Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The Officer's Prey is first in a series featuring an officer in Napoleon's army as detective. The story focuses on the ideals, disillusions, hardships and tragedies of Napoleon's 1812 Russian campaign. A murder mystery embedded within it amplifies themes inherent in the historical setting. Napoleon brought to Russia some 400,000 soldiers, many unwilling conscripts from recently conquered lands. Roughly the same number of Russian troops awaited them: soldiers in regular armies and garrisons, as well as Cossack irregulars whose unpredictability the French found contemptible and terrifying.
As Napoleon's army passes through Poland, Captain Quentin Margont's commander asks him to investigate the murder and mutilation of a young woman by an unknown French colonel - who, of course, outranks Margont. The order to keep the investigation secret creates further difficulties, while numerous skirmishes and battles interrupt Margont's search for one particular killer among an army of them. The mysterious colonel's bloodlust points up the irony of a war whose supposed purpose is liberation but which devastates the lands it marches through with a plague of looting, pillaging foreigners with rifles and bayonets. In the Battle of Borodino alone, the French killed or wounded as many as 45,000 Russians - and suffered up to 35,000 casualties of their own. After Borodino, the fictional murderer wanders the battlefield, "a vast expanse of corpses." He pauses "to stroke the cheek of a Russian drummer boy.... It was not the child he wanted to caress, but death itself.... He wondered how much bloodshed he would need to witness in order finally to feel assuaged."
Though readers should not expect a tightly plotted mystery or the literary heights of Tolstoy's Battle of Borodino scenes in War and Peace, The Officer's Prey offers a worthwhile perspective. It begins the series at the pivot point when whatever glory a soldier might have found in following Napoleon turned first to ashes and then to ice, opening a tragic window into the French side of the war. (2002 in the original French, English translation 2007; 424 pages including appendixes detailing the composition of the French and Russian armies)More about The Officer's Prey at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository