First published in English in 1996, translated from the Spanish by Sonia Soto, The Dumas Club is Arturo Perez-Reverte’s third novel. Though narrated by Boris Balkan, Madrilenian editor, writer and Alexandre Dumas obsessive, its protagonist is one Lucas Corso, a ‘mercenary of the book world’ who approaches Balkan to verify the authenticity of a supposed Dumas manuscript. Finding himself subsequently dispatched by a different client to seek out a rare book on demonology he’s soon caught up in a bizarre trail of events bearing striking similarities to the story of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, much to Corso’s scorn.
Corso is an interesting character, deliberately written as a sort of strange antihero who’s not particularly likeable, deeply disreputable, but somehow just interesting enough to not be entirely irredeemable. Judged on his behaviour towards the supporting cast it’s hard to get fully behind him though – from the grieving widow of a suicidal publisher to the one genuine friend he seems to have, he’s perfectly willing to put himself and his own gain before others. That ruthlessness serves him well as the story progresses, and perhaps helps insulate the reader from some of the (at times quite awful) events that happen during the book.
Plot-wise things start off well as you’re drawn into the dual mysterious of the Dumas manuscript and the demonic The Nine Doors that Corso is investigating, but things get muddier as the book progresses and the two strands blur together – in Corso’s mind but also for the reader. Without giving anything away, by the end there’s a sense that Perez-Reverte was being rather too clever for his own good, and the book would have been better if it had been simpler. There’s a definite air of the author trying to be clever throughout, from extended literary references (in keeping with the characters but not that fun to read) to a strange semi-fantastical plot element that jars tonally with the rest of the book. As for Balkan’s narration – it’s an interesting idea, but falls a bit flat in the end.
This wants to be the clever person’s Da Vinci Code – a arts-influenced thriller – but while it’s considerably better written from a purely prose perspective, it doesn’t have the pace or excitement of any of that sort of page-turner. Overall though it’s a perfectly enjoyable read, and Perez-Reverte shows himself to be capable of some lovely descriptive writing and clever storytelling – it’s just a shame that it doesn’t quite hang together as a whole. In tying things so tightly to Dumas he’s only highlighting that this book just isn’t as fun as The Three Musketeers, and could perhaps have benefited from a bit more simple swashbuckling fun and a bit less trying-to-be-clever metatextual nonsense.