The Cavalier of the Apocalypse

by Susanne Alleyn

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The Cavalier of the Apocalypse by Susanne Alleyn For her third Aristide Ravel mystery, The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, Susanne Alleyn moves back in time from post-revolutionary France to show how her sleuth met his employer, then Inspector Brasseur of the Paris police. In the winter of 1786, Ravel is an impoverished writer barely scraping together a living writing illegal tracts criticizing Louis XVI's government. The storming of the Bastille is still a couple of years away, but pressures are building.

Amid a rash of churchyard vandalism, a blood-drenched corpse is discovered near a scrawled representation of the Masonic compass-and-square symbol. Some of the Masons are "funny sorts," Brasseur tells Ravel, "young, educated, thwarted fellows like yourself, with a lot of ambition and nowhere to go, who have a bone to pick ... with the folk in charge."

That would be too easy, of course, and the pursuit of the killer leads in some unusual directions before the culprit is unmasked, including to the workshop of the scientist Honoré Fragonard, an odd but talented cousin of the noted painter. Another intriguing trail involves the famous "Affair of the Necklace." Alleyn's twisty tale is full of red herrings and unexpected revelations. Her vivid and direct writing style makes it easy for readers to follow—though definitely not to anticipate—every twist.

As a prequel, The Cavalier of the Apocalypse makes an appealing introduction to the Aristide Ravel series for readers unfamiliar with the two previous mysteries. Essentially a police procedural, it showcases an early stage in the development of forensic science, which made impressive strides during the eighteenth century. Above all, though, it presents a strong picture of life in the end stages of the Ancien Régime, foreshadowing its fall and the bloodshed to come. (2009, 290 pages including a glossary, historical note and bibliography)

The Cavalier of the Apocalypse is one of five mysteries on my "Best Historical Novels I Read in 2009" list.

More about The Cavalier of the Apocalypse at Powell's Books

Interview with Susanne Alleyn

The first two Aristide Ravel mysteries:

#1: Game of Patience (2006), set in 1796 during Napoleon's rise.

#2: A Treasury of Regrets (2007), set in 1797.

Other historical mysteries set in the early days of forensic science:

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (1998), a complex, many-layered literary whodunnit revolving around the death of an Oxford don. See our review or the listing at Powell's Books.

Blind Justice by Bruce Alexander (1994), #1 in a mystery series based on Lord John Fielding, the blind London magistrate who founded the Bow Street Runners. More info

Nonfiction about the history of the Freemasons:

Secret Societies: Illuminati, Freemasons and the French Revolution by Una Birch (2007). More info

The Freemasons by Jeremy Harwood (2006). More info

The Freemasons by Jasper Ridley (1999). More info

At the movies:

The Affair of the Necklace, a 2001 film starring Hilary Swank and Simon Baker. According to Susanne Alleyn, this film "paints far too flattering a picture of both Jeanne de La Motte, the adventuress at the center of the plot to steal the diamonds, and the gullible Cardinal de Rohan" but "is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the swindle and its leading characters."

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