by Christopher Moore
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Leaving the demon- and vampire wracked state of California behind, Christopher Moore has turned his attention to the Paris inhabited by the Impressionists in Sacré Bleu. Focusing his story on the bread baker-cum-artist Lucien Lessard, Moore allows himself to depict some of the greatest artists of nineteenth century Paris, from Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to Paul Gaugin, to Jean Renoir, in a story that is set off by the mysterious suicide of Vincent van Gogh and implicates an even more mysterious man known only as The Colorman.
Historically, after shooting himself in a field, van Gogh walked a mile to see Dr. Gachet before dying. This odd behavior not only made Moore seek an explanation (and write a novel), but also impels Lessard to try to figure out what happened. His investigations not only bring him into contact with a large variety of Parisian artists, but also with Juliette, a model with whom he had been romantically involved several years earlier who had disappeared. Juliette serves as Lessard's muse, just as each of his painter friends also have their own muses. While Juliette is good for Lessard's painting, she is a distraction from his occupation as a baker.
Eventually, Lessard and Toulouse-Lautrec's investigations bring the Colorman to their attention as someone who was selling paints to van Gogh, and possibly other artists. This discovery of the Colorman leads them to the possibilities of lost paintings, lost memories, and the sense of something sinister behind the Impressionism movement that is providing Paris with a plethora of artists. The mystery shares pride of place throughout with the extension depiction of the demimonde of the Parisian art movement of the 1870s (although scenes take place in a variety of years, not always linearly). The result is Moore's most serious work to date.
That isn't to say that Moore turns his back on the humor for which he is known, but he does downplay it. The jokes and humor that are included frequently are the result of specific character’s points of view rather than by the inclusion of the narrator’s fiat, as Moore employed in his novels from Practical Demonkeeping through Fool. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and readers who are looking for Moore’s sense of humor will definitely find it, it just means that Sacré Bleu is a more serious novel than Moore has previously published.
The change in style works for the story Moore has to tell in Sacré Bleu and his characters, from the historical to the fictional, are well drawn and three-dimensional. Not only do the artists' various foibles come to life, but so does their artwork, aided by the inclusion of reproductions of some of the pieces of art mentioned in the book. The story is gripping and works not only as a mystery, but also as a story about humans and their desires, both personal and professional, especially since Lessard is never quite sure what he wants, aside from Juliette.
While the text won't change after the first edition of the book is published, the first edition of this particular book is preferable. Liberally included throughout the novel are reproductions of paintings by the artists described in the book. In the first edition, these illustrations are in color, while in later editions they will, apparently, be in black and white. Having seen the color reproductions and the black and white versions (which also appeared in the advance reader's edition), the inclusion of color adds depth to the artwork well worth the cost of a hardcover.
A change of pace for Moore, there is enough of his humor in Sacré Bleu, supporting the characters and their situations, that it does feel like one of Moore's novels. At the same time, the plot and research mean this is one of his strongest books, holding up in its entirely and reminiscent, in some ways of Lamb, achieving an historicity which shows what Moore is capable of. Fittingly, given the subject matter, Sacré Bleu is filled with imagery which remains with the reader after the final page is turned.
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