Death in the Belle Époque: Barbara Corrado Pope’s Trilogy of Mysteries

Charles Sowerwine

University of Melbourne/LaTrobe University


Barbara Corrado Pope is doing in retirement what many of us dream of doing and what more of us should be doing: writing for a popular audience. She is producing historical crime novels set in late 19th-century France, the culture to which she has devoted her life. She has added to our store of enjoyable works that teach about life in that culture. With The Missing Italian Girl, just published, she has reached her third novel and has set the stage for more.

Like many detective novels, Pope’s have an investigator at their heart. He is Bernard Martin, a juge d’instruction (examining magistrate) and ardent republican. Like Clarie Falchetti, the woman who will become a professeur (no “e” at this time) and join her life to his, he has struggled to rise from a poorer background, indeed from Gambetta’s nouvelle couche sociale (not a term mentioned in the book but certainly applicable): his father was a clockmaker, hers a blacksmith. Bernard is an endearingly anguished soul, assuming with difficulty his elevated status. Clarie is a striking creation, introduced in the first novel as a cheeky, independent, determined and self-aware young woman. Indeed, she fits the label “new woman,” though this is not raised in the novels.

Although the publisher bills the novels as the “Bernard Martin mystery series,” the three works cross into other genres. What binds them is perhaps less the presence of Bernard, who is not even the protagonist of the third novel, than the largely successful attempt to present the big issues of the day.  P.D. James only began writing a book when she could envisage a striking scene which would provide a rich context. Pope starts each book with an historical moment which offers a context for exploring issues of class, gender and social justice.

cezannesquarryIn Cézanne’s Quarry—the title is a double entendre, referring both to the quarry near Aix-en-Provence that Paul Cézanne painted and also to the victim of the murder of which he is suspected in the novel—the moment is Cézanne’s decision in 1885 finally to marry the mother of his thirteen-year old son and to confront his father’s refusal to support him as a painter. The plot takes advantage of the real historical possibility that Cézanne had in that year a brief and intense love affair with a woman he met in Aix. It also takes advantage of the March 1885 publication of Emile Zola’s masterpiece Germinal in book form, following serialization. That allows Pope to introduce Zola at the height of his fame in a cameo role.

Bernard, at the very beginning of his career, finds himself confronted with a woman’s murder in which there are two obvious suspects, including the not yet famous painter (Cézanne became famous only after his first solo exhibition in 1895, when he was well into his fifties).

Here the issue is class and social justice, pointed up by the Cézanne family’s wealth and power. Bernard is acutely sensitive to such issues, a sensitivity intensified by a childhood friendship with the working-class boy Merckx, whose reappearance in the novel offers a chance to flesh out this back story and to intensify the pressures on Bernard. Gender issues are also introduced, though not too explicitly in the first novel, by the victim’s having been an independent woman and by Clarie’s determination to enter the École normale supérieure de jeunes filles at Sèvres and join the ranks of Third Republic women teachers.

Pope effectively evokes the heat and languor of a Provençal summer; as the case unfolds, Bernard struggles, physically as well as emotionally, to undertake the investigation on his own. The vile police inspector who is his only aid would prefer to beat a confession out of the first suspect, the dead woman’s lover, a fictional English “lecturer” seeking to reconcile Darwin and spirituality. Determined to find the real culprit, Bernard persists, taking on the Cézanne family and even getting help from Zola. Clarie plays a key role in helping him overcome his self doubt. Once she has helped him to act on his instincts, he discovers the truth.

The plot is occasionally slowed by the kind of didacticism that would tempt many of us historians: “The sight of the massive courthouse always made Martin’s heart sink a little. His friend Merckx surely would have pointed out how much the broad pretentious façade, with its eight oversized columns, resembled the entrance to the Bourse, the Paris Stock Exchange” (Cézanne’s Quarry, p 23). Such asides do make valid points and illuminate Bernard’s personality. And toward the end of the novel the pace picks up. The climax of Cézanne’s Quarry is positively gripping.

bloodlorraineIn The Blood of Lorraine, the historical moment is that of Dreyfus’ arrest in 1894 and the resulting wave of anti-Semitic hysteria. At the end of Cézanne’s Quarry, Bernard, realizing that “there was a chance that a girl like Clarie could really care about him” (p. 340), has decided to see her again, so we are not surprised that they are now married. They have shifted to Nancy, because, it is hinted, Bernard had offended the establishment in Aix with his handling of the case there. The couple have difficult social relations with Bernard’s colleagues in the magistrature: they are from comfortable backgrounds and enjoy independent incomes and they look down on the couple whose comparative poverty, lower-middle class origins and wife’s position as a paid employee put them at a social disadvantage.

Clarie is teaching at a girls’ lycée, but we learn little about her professional life. Bernard confronts an accusation of Jewish ritual child murder. The focus is on Bernard’s confrontation with anti-Semitism, an issue pointed up not only by accounts of the hysteria and by quotes from real anti-Semitic tracts and newspapers, but also by Bernard’s developing friendship with a Jewish colleague, an effective if slightly implausible driver of the plot. Again, Bernard persists, rejecting the facile anti-Semitic assumptions of his colleagues.

Bernard’s fervent republican spirit leads him to the truth through a confrontation with an all too plausible anti-Semitic bookstore owner. This is an example of the strengths of Pope’s approach. Bernard’s character naturally inclines him to justice and his republican rationalism naturally leads him to be sceptical of anti-Semitic beat ups. Pope offers us good insight into the anti-Semitic mind, which one might compare favourably to Ruth Harris’ recent study of the subject.[1] In this novel, Clarie plays a greater part, though she is still confined to the domestic sidelines, giving birth to a son, whose death plays a role in increasing Bernard’s characteristic anguish.

MissingItalianGirl_FINALIn The Missing Italian Girl, the historical moment is the fear of anarchists following the Hotel Terminus bombing of 1894, compounded by the hysteria unleashed by the Paris Charity Bazaar Fire of 1897, the year in which the novel is set. The death of their son has led Bernard and Clarie to leave Nancy and move to Paris. Bernard’s commitment to justice has led him to give up the magistracy in favour of practising as a lawyer. Clarie has managed to obtain a transfer to the Lycée Lamartine, then a recently opened (1893) school for girls. Now we do get significant and interesting glimpses of Clarie’s professional life as a teacher and Clarie plays a role in the main plot.

An Italian cleaner at the Lycée Lamartine asks Clarie’s help in finding her missing daughters. Clarie enlists the famous journalist Séverine (like Cézanne, a real character inserted into fiction),[2] who solves the mystery. Here the issues are anti-Italian sentiment, anarchism and political violence, reflecting the missing girls’ experiences in anarchist circles. Gender is also a major issue here, demonstrated by Séverine’s example as a truly independent woman, Clarie’s ambivalence about Séverine and her independent life, and Bernard’s sexism (as we would call it today) faced with Clarie’s determination to get justice for the Italian cleaner.

Clarie does not join Séverine and take an active role in the investigation; she “had no desire to get involved with anarchists, or the police. She simply wanted to enlist Bernard” (pp. 82-3). While this is a plausible stance for a woman at the time, it is at odds with the Clarie we know from the first novel. And Bernard’s contemptuous dismissal of the case and of Séverine seems at odds with his commitment to justice. Indeed, would he have married Clarie, a woman earning her own salary, if he so uncritically accepted the normative gender order of the day? The key scene goes as follows:

Bernard explains to Clarie that he will not dine at home in order to participate in what he calls the “mounting compaign to reopen the Dreyfus case.” Clarie wishes to bring up the case of the missing girls, about whom she’s fed information to Séverine:

              “‘Do you know anything about a woman reporter named Séverine?’

              “‘Séverine! She’s quite notorious. … She published a newspaper with an old anarchist Communard. She’s had more than one husband. Left her children with one of them. Then, she was caught with her lover—or so they say—in a public restroom. When there was a mining strike, she, a woman, went down into the mine to report “first-hand” on the conditions—’

              “‘But surely that’s a good thing,’ Clarie interrupted, ‘standing up for the workers.’

              “‘Yes, but a woman.’

              “‘Why not?’ Why not, indeed. Clarie was not about to defend Séverine’s relationships with her husbands or loves, although had she been a man….’” (pp. 192-3)

“Caught in a restroom?” Hardly the way a 19th-century French person would speak, but otherwise Bernard is repeating slanders circulating among the right (which were remarkably similar to those invoked against Simone de Beauvoir after publication of The Second Sex). While we don’t expect Bernard to be an emancipated 21st-century man, we do expect him to maintain the critical attitude and commitment to justice which have hitherto characterised him. Not only do both act differently from what we’d expect from their previous conduct, but also, frustratingly, Bernard’s refusal to take the case sidelines him as an investigator and leaves us without a hero at the core of the action.

Bernard takes a position as a lawyer for the Bourse du Travail, but rather than bring him into the action, this seems to keep him farther away. Clarie does become an effective decoy, but only unwittingly. For a lover of detective novels, it is disappointing not to have a central figure—or couple, as one hopes at the start of this novel—thinking and acting their way through the mystery. Séverine does solve the case, but such a dea ex machina cannot compensate for the loss of the protagonist sustaining an investigation through the course of the novel.

Perhaps it is not fair to judge these novels as mysteries. While the plots of the three books certainly involve classic mystery devices—obvious suspects, red herrings, false clues, and unexpected perpetrators—Pope clearly wants more than to be the Third Republic’s Fred Vargas;[3] she wants to present a broad view of French society through a fictional setting. These are mysteries, to be sure, but they also involve elements of the historical and domestic novel and indeed of the Bildungsroman through Bernard’s back story. Bernard’s personal struggles and fits of angst are a major aspect of Cézanne’s Quarry, while the domestic and social lives of Bernard and Clarie feature largely in The Blood of Lorraine and especially in The Missing Italian Girl.

