"FOR THE KING" is based on a true story rooted in an attempted political assassination that happened more than 200 years ago. The opening scene takes place on Rue Saint-Nicaise near the intersection with Rue Saint-Honoré, on Napoleon’s route to the opera in Paris. It is Christmas Eve 1800. A bitterly cold evening. A plot is afoot to kill Napoleon, the First Consul, and with his death, restore the monarchy. The conspirators have brought a horse and cart bearing a wine cask loaded with shrapnel and gunpowder and set it on Rue Saint-Nicaise, close enough to the route the First Consul and entourage would take to the opera. One of the conspirators, caught the attention of a 14 year old girl (Marianne Peusol), whose mother sold buns nearby, and paid her 12 sous to hold the horse and guard the cart while he stood off at what he deemed to be a safe, discreet distance, poised to set off the "infernal machine" (i.e. the wine cask) and kill the First Consul.
However, things did not go according to plan. It had been anticipated that the First Consul would have a cavalry escort that would precede his carriage on the route to the opera. This would give the conspirators the time they felt they needed to kill the First Consul and wreak as much havoc as possible. But there was no escort as such. The First Consul's carriage suddenly appeared, speeding down the street. As it came into view, the conspirator with the fuse was frustrated from carrying out the plan by a grenadier on horseback, who forced him against a nearby wall. As quickly as possible, he dashed over to the "infernal machine" and set fire to it. The fire was slow to catch, and thus precious seconds were lost. So, when the explosion took place, Napoleon's carriage was well out of harm's way. But young Marianne, the horse, and a dozen bystanders were instantly killed, some other people nearby were wounded, and several buildings sustained varying degrees of damage.
Enter Chief Inspector Roch Miquel, who is tasked by his superiors to find the assassins in a timely fashion, lest they strike again. Not an easy task, given that Paris is a city of a million inhabitants, rife with intrigue, as well as various Royalist and revolutionary elements (foreign and domestic) eager to kill the First Consul.
The novel, with Chief Inspector Miquel occupying a large part of a very expansive stage peopled with a variety of fascinating characters, takes on the attributes of a quasi-modern, heartstopping, gripping detective thriller . I thoroughly enjoyed the way "FOR THE KING" was played out and would recommend it for anyone who loves a good detective story or has a deep-set fascination with the Napoleonic Era.
Oh, what a glorious prelude to the 2018 Summer of Spies.
Maybe not a "spy" novel in a narrower sense, but writing in 1902 and leagues ahead of her time, Orczy created the first book of what would become a series of perfect swashbucklers, starring a power couple in which the heroine is every bit her partner's equal and then some.
Indeed, cleverly Orczy even tells this book's story chiefly from Marguerite's point of view, which not only has the benefit of keeping the first-time reader (though ... is there such a creature, in this day and age, when it comes to this particular novel?) unaware of the Scarlet Pimpernel's identity as long as possible, but also gives Marguerite an added reason to hurtle all the way to France in Sir Percy's pursuit once she has cottoned onto (1) his alias, and (2) the fact that Chauvelin has unmasked him as well and is now hunting for him in turn. After all, the narrative perspective would go to hell in a handbasket if Marguerite were to just stay at home and gnash her teeth, anxiously awaiting her husband's safe return -- whereas this way, Orczy is able to present her as a woman of action ... even if, for the most part, it looks like the much-touted "cleverest woman in Europe" is stumbling blindly after her husband and Chauvelin in their respective tracks and comes darned close to ruining Sir Percy's whole enterprise, not to mention imperiling the life of her beloved brother Armand, to whose assistance Sir Percy had rushed off to begin with (well, that and in order to finish the job of getting the de Tournay family safely across the Channel).
No wonder, in any event, that the reading public soon demanded a sequel -- and Marguerite and Sir Percy would soon also find their way onto the silver screen. The rest, as they've never said more truly than here, is history ...
My "Summer of Spies meets Women Writers Project" reading list: