“Police Agent Alain Duval is tasked with finding the crown but time is very short and his suspects many. Present when the crown disappeared are Napoleon’s sisters, Princess Elisa, Princess Pauline and Princess Caroline. Are they involved or merely witnesses? Aided by his wife Eugenie and his friends Lefebvre and Fournier, Duval sets out to unravel the mystery.”
Ever since I was a teenager I’ve had a soft spot for the Napoleonic Period. Napoleon’s story has always fascinated me; the rise of an obscure Corsican to become the most powerful man in France (a novelist just couldn’t make it up!). So when the chance came to review a novel of the period I jumped at it.Duval and the Empress’s Crown is not the longest book you’ll ever read. At just shy of 100 pages, it’s short and sweet. But it is a little gem.
From the first words you are drawn into the world of Imperial Paris, still recovering from the petrifying post-Revolutionary Terror, but looking forward to the pomp and pageantry that accompanies an Empire.
And into this world are thrown 3 friends: Duval the former soldier, Fournier the career policeman and Lefebvre the reformed thief. They work for Napoleon’s feared Chief of Police, Fouquet. With just days until the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, the Empress’s crown is stolen from the jeweler tasked with creating it. Duval and his friends are given the unenviable task of finding it – in time for the coronation.
It’s a race against time…
To make matters worse, it soon becomes evident that the prime suspects are the Emperor’s own sisters; the Princesses Elisa, Pauline and Caroline. Duval has to be both determined and diplomatic in order to recover the crown in time for the coronation, just days away. With the Terror still only a recent memory, Duval has to tread very carefully, or he could end up not only with a ruined career, but facing the guillotine!
Duval and the Empress’s Crown is a great detective novel, full of adventure, intrigue and royal scandal. The story takes you through the investigative process in great detail, while giving you the human side of the lead characters. The three policemen enjoy a wonderful relationship, and the book is at its best during the scenes when they are together. Their banter seems natural and easy and makes the reader smile:
[Duval] “What about my lame leg?”
[Lefebvre] “What about it? You ran at such a high speed when Monsieur Duclos was firing his pistols at you, I couldn’t catch you up, lame leg and all”
[Duval] “Just as well he was such a bad shot….”
You are also treated to glimpses of the glamour and power of the French Empire by visiting the salons of the Emperor’s sisters, as Duval tries to unravel the mystery of the crown’s disappearance. He has to tread carefully with the wily Elisa and pregnant Caroline. And then there is the Emperor’s over-familiar sister, Pauline:
“Let us be comfortable while you tell me what my brother wants of me”
Although this is the fifth book in a series, it really doesn’t matter. It is eminently readable as a standalone, with only vague references to the previous novels in the series – ensuring you don’t feel like you are missing anything. The author has done a wonderful job of taking the reader on a journey through post-Revolutionary Paris. You can still feel the long shadow of the guillotine, while being treated to a glimpse of the splendour and elitism of the emerging Imperial court, where careers are made and ruined by the whim of one man…
Duval and the Empress’s Crown is a wonderful, easy, light read. The plot is not over-complicated but flows smoothly and swiftly to its conclusion. Whilst it could benefit from deeper descriptions of locations and events the characters are well-developed, amusing and capable of eliciting a range of emotions from the reader.
It’s a wonderful novel for a lazy day in the sun. A highly enjoyable read.
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Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington is attributed with saying that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton (although he didn’t actually say it); however, the training ground for many of the officers who commanded at Waterloo was a much more hazardous school – and certainly had nothing to do with cricket.
2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The final battle in the Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo was the culmination of over 20 years of fighting. Wellington’s officers had earned their experience and reputation in Portugal and Spain, in the Peninsular War of 1807-1814, Napoleon Bonaparte’s ‘Spanish ulcer’.
Having risen through the ranks via the army system of purchase – where rank went to those who could buy it, rather than on merit – he was a colonel by the age of 27 and a major-general at 34. Many officers in the British army advanced this way and, although the system was flawed, it did give us the greatest British general of all time.
Practical and meticulous to detail in the day-to-day army administration, Wellington was determined his officers would train their men so they could beat any force they opposed.
He was a master of the battlefield.
Generally, the officers of the Peninsular War were the ‘stiff upper lip’ types. Their letters home spoke of action and adventure, but few officers spoke of their feelings in battle. These officers were gentlemen who desired glory and lived within a code of honour. Life in war, to them, was a grand experience and the battlefield was where glory could be achieved, if you survived it.
An officer’s life was generally better than that of the men. The officer’s had packs – or haversacks – containing rations (including a charge of rum) and spare equipment, but these were conveniently transported on carts, rather than their backs, like the common soldier.