This fictional couple certainly draws the reader’s interest. Combining a judge/lawyer and a woman trained at Sèvres, both from poor backgrounds and both committed republicans, offers Pope the scope to introduce many class and gender issues. This is certainly a highly enjoyable way for those interested in France and its social history to get insights. But again the tendency to earnest didacticism sometimes affects the dialogue, particularly amongst the workers. Would a Belle Époque carpenter, however militant, say to a lawyer (as Bernard now is), “Eh, maître, it will be such a victory when we finally have a living wage and the 8-hour day they were striking for at Fourmies” (The Missing Italian Girl, p. 27)? Even apart from didacticism, the workers’ dialogue can be stilted. Would a blacksmith, however good-natured, stop his apprentice’s pressures on a vulnerable girl by saying, “Léon, stop. Do you want to be as contemptible as those bourgeois bastards…” (p. 152)? The dialogue between Bernard and Clarie sits more comfortably on the ear, perhaps because they are such earnest bourgeois.

Pope has created a remarkable fictional world through which the reader gets real insight into everyday society and major social issues in an enjoyable framework of generally satisfying murder mysteries. There is some tension between these two aspects of the works. As the “Bernard Martin mystery series,” they would benefit from tauter plots more driven by the hero’s investigations. As broader domestic historical novels (if that’s a genre), they would benefit from a greater focus on Bernard and Clarie’s personal progress. This reader fell into both camps. I enjoyed them while wishing for more on both fronts. For me, Pope’s enterprise is broadly successful and I look forward to more.

A great deal happens between the novels and one hopes that Pope might write new volumes to fill in the gaps. At the end of Cézanne’s Quarry, Clarie and Bernard are attracted to each other, but she will soon be off to Sèvres. At the beginning of The Blood of Lorraine, Clarie is now a teacher, they are married, and both have obtained positions in Nancy. There is a potentially enjoyable story here about courtship in the nouvelle couche sociale and about life at Sèvres. The novels of Gabrielle Réval, beginning with Les Sevriennes (1901), offer a great source for this part of Clarie’s life. It would be good to know how the cheeky waitress and aspiring teacher of Cézanne’s Quarry becomes the sober, earnest, restrained wife and teacher of the subsequent novels. To fit a murder mystery around such a story would require a bit of imagination, but inspiration might be found in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, in which Harriet Vane calls in Lord Peter to investigate a possible murder at her alma mater, the fictional Shrewsbury College at Oxford.

Similarly, at the end of The Blood of Lorraine, Bernard is still a struggling juge d’instruction. How does he come to renounce his chosen career? Pope’s clever idea of having a detective in this role worked well in the first two novels and one regrets Bernard’s losing access to cases and police support. One would like to know more about this momentous decision, how the couple made it and implemented it. Going to Paris to live on Clarie’s salary while Bernard gains entry to the Bar and struggles to find clients is certainly a radical possibility for someone of Bernard’s less than advanced views on women’s roles; it would be enjoyable to see the couple struggling with this change and tangling with two classic Third Republic bureaucracies (justice and education). A murder mystery might help explain Bernard’s disillusionment with the justice system.

Whether or not she pursues these suggestions from one interested, indeed intrigued reader, Pope has laid the foundations for another novel. Bernard’s carefully delineated republican outlook and commitment to justice have been shown to good effect in The Blood of Lorraine. His friendship with a Jewish colleague continues after the move to Paris as they both confront the opening salvos of the Dreyfus Affair. Clarie too has confronted anti-Semitism among her colleagues at the Lycée Lamartine and has defended a Jewish student. So we can hope soon to read a fourth novel set at that greatest of historical moments, the Dreyfus Affair.

Barbara Corrado Pope, Cézanne’s Quarry (New York: Pegasus Books, 2008); The Blood of Lorraine (New York: Pegasus Books, 2010); The Missing Italian Girl (New York: Pegasus Books, 2013).

  1. Ruth Harris, The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France (London: Allen Lane, 2010); US title:  Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010). Cf my review, French History 25 (4, 2011): 515-520.
  2. Séverine was the nom de plume of Caroline Rémy (1855-1929), pioneering female author journalist sympathetic to social issues. Disciple and possibly lover of the Communard leader Jules Vallès, she followed him as editor of Le Cri du peuple, becoming the first woman to edit a daily newspaper. Close to anarchists and socialists but always independent, she was a major contributor to Marguerite Durand’s pioneering feminist daily La Fronde (1897-1903). She took a leading role among the Dreyfusards and was a founder of the Ligue des droits de l’homme.
  3. Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of French archaeologist and medieval epidemiologist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, author of the Adamsberg mysteries, superbly translated into English by Sîan Reynolds.




Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,