The Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Most people would recognize the movie “The Ninth Gate”, which starred Johnny Depp and featured Roman Polanski in the director's chair, before associating it with the original book, “The Club Dumas”. Readers familiar only with the movie will find a number of important divergences between book and film. The film keeps the opening act of the book but ditches everything else, including the plot line that gives the book its title. Viewed through the prism of the book, the film comes across as lightweight and confusing because it ignores or leaves behind some of the more interesting material, scenes, and character connections. By the same token, critics and readers alike seem to have trouble with “The Club Dumas” due to its complex inter-textual nature, weaving books and the love of books through several separate and distinct strands that come together only in the end without ever quite connecting. The two most prominent strands seems to puzzle readers because of how they contrast: the hiring of Lucas Corso by Varo Borja to recover a rare book called “The Book of the Nine Doors” which supposedly allows the reader to summon the devil, and the acquisition by Corso of the original manuscript for a chapter from “The Three Musketeers”. Each strand drives the story but it's not always clear how or why and many readers (and critics!) seem to prefer the first strand to the second, considering the Dumas strand unnecessary and distracting when in fact it may be essential to the plot. Stir in some lengthy – if fascinating to a bibliophile – meta discussions about books, authors, and great novels (which presumes more than a nodding acquaintance of Dumas, Melville, and Sabatini), garnish with a dash of the supernatural, and the result is a real love or hate it affair for many readers.
The book opens with Lucas Corso, a ruthless hunter of rare books, asking Boris Balkan, a noted expert about Dumas, for an appraisal of a manuscript, the handwritten copy of “The Anjou Wine” chapter from “The Three Musketeers”, he wants to sell. Balkan suggests the manuscript is genuine. Afterwards, Corso meets Flavio La Ponte, the owner of the manuscript, who bought it from the publisher Taillefer four days before his suicide. The conversation leaves Corso worried over the provenance of the manuscript and he decides to see Taillefer's widow, Liana. When leaving after his interview with Liana, Corso glimpses a man with a scar driving a Jaguar, whom Corso finds familiar. The second strand appears when Varo Borja commissions Corso to use any means necessary to acquire the remaining copies of the rare book called “The Book of the Nine Doors”, said to contain a formula for summoning the devil. Borja gives Corso his copy of the book and orders him to compare the other copies to the one in his hand. Before Corso can leave for Lisbon, Liana reappears and tries to seduce him to gain the Dumas manuscript, but fails in a scene explicitly compared to Milady's seduction of d'Artagnan in “The Three Musketeers”.
In Lisbon, Corso crosses paths with a mysterious young girl with green eyes and with the eccentric book collector named Fargas who has the first copy. Close comparison of the two books reveals subtle differences in the illustrations. That night, Corso gets a call from the girl, who tells him Fargas is dead. They go to his house and find that someone burned his copy of “The Nine Doors” and drowned Fargas in his fountain. The man with the scar, whom Corso takes to calling “Rochefort” after the villain from “The Three Musketeers”, reappears. Corso and the girl, who calls herself Irene Adler after the Sherlock Holmes character, takes the train to Paris. Irene drops hints that she might be a fallen angel. Corso examines the third book and compiles a table of the differences. Irene warns Corso that Rochefort had followed them to Paris. Later, she saves Corso when Rochefort attacks him, trying to gain the Dumas manuscript. They find La Ponte in Paris. Liana Taillefer had seduced him to gain access to the Dumas manuscript. They also discover that the owner of the third copy of “The Nine Doors” had died in a fire in her library. Realizing how things paralleled “The Three Musketeers”, Corso guesses Liana, imitating Milady, had escaped to Meung as in the book. After another encounter with Rochefort, Corso is invited to meet the parallel to Richelieu at the same castle mentioned in the book. Boris Balkan explains that Corso had stumbled into a club that re-enacted scenes and characters from “The Three Musketeers” and that the manuscript was a vital calling card and relic of the society. It had all been a game. This is the point where many readers threw up their hands once it became clear that the Dumas strand was utterly unrelated to the “Nine Doors” plot. This is lampshaded when Corso notes how Irene, now implied to be the devil herself, had been completely uninterested in the Dumas mystery because it had nothing to do with solving the riddle of the “Nine Doors”.
