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Review: Au service secret de Marie-Antoinette by Frédéric Lenormand

This series is pure silly, delightful, ridiculous, over-the-top fun.

It's not great literature by any means - if anything, it's very simplistic, almost obvious writing; the dialogue is absolutely ridiculous; everything happens so fast it's hardly believable; and the characters fall into the most obvious traps, say the most ridiculous things, and are some pretty bad amateur detectives. Any halfwit criminal would see them coming from a mile out and get rid of them within the first twenty pages. Luckily for them, the criminals are also absolutely silly and leave clues so obvious littered all over the ground as they go that it would make Hercule Poirot despair of the criminal class entirely.

But, who cares - it's so much fun.

Marie-Antoinette is painted as an expert of the double-bluff, successfully convincing everyone around her - her honestly, shockingly stupid husband Louis XVI and his alarmingly incompetent ministers - that she is a silly, frivolous woman who spends a fortune on her hairstyles and her dresses; all while she's cleverly and successfully cooking her books and convincing her hairstylist Léonard Autier and her seamstress Rose Bertin (the two main characters of each book; the amateur detectives Marie-Antoinette charges with her secret missions which have been, thus far, to recover a priceless lost treasure so that Marie-Antoinette can make some money in secret from her husband and his ministers to solve the pressing problems of France's diplomacy and lack of bread) to present her with outrageously high bills of service so that she can secretly equip and pay for France's network of spies abroad and her own 'secret service'. She's trained up a team of carrier pigeons to stay in contact with her agents around France and Europe without going through the postal service. It's a conceit that on the face of it is absolutely ridiculous, but it's so funny it ends up working.

Ultimately, I think that's what makes this series work - Lenormand leans into the silliness and the ridiculousness of what he's writing, and never tries to pass it off as anything other than pure, over-the-top escapist fantasy. He isn't trying to write a serious detective novel about Marie-Antoinette's secret service, and because he doesn't take himself or his characters or his writing too seriously, you can properly enjoy the silliness without feeling like you have to wade through any disconnect between the story and the writing. The characters are just as over-the-top as the mysteries they have to solve, which are convoluted, ridiculous, twisty and ultimately resolve themselves fairly easily - Léonard and Rose go off on a wild goose chase, follow a few dead ends, and then, somewhat miraculously, stumble on the resolution, recover the lost treasure, and then end the novel bickering about who's the better detective.

The writing is simplistic and the dialogue is even more so; but the sarcasm and irony that Léonard and Rose use in their conversations with each other and their inner monologues when investigating is delightful and cuttingly devastating in some parts (also, how often these two start bickering like teenage siblings is both incredibly annoying and also incredibly endearing. I can't wait for them to inevitably realize that they're madly in love and probably have some hilariously bad sex).

Lenormand is definitely a very funny writer - there are moments of the book where I cackled with how successfully he deployed all his irony and piquant wit. Throughout it all, there is also a sense of gravitas and tragedy and of knowing something terrible is about to happen that you get from knowing what ultimately does happen to Marie-Antoinette, and watching these characters go to their doom (in 14 years, and one presumes another ten or so books', time) that lends the series an undercurrent of high stakes, emotional vulnerability. Lenormand handles the historical hindsight and the seriousness that it lends very well, by infusing all of his mysteries and his characters with the reckless, devil-may-care sense of "Well we're all fucked anyway, might as well enjoy ourselves while we can!" that makes for such enjoyable reading while also building up to what I am sure will be one hell of an emotional sucker punch.

All in all, I can highly recommend this series to all my peeps who can read in French (haven't found an English translation yet, but it's a very recent series so I'm hopeful that's in the works). It reminds me a lot of another series of historical detective fiction that I absolutely love, Rhys Bowen's Her Royal Spyness (there will be a review of this series at some point as well; probably this summer when the latest book comes out). It's by no means earth-shatteringly great literature, or even good detective stories, but it's funny, it made me laugh a lot, and I had a great time reading them. I'm eagerly awaiting the third installment, out in a couple of weeks' time, and I can't wait to see what other ridiculous adventures these two crazy kids go on.

PS - the writing is easy enough that if you've got a decent grasp of written French, you can probably muddle through the original instead of waiting for a translation.

Happy reading,

Amélie xx

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I’m Amélie, I love books and reading, and I also love talking about them.

I’m incredibly lucky to be bilingual, so I read books in both French and English, and will talk about both of those on here – although I will do more in English, since I know that’s probably what the majority of the people who ever find this blog will be interested in!

I also like history, traveling, Shakespeare, coffee, cheese, musicals, Italian Baroque art, the ballet, Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, flowers, makeup, high heels, and baking. Yes, I’m a walking cliché. I am aware.

Please do tweet at me with any suggestions/book recommendations/thoughts.

In case you’re curious – yes, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time.

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