REVIEW: The Rhetoric of Death by Judith Rock
Dear Ms. Rock,
I enjoy a good historical mystery and with a cover quote from Ariana Franklin, I knew I had to try your novel “The Rhetoric of Death.” It also didn’t hurt that it has a most unusual setting of late 17th century France and a hero who is on the path to becoming a Jesuit priest.
Charles de Luc arrives in Paris courtesy of his cousin the Bishop of Marseilles who is desperately trying to cover up Charles’ attempt to save another relative, and Huguenot, Pernelle with whom Charles had once been in love. Figuring that removing Charles from the scene of the “crime” would help keep the treasonous act from coming to light, the Bishop twisted arms and called in favors to get Charles assigned to the prestigious college of Louis le Grand as a teacher of rhetoric and assistant dance director for the plays and ballets the students present.
Happy with his new position, Charles throws himself into his duties. But when one student disappears, only to be found dead days later, another appears to be the target of a killer, and Pernelle appears in his life again, Charles is pulled into a web of conspiracy, scandal and murder which could cost him his vocation and possibly his life.
I will be honest and say that the book takes a while to kick into gear for me. There is a lot of information to process about the religious and political setting in addition to setting the stage for your characters. It took until the discovery of the first death for things to “click” for me but from that point on, I was hooked.
Yet despite the mental effort I needed to expend to get my bearings with this setting, I admire your choice. It truly was a momentous and pivotal time in not only the history of France but also of western Europe. And to make your hero an almost Jesuit with Huguenot relatives sets him right in the middle of the still roiling religious wars of the century. Charles is intelligent, compassionate, deeply religious yet still sometimes confounded by his vow of obedience – something he acknowledges and with which he struggles. He’s also new to Paris and through his eyes you can present the city to the reader and avoid a great deal of awkward info dumping.
The story picks up steam once Charles’s investigations begin but there are a few instances of obvious Clue Planting to go along with some of more subtle hinting at important information. Then comes the scene which is like being dumped over the head with cold water as characters spell out in exquisite detail a lot of details of the plot all in one neat and tidy conversation. Investigators probably only dream of hearing such a cornucopia of ‘whodunnit’ and ‘what was done’ while they pursue a case and Charles has it handed to him on a platter. This is later followed by the villain Triumphantly Telling All while conveniently being overheard by the powers that be in the story. It all serves to take away from the delicious detailed earlier sections of the book and appears clumsy.
But despite my disappointment with how the mystery is cleared up and the villains fingered, I find the book is still well worth reading. The opening of a window into this fascinating era has already set me researching things both new to me and others that I know a little about but needed a refresher on. I also enjoyed a book set in the age of the Sun King but in which he never appears – though his power hovers over all. Instead, the Jesuits and the common people of Paris figure most strongly in the story and give a different view of the times.
I’m glad to read that Charles and his Paris will be back later this year in another novel. I hope that it will feature some of the other characters introduced here and continue the illumination of Charles and his struggles to find his place and way in his world. B-
This book is published by an Agency publisher meaning that the publisher sets the digital book price and there are no discounts.