Realizing the Club Dumas weren't involved with the mysteries surrounding the “Nine Doors”, Corso returns to Spain to see Varo Borja, the true villain who had murdered the other owners of the books. Corso demands his money. Borja ignores him as he destroys all copies of the book in an arcane ritual that seemingly goes awry. As Corso leaves, he hears Borja's insane cry of despair and assumes one of the illustrations had been faked by the forgers he visited earlier in the book, although I am not fully convinced because it doesn't explain why he crossed paths with Irene or why she chose to involve herself in his quest.
The true fun of the book is the prose, the countless allusions and associations to books, authors, and stories, and the way it plays with so many tropes, albeit in a refined, almost metaphysical manner. It's best to think of the novel not as a detective story but as a 19th century quest novel cohabiting with the ghost of an 18th century philosophical allegory, a genre difficult to describe to modern audiences since few mainstream authors attempt anything like it anymore. Indeed, the last didn't occur to me until I sat down to write this review and I read some portions again. Like much else in “The Club Dumas”, one could argue against such a description as easily as for it. The book seems to delight to thwarting expectations, refusing to fit into any standard genre or category. It deliberately cuts across and embraces so many different genres the effect is kaleidoscopic.
Although some reviewers and readers dinged the book for flat characters, I disagree. Corso is a fine anti-hero protagonist, a scoundrel with a few remaining vestiges of decency left, though he would never know or believe it. Irene nearly steals the entire book when she is allowed the rare paragraph talking about her past after her fall from grace. Like many readers, I wished the supernatural had been more prevalent rather than a faint touch, surprisingly understated and elusive, which is the reason I suspect the movie junked the last half of the book in favor of a more pronounced occult element. Most of the secondary characters are well-drawn with only Rochefort not pulling his weight. The only real jarring note, the one thing that came closest to ruining the book for me, are the two instances where Balkan drops in as a first person narrator, implying that the rest of the book is his construction based upon Corso's later recollections, throwing into doubt how much and how far the reader could trust what is on the page. In one cute allusion too many, Balkan even foreshadows his own role by referencing Agatha Christie's “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. It's the overly cutesy cleverness that reviewers cite as a weakness, with good reason: Perez-Reverte does go a step or two too far in his intellectual games and it undercuts the story.
I also think the “hey look at how clever I am” aspect of the writing, combined with possible translation issues, may be the reason for confusion over the Dumas strand. The key point is the Latin quote cited from “The Nine Doors”: “only he who has fought according to the rules will prevail”, a quote emphasized at least twice. What gives the quote context is some of the untranslated Latin and Spanish in the text of the mythical book shown as illustrations. In short, what I pieced together was that the rules referred to a game. The person who attempted to solve “The Nine Doors” had to play a game “according to the rules”. This interpretation is based on subtle clues so hidden in the text I'm willing to bet I misunderstood, and I think Perez-Reverte confused the issue by being too clever for his own good, but if I'm right, then the entire Dumas strand makes perfect sense and also explains why Borja failed in his summoning. Borja cheated. He never played by the rules and never took part in the game. (One could make the same accusation about not playing by the rules against Perez-Reverte himself and find grounds to think so.) I may have my aunt and uncle, who are fluent in Spanish, read the book and double-check to see if I'm right about the translation on the handful of paragraphs in question, so I may do an update to this review some time in the future.
On the whole, I enjoyed the book. I liked it, seduced by its very quirkiness and eccentric, loopy ways. Erudite, with more style than substance, though overly fond of funhouse mirrors and Escher diagrams, “The Club Dumas” is good enough that I've read it three times. One reviewer described it as “a beach book for intellectuals” and that's a good way to put it. The book was never meant to be taken seriously and doesn't take itself seriously. It was meant to recall and emulate the spirit of the adventure serials it references so lovingly. The book is all about the journey and the fun. There's more than a hint of parody under the skin and that, too, is something easy to miss. In sum, “The Club Dumas” doesn't rank high among Perez-Reverte's work. To see him at his best, one should read “The Fencing Master” or “The Seville Communion”, which are far better novels, the ones that solidified his reputation as a master of the literary thriller. “The Club Dumas” is still a good thriller with a touch of the diabolical. It is worth reading, though it will not appeal to all tastes.