It is 1870, and Paris is in turmoil.
As the social and political turbulence of the Franco-Prussian War roils the city, workers starve to death while aristocrats seek refuge in orgies and seances. The Parisians are trapped like rats in their beautiful city but a series of gruesome murders captures their fascination and distracts them from the realities of war. The killer leaves lines from the recently deceased Charles Baudelaire’s controversial anthology Les Fleurs du Mal on each corpse, written in the poet’s exact handwriting. Commissioner Lefevre, a lover of poetry and a veteran of the Algerian war, is on the case, and his investigation is a thrilling, intoxicating journey into the sinister side of human nature, bringing to mind the brooding and tense atmosphere of Patrick Susskind’s Perfume. Did Baudelaire rise from the grave? Did he truly die in the first place? The plot dramatically appears to extend as far as the court of the Emperor Napoleon III.
A vivid, intelligent, and intense historical crime novel that offers up some shocking revelations about sexual mores in 19th century France, this superb mystery illuminates the shadow life of one of the greatest names in poetry.
Stephanie: Hello, Bob! Thank you for chatting with me today. Please tell me what compelled you to write this story?
Bob: Thank you, Stephanie, for having me on your blog. Your first question throws me into a time-warp. I have to go back to when I was seventeen – which was in 1970 – and discovered the poem anthology “The Flowers of Evil” of the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Never before had I read such intense, dark and morose poetry in a language that almost seemed magic with its rhythm that made me dream of becoming a poet. Fate has decided otherwise: I’m an epic writer by nature and my poetic talent is too small. Many times I tried but I wouldn’t dare publish one verse. But then: I dare to publish “cross-over” novels between literature and the crime novel that are very provocative and shocking, but never cheap. And already at the tender age of seventeen, something in me said: “Once upon a time you’ll write a novel about this Baudelaire and his tormented soul, you’ll seek the seeds of “The Flowers of Evil.” Once upon a time…37 years later the fairy tale became true: I published “Baudelaire’s Revenge” which won me the Hercule Poirot Prize for best suspense novel of the year 2007 in Belgium, and now the novel is translated into French, English and Russian and an Italian translation is in the making.
Stephanie: I have yet to read your story but I can imagine there are some pretty dark and gruesome scenes. What was the hardest scene for you to write?
Bob: On the whole, “Baudelaire’s Revenge” was difficult to write and many times I tried to resist the story because I was afraid of what readers would think about me. But something, a force, urged me on. I truly wanted that the novel mirrored the seeds of “The Flowers of Evil”. So there were a lot of harsh scenes to write. Don’t forget, the novel is set in different times then today. Morals and ethics weren’t the same as now. Moreover, it was a time of war – Prussia and France waged battle – and we all know that in wartimes the most atrocious things can happen. All this said, the hardest scene to write was when Baudelaire makes love to his own daughter in a brothel without knowing that she is his daughter. Immoral blood ties is one of his themes in his poems, but veiled in strange and yet alluring metaphors, so it was a theme I had to explore. Before you throw me out , let me say this: it wasn’t a scene I conjured out of nothing or as a pervert way of shocking readers. It’s well researched and carries great symbolic value in the novel. First, many men in that time didn’t know their own offspring. Condoms existed but were very cumbersome and dulling and almost no man, in spite of the threat of syphilis, the AIDS of the nineteenth century, used them. (Moreover, many physicians of that time thought syphilis wasn’t contracted, but hereditary). As a Second, the scene is not sexual, on the contrary, it’s a sad and bleak account of a man, an artist, who wanted to overstep “all borders of civilization” and be “totally free without the burden of conscience or law”, but perishes as a broken man without hope. Baudelaire and his allies, all artists who considered themselves geniuses, tried to be ecstatic about “forbidden desires” but in fact they were only hiding their despair and loss of their Self through the use of opium, laudanum and absinth, “the green faerie”, underneath eloquent theatrical words and gestures. What Baudelaire and his daughter have in that brothel is not sex – it is the culmination of the lust for destruction of an artist whose debauchery has at that moment left him with syphilis at the last stage, causing delirium, delusions and the sinking of the brain in a fantasy-world full of demons and twisted emotions. You know, it is said that the great French writer Victor Hugo wrote a scene with the same background (father and daughter having sex without knowing it from each other) for his classic novel “Les Misérables” but that he shied away at the last moment when the novel was about to be published. I almost did too.
