding and repair.
I won’t go into details about The Club Dumas’s plot, since it is a mystery; instead, I’ll mention some of my notes about the book. It was a sound literary mystery, with a hint of the supernatural; it makes a lot of very specific references to Dumas’s life and the contents of his books, so it would have been helpful to reread The Three Musketeers and perhaps its sequels as well. I can’t help but like mysteries that are involved enough to require charts and illustrations, and The Club Dumas contains both: it has not only reproductions of the important woodcuts from The Nine Doors, but also illustrations from The Three Musketeers that have parallels in Corso’s investigations.
In the end, I was impressed by the unusual way that Perez-Reverte wrapped up the two threads of the story. The Dante Club had a more traditional ending for a mystery of this type; The Club Dumas had more of a whiplash ending. I was left a bit unsatisfied by some minor elements, like Corso’s repeated insistence on getting paid, which seemed like more of a device to keep him in the room so things would be (kind of) explained to him. It was, however, much more satisfying than the ending of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, another book with a supernatural/art historical thread, which left me feeling completely cheated at the end. But as one of the book’s characters says, “In matters of literature, the intelligent reader may even enjoy the strategy used to turn him into the victim.” This is certainly the case for The Club Dumas.