Earlier this year, I took a look at (and started) Eugène Sue’s mammoth novel, The Mysteries of Paris. The Mysteries of Paris ran, as a series, in the Journal des Débats from June 1842-October 1843. I’m still chugging my way through it, and it’s hard to review as there are spoilers galore in every chapter. Each main character has at least one other identity, and their convoluted histories cross back and forth. Every time you think you have a handle on the plot, Sue throws in more to confound us.
As a writer, Sue is shameless. He’ll throw mention of a character into the narrative in a seemingly minor way, but you can almost hear the thunderclaps of suspense overhead. One of the characters mentions a lost son who is wearing a Lapis Lazuli cross; we don’t have to wait long; it appears in the next chapter. One character seems vile, but he flips into a decent sort within the space of a few chapters. People pop up and disappear. Conversations are conveniently overheard. Coincidence occurs so often, you’d think there were only a few dozen people living in Paris. It’s clear that Sue is thinking on the fly. This isn’t plotted out in minute detail in advance.
This is not great literature–it’s too melodramatic for that, but it’s still great fun. Sue is one hell of a plotter. If he were alive today, I could see him writing for one of those really tacky, addictive thrilling TV series: say The Affair, or Dallas back in the day.
The book’s main character and hero is Rodolphe; he’s actually a Grand Duke of some German principality whose agenda is to travel through the gutters of Paris in disguise and save people from poverty and a life of crime. Rodolphe knows that many of the Parisians whose paths he crosses are mired in lives of poverty and crime for no fault of their own, and he also understands the difference between true evil and those who have to do what they do in order to survive. Hence he has no problem, for example, with Songbird, a young girl who’s enslaved in a life of prostitution, whereas he loathes the woman who abused Songbird: The Owl, a one-eyed hag whose secret weapon is a bottle of acid which she is prepared to throw on anyone who gets in her way.
Rodolphe even tolerates The Ogre: an innkeeper who whores out Songbird, and the message is that Rodolphe’s intolerance is for those who abuse and corrupt. This supposition comes true as we learn more of Rodolphe’s past.
I liked Rodolphe until he went all Old Testament on me. He’s a god-like figure dispensing bounty for those who deserve it and punishment for those who don’t. I’m still working on the book, so who knows what else Sue has in store.