Stephanie: Please tell me about the research that went into this book.
Bob: Lots and lots and lots of it. I’ve always been a great admirer of the classic French and Russian writers of the nineteenth century and I still consider Flaubert as one of the greatest stylists ever. So it was not that I began the novel as a “novice”, but rather as someone who had already read a lot about the period around 1870. Nevertheless, when I actually started writing “Baudelaire’s Revenge” the need for numerous details – details shape ambiance in a novel – prompted me to read and research a lot more than I thought would be necessary. I have published more than 30 books in The Netherlands and Belgium but “Baudelaire’s Revenge” was one of the hardest to write. But all the way through, painstakingly searching for small but telling details and being in doubt if I would succeed in pulling it all through, it remained a fascinating experience. But…I wouldn’t do it every year, it exhausted me, and now, being 7 years older, I don’t know if I could muster the energy again.
Stephanie: What do you find most fascinating about the period this story takes place in?
Bob: Due to my background – I was a travelling writer in mostly conflict-ridden countries during the nineties – I tend, as a novelist, to focus on social upheaval, war and social injustice. It’s 1870. Napoleon III, the “puppet emperor”, leads France into a disastrous war with Prussia. The Prussian troops are already surrounding Paris. Famine, chaos and upheaval of the working classes are the result. Armed French civilians create a guerilla force, the so called franc-tireurs, civil society frays at the seams, rumors have it that in the poorest quarters the workers are eating their own dead. The socialist Paris Commune, a revolutionary “government”, which later on would influence the thoughts of Karl Marx, was in the making. The chasm between nobility and the working class had become so outrageous that violent revolt was inevitable. Please note that “Baudelaire’s Revenge” holds a warning for present-day times. Everywhere, we see the gap between rich and poor growing. It would be an illusion to think that this injustice won’t lead, sooner or later, to intense strains between the social classes. In this fashion, it’s also a “modern novel”. One of the themes is indeed “modernity”. Individualism began to change the society, arts and science took the place of religion and there was a great thirst for the exotic, the “unusual”.
Stephanie: Tell me about Commissioner Lefevre. And what drives him to investigate the sinister side of human nature.
Bob: Nowadays, Commissioner Lefèvre, a veteran from the Franco-Algerian war of 1847, would be considered as suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). The atrocities he has committed during that war still haunt him all those years. His war-experiences have had a huge influence on his view of life and humanity. A man of innate violence, but also of a poetic longing for beauty and serenity, he nurses a death-wish while at the same time his longing for “cheap women” betrays his lust for life. A contradictory man, difficult to understand, also for himself, with compassion hidden under his rude behavior and carrying a predisposition for melancholy. The sinister side of human nature fascinates him because he senses it in himself and he wants to unravel the why and the how. Being a lover of poetry, but especially of the sinister verses of Baudelaire’s “Flowers of Evil”, he relentlessly chases a killer who uses verses of Baudelaire, deceased three years before the novel starts, as a signature for his gruesome murders.
Stephanie: Who is Charles Baudelaire exactly?
Bob: Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) is one of the greatest French poets ever. He led a dramatic and twisted life with growing sadomasochistic overtones, due to syphilis, during his later years. “Les Fleurs du Mal” (The Flowers of Evil), his most famous collection of poems influenced generations of poets and writers. He was also an essayist who wrote compellingly about the obligation of art to comment on “modernity”, the ephemeral experience of life in a fast-changing society. To this day, “Les Fleurs du Mal” remain a standard for poetic genius.
Stephanie: What was your writing process for this story and who long did it take you to write it?
