Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Christopher Moore has taken us on long journeys through the strange and surreal realms of his particular brand of comedy, and in Sacre Bleu he gives the plot a historical twist. The story follows Lucien Lessard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who find themselves fascinated by the strange demise of their friend, Vincent van Gogh. They embark on a wild investigation promising to take them into the irreverent heart of 19th-century Paris and its unforgettable art scene.
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Christopher Moore Raises the Vincent Van Gogh Conundrum
Artists who practice their craft for the sheer love of it – whether they be writers, painters, photographers or sculptors – are an increasingly rare breed of people, with more and more of the average person’s actions being driven by personal material gains. In Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore we’re taken back a few decades to a time when art was practiced by true artists, a time when Vincent van Gogh’s untimely and strange demise went largely unnoticed, the unsuccessful madman that he was.
In July of 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, the unsuccessful artist destined to achieve fame only posthumously went out into a cornfield, shot himself in the chest with a pistol, sought out a doctor’s help, and died two days later in the company of his brother Theo. Ironically enough, the event brought him and his paintings more fame than he could have hoped for in his lifetime.
Christopher Moore‘s story introduces us to two friends of Vincent’s, a baker-turned-painter Lucien Lessard, and Henri-Toulouse Lautrec, a painter with a tragic story in his own right, with an affinity for brothels and booze. They don’t believe the story about their friend’s suicide makes a whole lot of sense, and they vow to uncover the truth behind the event, whatever it might entail.
The quest they embark on forces them to become better-acquainted with Van Gogh’s personal life, his inner world, and the final days of his difficult existence on Earth. Among many other things, they try to determine the identity of the so-called “colour man” Vincent claimed was stalking him across France, and his strange obsession with a very particular shade of blue.
The further they march on their adventure, the more the events surrounding them take on a surreal quality, plunging them deep into the art scene of late nineteenth-century Paris, as well as the many houses of ill repute which seemed to line its streets. In the end, the truth our protagonists lay their hands on promises to be a whole lot stranger than any fiction they or their dead friend might have been able to come up with.
I love you, Lucien, but I am a muse, you are an artist, I am not here to make you comfortable.― Christopher Moore, Sacre Bleu
Landing on an Impressionist Backdrop in Sacre Bleu
The topic of art is one of those which can’t really be plugged into any work of literature without careful forethought and consideration. It’s always apparent when a authors inserts famous artists or their paintings into their plots without a real passion for the subject, hoping to add an easy element of excitement or mystery to carry the story along.
There aren’t many authors who are capable of treating art with the due research and diligence it requires, to truly make it a central element of the story. Christopher Moore is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the few true exceptions to this trend, and in Sacre Bleu he puts his love for impressionist paintings on full display.
The story opens with the murder of Van Gogh (indeed, it is presented as murder rather than suicide), transporting us smack-dab into the era of bohemian art, grasped by a strong wave of Impressionist art. Moore takes his time to ease us into this world which seamlessly mixes historical facts and the author’s rather unique type of fiction. However, he does leave some things for us to discover over the course of the story, rather than outright expose them from the very start.
In other words, I found my journey through the strange and increasingly surreal world created by the author to have been an adventure in and of itself, never knowing what to expect in a setting which blends fact and fiction so well. Though the time and place the story takes in is certainly recognizable and largely based on reality, Christopher Moore has succeeded in making it feel different enough to appear unfamiliar.
Painter-Detectives on the Loose
While there are plenty of reasons to be infatuated with the setting chosen for the mystery and the way in which it was developed, the plot itself is, in my opinion, no less remarkable. Christopher Moore has been known to write complicated plots with plenty of threads, as in Shakespeare for Squirrels and Noir for example, a style which he employs here once again.
Our two protagonists in Sacre Bleu have plenty of threads and clues to follow, always looking for answers to numerous questions which keep them up at night. The author did a truly commendable job of drumming up the mystery factor of Van Gogh’s death, so much that it felt to me as if he was painting himself into a bit of a corner with all the unexplained factors he brought into play. Thankfully, the ending assuaged my worries as Moore was able to wrap it all up neatly, as he tends to.
I especially loved how a particular shade of blue became the central linchpin of the mystery; from a seemingly small and innocuous detail Moore was able to spin a veritable enigma which served as one of the main factors driving the story forward.
Our protagonists in Sacre Bleu are also given their deserved share of characterization, with Lucien and his family being described in as much detail as any of the real historical personalities populating the rest of the novel. A good change of pace for the anti-heroes which seem to be so popular these days, Lucien was about as likeable as any main character has the right to be.
As for Henri-Toulouse Lautrec, who was a real person with a well-known biography, Moore does take some liberties in the way he chooses to portray the man. While I’m personally not too well-acquainted with his story, I think the author probably did him a good service, portraying him as a comical and fascinating man with plenty of wisdom to share with the world, even if some of it has to do with syphilis.
|432||William Morrow Paperbacks||Oct. 9 2012||978-0061779756|
The Final Verdict
Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore is an invaluable addition to the genre of art & literature, one of the few novels combining a complex an solid mystery with an evocative depiction of the Impressionist period and its main contributors. If you’re looking for a humorous novel in the art world and are keen on the idea of a mystery revolving around Vincent Van Gogh’s fictional murder, then you absolutely cannot go wrong with this book.
It was sometimes difficult to reconcile a man’s talents with his personality.― Christopher Moore, Sacre Bleu
Christopher Moore is an American writer who primarily specializes in comedic fantasy novels. He has written numerous series such as The Pine Cove Books (Practical Demonkeeping; The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove), Vampires in San Francisco (Bloodsucking Fiends; You Suck) and the Death Merchant Chronicles (A Dirty Job; Secondhand Souls).
Among his awards are the 2005 Quill Award for Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror, the 2006 Quill Award for General Fiction, and the 2010 Goodreads Choice Awards Best Humour.