Retreat, however, showed a less than honourable attitude of some of the officers. Some rode in carts while their men struggled to march – often barefoot. During the retreat to Corunna, in January 1809, there was an incidence of one officer climbing on the back of one of his men, so as not to get his feet wet while crossing a river. This proved a great morale booster for the men, when an even more senior officer ordered the soldier to drop his charge into the river.
It was during retreat discipline was most likely to break down. The retreat to Corunna was harrowing for the men and officers; the Spanish winter was harsh and the French were constantly nipping at the army’s heels. Officers used a mixture of encouragement and punishment to cajole the men along. Punishment was harsh; floggings and hangings were inflicted for various crimes.
The army’s discipline depended on the diligence of the regimental officers; men convicted of robber with violence or desertion were hanged, while looters and stragglers risked the lash. The chance of reprieve from punishment was dangled over regiments as a way of getting the men to fight harder when the enemy was close by.
Generals were loved, feared and admired in equal measure. ‘Black Bob’ Craufurd of the Light Brigade was seen as a harsh disciplinarian, but he looked after his men; he led them and suffered with them, marching in their midst and sharing in their miseries. General Roland Hill earned the nickname of ‘Daddy’ due to his care for his troops; his men adored him. And Sir John Moore, killed at the Battle of Corunna having brought the army safely through a harrowing retreat, was mourned deeply, his memory often invoked to encourage the men in the thick of battle.
Officers were expected to be brave, to lead their men from the front, wherever possible. An officer was proud to fall injured in front of the regimental colours – leading their men, rather than following. They often waxed philosophical about the “beautifully romantic and heroically sublime”¹ battlefield, while describing the piteous moans of the wounded – men and horses – and the fury of the combatants. The chivalrous sense of honour was a code; one rode straight, spoke the truth and never showed fear.
Many officers considered themselves content and happy in the military life, thinking little about the enemy, except on the few occasions when they were brought to battle. Campaign life for an officer was a combination of adventure, enjoyment and discomfort; although they were expected to lead their men, they rarely kept company with them when not on the march. Officer and soldier were billeted separately wherever possible; the coarse behaviour of the men grated on the refined officer.
If they looked after their men, however, their men would look after them. There are numerous anecdotes of soldiers trying to protect their officers from the enemy, providing their officers with food and souvenirs taken from the enemy. According to Rifleman Harris, an act of kindness from an officer had often been the cause of his life being saved in the midst of battle.
There were exceptions, of course. An area of Lisbon, known as Belem, was full of officers avoiding the fighting, who fell ill even when only within earshot of a battle. Wellington was happy for unsuitable officers to return home, or at least stay away from the army.
Of those who remained, every officer was a volunteer; they saw the military life as a way of advancement in later civilian life – or as a way to be useful to their king and country. The majority were gentlemen; although their were rare instances of officers having risen from the ranks, these failed to gain the full respect of the common soldier and were not, as a rule, successful.
To many the army was a home. The military life was a profession, officers lived and died to “promote its honour and glory”².
And Wellington was the heart of the army, his presence inspired confidence. Even with all his ambivalence of character, he exerted an extraordinary sense of loyalty among both officers and men. Sir John Kincaid said there was “not a bosom in the army that didn’t beat more lightly, when it heard the joyful news of his arrival.”³
And it was with the confidence and experience gained from 7 years of war in the Iberian Peninsular that Wellington led his army against the French for one last time. It would be the 1st time that Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, would face Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French; at Waterloo on 18th June 1815, 200 years ago.
Footnotes: ¹& ² A Boy in the Peninsular War, Robert Blakeney ; ³ Beggars in Red: The British Army 1789-1889, Sir John Kincaid, quoted by John Strawson.
Article adapted from my own dissertation of 1992, entitled For King, Country and Glory? The British Soldier in the Peninsular War, 1808-1814.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
Sources: A Boy in the Peninsular War, Robert Blakeney; Beggars in Red: The British Army 1789-1889, John Strawson; The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, edited by Christopher Hibbert; On the Road with Wellington: The Diary of a War Commissary in the Peninsular Campaigns, August Schaumann; A British Rifleman: Journals & Correspondence during the Peninsular War and Campaign of Wellington, Major George Simmons; Memoirs of Sir Harry Smith, Sir Harry Smith; The Letters of Private Wheeler, William Wheeler; The Sword and the Pen, edited by Michael Brander; The British Soldier, JM Brereton; The Face of Battle and The Mask of Command, John Keegan; Wellington: the years of the Sword, Lady Elizabeth Longford; Soldiers. A History of Men in Battle, John Keegan and Richard Holmes.