Susanne Alleyn Interview

August 10, 2009 interviews
the author of The Cavalier of the Apocalypse

author Susanne AlleynWe were fortunate to have Susanne Alleyn visit to talk about her mystery set in Paris just before the French Revolution, The Cavalier of the Apocalypse. It's a prequel to her mysteries set after the Revolution, Game of Patience and Treasury of Regrets.

Forensic science was in its infancy during the eighteenth century but making great advances. How did you research the techniques Inspector Brasseur and his police used?

A lot of archival material exists about the prerevolutionary Parisian police, but there's much less about the actual investigative methods used in criminal cases. I do my best with what there is, by looking up accounts of famous cases from the period and extrapolating from the investigators' records. For example, I copied a doctor's report on a man who died of arsenic poisoning (in A Treasury of Regrets) directly from the autopsy report in the historical poisoning case on which I loosely based the novel. This prevents my sleuths from using techniques, especially chemical tests, that wouldn't be developed for another few decades.

You write so atmospherically about the burial grounds of Paris. What led you to set the murder in a churchyard?

Since the story begins with mysterious occult symbols being left on walls around Paris, a churchyard, with its macabre associations, seemed like the logical place for the subsequent murder. The cemeteries and churchyards of 18th-century Paris were not at all like modern cemeteries; they were incredibly nasty places, essentially garbage dumps for the bodies of the poor, where huge common graves were filled up with corpses, covered, and left to decompose for a couple of decades, until the gravediggers ran out of space. Then the oldest trench would be dug up, all the remaining bones pushed aside, and they'd start all over again. A few months after the events of Cavalier, in fact, the cemeteries were closed for health reasons and they began digging up the millions of old bones that had accumulated over the course of six centuries, and transferring them to the Catacombs. (The first emptying of the cemeteries, in spring 1786, is definitely going to inspire a future Ravel mystery!)

Honore Fragonard, the cousin of the famous painter, is a remarkable character. Did he really exist?

Yes, he certainly did! In 2002, I visited the bizarre, fascinating little museum, right outside Paris, where his surviving works are kept. I was just writing Game of Patience (the first Ravel novel) then, and didn't even know if it would be published, but after visiting the museum, I knew that Fragonard and his creations would just have to be in a future mystery. I won't give away any details now, but you can read about the historical Honore Fragonard in the note at the end of Cavalier.

Review of The Cavalier of the Apocalypse by Susanne Alleyn

See listing for The Cavalier of the Apocalypse at Powell's Books

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