Bob: Recently, while giving another interview, I learned a new word: pantser. I’m truly a writer “by the seat of my pants”. I’m not a plotter, I don’t do story-boards, I let the story carry me away, sometimes against my own will. I also don’t have fixed hours for writing. I’ve been a professional author for 22 years now in Belgium and I always wrote when the Muse urged me. It took me one year and a half of hard work before I completed “Baudelaire’s Revenge”.
Stephanie: What do you like most about writing historical crime?
Bob: You know, I’m not a historical crime writer pur sang. And also not a pure crime writer too. I have the tendency to mix genres and to alternate literary novels with a thriller touch with thrillers with a literary touch. I also alternate present-day novels (or set in the immediate past like the eighties or the nineties) with historical fiction. My interest is vast, I’m a very curious guy. Growing older, it seems to me that the amount of historical fiction in my oeuvre is growing. I’m currently writing “The Shadow of the Mole”, a novel set in 1916 in the Argonne-region of France, but also in 1895 and other time-frames, in Vienna and Paris. What I like about historical fiction is that we learned the great outlines of history in school but are mostly unaware of the nuances of life in past times. Historical fiction can recreate them in the guise of a “thrilling” novel. Don’t forget: its history that ultimately shapes us.
Stephanie: Is this your first published novel?
Ehh…No…It was my…I lost count….Let’s see, if my counting abilities are still sound, I think it was the 27th or 28th. They say I’m a prolific writer but don’t forget that writing is my fulltime job. I don’t have anything else to do except tending for our four horses, my darlings, my Princesses, noble beings of whom we can learn a lot if we just open our eyes and consider them not as “mopeds with feet” but as creatures whose intelligence is different from ours but definitely there. I love them with all my heart.
Stephanie: What advice could you give to an aspiring author who wants to write in this genre?
First, there has to be curiosity. Curiosity killed the cat, but it will hugely help when writing historical crime fiction. Secondly, there has to be the talent and patience for researching. Not everyone has that. And thirdly, you have to possess a devious mind and a nose of seeking out sin, betrayal, vileness, and yet also for that elusive, dangerous but exhilarating emotion love. And then…You have to write, write, write, and write (X 1000)….
Thank you, Bob! It was a pleasure chatting with you.
Bob: Thank you, Stephanie, likewise….
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About the Author
Bob Van Laerhoven became a full-time author in 1991 and has written more than thirty books in Holland and Belgium. The context of his stories isn’t invented behind his desk, rather it is rooted in personal experience. As a freelance travel writer, for example, he explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from the early 1990s to 2005. Echoes of his experiences on the road also trickle through in his novels. Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar… to name but a few.
During the Bosnian war, Van Laerhoven spent part of 1992 in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Three years later he was working for MSF – Doctors without frontiers – in the Bosnian city of Tuzla during the NATO bombings. At that moment the refugees arrived from the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. Van Laerhoven was the first writer from the Low Countries to be given the chance to speak to the refugees. His conversations resulted in a travel book: Srebrenica. Getuigen van massamoord – Srebrenica. Testimony to a Mass Murder. The book denounces the rape and torture of the Muslim population of this Bosnian-Serbian enclave and is based on first-hand testimonies. He also concludes that mass murders took place, an idea that was questioned at the time but later proven accurate.
All these experiences contribute to Bob Van Laerhoven’s rich and commendable oeuvre, an oeuvre that typifies him as the versatile author of novels, travel stories, books for young adults, theatre pieces, biographies, poetry, non-fiction, letters, columns, articles… He is also a prize-winning author: in 2007 he won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best thriller of the year with his novel De Wraak van Baudelaire – Baudelaire’s Revenge.
Virtual Book Tour Schedule
Monday, June 9 Review at Book Nerd
Tuesday, June 10 Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Thursday, June 12 Review & Giveaway at Words & Peace
Monday, June 16 Review at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Tuesday, June 17 Interview at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Wednesday, June 18 Guest Post & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection
Friday, June 20 Interview & Giveaway at A Bookish Girl
Tuesday, June 24 Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, June 25 Review & Giveaway at 100 Pages a Day
Friday, June 27 Review at A Bibliotaph’s Reviews
Monday, June 30 Review at Reading the Past
Tuesday, July 1 Review & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair