3 out of 4 stars
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Swordpoint by David Crane is a biography written as a historical fiction that chronicles the life and adventures of French criminal turned criminalist, Eugene Francois Vidocq. The former criminal is famous for making a turnaround in his life to become the first private detective and head of the French crime-detection agency, Sûreté Nationale, in the 18th century.
The setting of the novel opens in post-revolution France under the government of the corrupt and decadent Directory. The fanatical Jacobins were still rounding up and executing what was left of the aristocrats and royalists in France, while Napoleon was waging war in parts of Europe and North Africa. However, this historical context was not provided in the novel and a reader who doesn’t already know about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars will find the narrative confusing at the beginning as he tries to figure out why the French are killing aristocrats and fighting wars with their European neighbors.
Growing up in the city of Arras in northern France, Eugene Francois Vidocq was a free-spirited, rebellious youth who tormented neighbors with his thievery and distressed his parents with his occasional mischief. A rogue and a notorious womanizer, Vidocq was also a skilled swordsman who engaged in frequent illegal duels that got him arrested. His hotheadedness and fearlessness eventually landed him in serious trouble with the law and he was forced to flee and join the French army to save himself from prosecution and certain execution by guillotine.
After being taken as a prisoner of war by the Austrians and working for them for a while, Vidocq managed to escape and join a band of thieves and smugglers. Following a career of smuggling, slipping through customs and fighting pirates on the Mediterranean Sea, Vidocq was back again to being a fugitive on the run under the hot pursuit of the tenacious Inspector Bordeaux. To save himself from an inevitable return to incarnation and hard labor, Vidocq offered his services to the consular of police to help fight crime on the streets of Paris using his special skills as a swordsman and his deep knowledge of the criminal underworld.
Vidocq had great survival skills and was always ready to wear a new mask for a new role. He managed to metamorphize from a criminal into a trusted police agent and spy under Napoleon’s fragile French Republic. Intriguing and dangerous adventures unfold when Vidocq is hired to infiltrate a terrorist organization and disguise himself as a body double for the most wanted man in France, the dreaded leader of a secret society called the Olympians that are planning to assassinate the Emperor and restore the Bourbon monarchy.
The author did a good job of developing the character of the protagonist. Vidocq’s character was dynamic as he transformed from an outlaw into a law-abiding citizen without losing the intrinsic traits that defined his core personality and motivated his actions; such as his strong sense of self-preservation, his desire for a life of comfort, and his willingness to kill – especially bad people. I also enjoyed reading the battle scenes; whether on land or at sea, the combat was well-depicted and realistic.
For a historical novel, I felt that there was not enough picturesque description of places to bring the plot’s setting and scenes to life. The book’s chapters were interspersed with lengthy excerpts from the Paris Gazette recounting reports of Napoleon’s battles in faraway lands. These news reports were unnecessarily lengthy and did not tie in with the plot. The author also had the habit of recounting preceding events as the story evolved (something that is normally done in a sequel to carry readers along). There was also frequent use of the exact same descriptive phrases throughout the book, which risked making the narrative dull and the writing style lackluster. Another thing that I found disorienting was the detailed physical description of minor characters who only appear once in the novel and play insignificant roles. When an author goes into detail describing a newly introduced character, one expects to encounter the character again down the line.
The novel was well researched and the plot was intriguing and well organized, but I found the author’s writing style to be a bit flat and the narrative contained needless repetitions. Although the book appears to be professionally edited, I came across over 10 grammar mistakes and typing errors. Hence, I’m inclined to rate the book 3 out of 4 stars. Lovers of the crime, adventure, and historical fiction genres will find the book to be an easy and interesting read. However, I must remind readers that this is a work of factual fiction and there are some discrepancies between the book’s presentation of events and what historical records show concerning the life of Eugene Francois Vidocq.
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