The Officer's Prey by Armand Cabasson and translated by Michael Glencross is not only a good historical mystery, but managed to engage my interest in the Napoleonic Wars. About all I knew about Napoleon's disastrous Russian invasion was that the Russians practiced a scorched earth policy and that Napoleon's retreating troops were caught by the frigid Russian winter.
Reading this novel, however, the effects of the scorched earth policy were made unequivocally clear. Lack of food for humans or horses, disease, injuries, casualties, and desertion took their toll even before the final dreadful winter retreat which garnered even more lives.
Cabasson, psychiatrist, novelist, and Napoleonic specialist, says that 400,000 of the French Allied Army marched into Russia and that 300,000 were killed or captured. I checked on some figures that agreed and some that were higher. Regardless of which set of numbers you apply, how devastating to an army those losses would have been, and Cabasson makes the reader understand the circumstances on an individual as well as general basis. Another thing that shocked me was the estimated 200,000 horses lost on the campaign.
There are few things I enjoy more than to approach history through fiction, and thankfully, I no longer have to take notes and go to the encyclopedia and to the library for confirmation or more detail. (Google, I love you.) Events in history that I've passed over with little interest become fascinating when reading fictional accounts that personalize what could be just dry facts and figures.
OK -- The mystery. A Polish woman is brutally murdered and Prince Eugene, Napoleon's adopted son and head of the IV Corps, sends for Captain Quentin Margont. In a discreet manner, Margont is to find the murderer, and he is quite sure that Prince Eugene has not told him all he knows. Margont is further constricted by the fact that the murderer is most likely a colonel and that the investigation must be kept secret as the army continues its calamitous advance into Russia.
Will this mystery appeal to everyone? I suspect not--because so much attention is given to the detail of the campaign. For me, however, the historic information and Cabosson's ability to make the characters and events vivid was an added pleasure, not a distraction.
This was an ARC from Meryl Zegarek P.R., Inc. and Gallic Books.
Historic Fiction/Mystery. This translation will be available Oct. 15, 2013. 417 pages.