Review: The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

It doesn’t hurt to know a little bit of Latin and to have read Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, but these are by no means a prerequisite for delighting in this meta-thriller. Like the best kind of intellectual puzzles, The Club Dumas features a scattering of charts, diagrams, and pictures which compel you to actively participate in the solving of its mysteries. Holding it all together is a sweeping and self-referential narrative that always amuses, intrigues, and surprises.

Lucas Corso, the novel’s protagonist, is a savvy, pragmatic dealer in the exclusive and erudite world of book collecting. He is paid to find rare editions for collectors and to authenticate found fragments of original manuscripts. When, in the course of his search, he also starts discovering dead bodies and links to satanic practices his mission becomes magnified. The solution to textual mysteries takes on greater implications when his own life and the cast of characters around him start to resemble something out of a 19th century action-adventure novel. Pérez-Reverte is wily in the way he explores the themes of literature as taking on a life of its own and being the key to the ultimate mysteries. By employing a kind of intertextual motif he invites us to examine anew the way we, as readers, interpret, contextualize, and deconstruct.

In The Club Dumas, Pérez-Reverte takes the idea of the novel-within-a-novel to an entirely new, compelling level. The levels of references within the novel are complex, nearly impenetrable, from the more obvious connection to Dumas’ The Three Musketeers to the fact that the central female character is named Irene Adler, who was the lead female character, I later realized, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Club Dumas is a mystery about books, and Corso is a book detective. You must act as a detective as well, sorting through the woodcuts, the diagrams, and the references in order to follow Corso’s journey.

While The Club Dumas is a thriller, it’s mostly considered as a “literary” thriller – which is a fancy way of saying it abides by a certain level of dignity. And I couldn’t agree more. Though, to be more precise, I’d call it a “literary detective story,” for that is exactly what this is. Here, even when femmes fatales are throwing themselves at our hero, who’s on the run from dastardly villains (who may or may not be of this world) and dodging speeding cars and ducking gunshots and fleeing from unexpected dead bodies, it’s all done with a respectable veneer. Meaning, the femmes aren’t too fatale, the villains are dastardly with a knowing smirk, and the writing isn’t excruciatingly pulpy in the style one finds with, well, the mass quantity of pulp fiction.

Pérez-Reverte is successful in that he creates an experience for the reader that mirrors Corso’s own experiences; whether that experience is enjoyable for the reader remains to be seen. “Books play that kind of trick,” Pérez-Reverte writes, and the tricks within this book can actually reach the point of tiresome at times. Nevertheless, this remains one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. The narrative style is compelling and rich, even if it takes a bit of time to be fully digested.

The Club Dumas is a testament to bibliography and the treatment of books as physical objects as well as intellectual entities. The books within the novel interact with each other as they interact with the characters and with the reader. There are many ways to read this novel, but if nothing else, this is a love story to the book. It is difficult, if not impossible, to read it without feeling Corso’s, or Pérez-Reverte’s, emotional connections to text.

This is the sort of story that either intrigues you, or leaves you cold. Consider me intrigued. I’ve read The Club Dumas in three or four days (and I am a slow reader) – and there are passages and chapters that I’ve reread many more times, mostly dialogue exchanges between Corso and another character, discussing some arcane lore, legends, and the checkered histories of disreputable texts. For a certain type of reader, this book is irresistible.

The language is almost effortlessly atmospheric, by which I mean you never actually catch Pérez-Reverte trying too hard. He manages to keep his story suspenseful while offering an erudite bit of trivia about Dumas or the history of a three-hundred-year-old folio of which few copies presently exist. His characters are complex without being impenetrable, and the mystery elements click into place with the clockwork efficiency of an Umberto Eco novel (though a great deal less – much less – academic).

This is a thriller for bibliophiles, puzzle fanatics, fans of the supernatural, dabblers of the occult, and mystery lovers – and a perfect antidote for those who find The Da Vinci Code about as interesting as a book of Sudoku puzzles.

And yeah, some have said that this is Umberto Eco “lite.” Hmm, that might be an affront, but probably. I have a very difficult time getting through fiction that Eco has written since The Name of the Rose, and seriously, writers like Eco are elevated beings of pure light, on the level of Borges, due to their being extremely obscure and cerebral. What I’m sure is an affront is the fact that some have carelessly referred to this as “Dan Brown for intellectuals.” But whatever. Let’s just say that they’re both compliments, I suppose.

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