|Ann Benson: Thief of Souls|
(Paperback), ISBN 0-440-23629-0.
This long book (623 pages) offers the reader two novels in one. In the first, set in 15th-century France, the widow, now abbess, Guillemette compiles and correlates the many rumors circulating throughout the countryside about one of France's great heroes, Gilles de Rais, who fought alongside Joan of Arc. Rumor contends de Rais is a serial sex killer of young boys.
Long ago, Guillemette served as Gilles's wet nurse, which both spurs and complicates her quest to find the truth. To make matters worse, the young Gilles befriended Guillemette's younger son, Michel, who disappeared one day. According to Gilles, the only witness to the tragedy, a wild boar gored Michel and carried him off, but no one else saw the boar.
Now Gilles relies on his power and status to protect him from the consequences -- even the suspicion -- of his crimes. However, with the support of prelate-politician Jean de Malestroit, Guillemette uncovers the revolting truth about the man whom, in a way, she still loves. Nevertheless, Guillemette vindictively pursues Gilles through trial and punishment, because the death of Michel still haunts her.
The second novel, told in alternate chapters, has parallels.
In modern Los Angeles, cop Lany Dunbar uses good detective work to ascertain fairly swiftly that renowned movie special-effects man Wilbur Durand is the psychopathic killer of a series of adolescent boys. Like the Gilles de Rais portrayed by Benson, older relatives sexually abused the young Durand, making it easy to understand the origins of his psychopathy. Pinning Durand down and bringing him to justice, however, prove more difficult than Lany or the reader might expect. The shields of our modern U.S. hierarchy -- notably money and prestige -- protect Durand as much as rank and privilege protected Gilles. And soon Durand threatens Lany's own son, making the matter even more personal…
Of the two slightly related novels, the historical one ranks as the more successful. Medieval France was a barbaric place to be, and Benson captures the ambience with a somewhat plodding skill, drawing us into the mores of that society. In particular, she manages well the matter of cultural relativism. For example, we can recognize Jean de Malestroit as an intelligent and sensitive man even though, in accordance with his era, he evidences no qualms about calling in the torturers of the Inquisition to facilitate the gathering of evidence. Likewise, Guillemette's bloodthirsty desire for vengeance -- she grieves when the court decrees Gilles will be hanged before burning, rather than suffer the agonies of being burned alive -- seems well in keeping with her time.
The mechanical alternation of chapters between the two tales -- if it's an odd-numbered chapter we must be in medieval France -- does little to help the modern-day story. More importantly, unlike the historical tale, the modern story doesn't seem capable of standing on its own merits as a solo novel.
Benson employs her present-day detective techniques quite cleverly. But the actual detection takes very little time, and the remaining narrative strikes this reviewer as somewhat formulaic. Perhaps in an attempt to underscore the loose parallels between the two tales, or perhaps just to emphasize the notion that defensive mothers nurture a spitefulness that transcends the passage of centuries, Lany, apparently with auctorial approval, coldly arranges for the torture murder of Durand in prison. Lany does this even though she accepts the notion that Durand killed because of mental illness. Torture murder as a fitting response to the sick? This leaves the readers with a sense of revulsion, not resolution.
Thief of Souls isn't a stinker -- you don't have to look far to find worse novels. But because it promises so much, it proved to be one of the most disappointing books I've read in a long while.
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