Sunday, December 14, 2014

Filming the Scottish play in Flanders

A Citizen of the Country, Sarah Smith

This is the third in Sarah Smith's trilogy of historical novels.  They aren't mysteries, at least of the "who done it" variety, but more novels of suspense.  The main character is Alexander von Reisden, whom I identified as a German baron in my post on the second book (The Knowledge of Water).  Mea culpa, he is Austrian - not that it makes a lot of difference, in Paris in 1911.

Like the previous books, this is a complex story, and it is definitely not the place to start with the series.  At the center of the story is a film production of a French version of Macbeth, here called Citizen Mabet.  Set during the French revolution, it culminates in the death by guillotine of Mabet and his wife.  The production, filming in Arras, stars a hero of the Franco-Prussian War, Maurice Cyron.  Retired from the army, he now stages patriotic theatrical spectacles in Paris, where every night with an evangelist's fervor he reminds his audiences of the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, ceded to Germany after France's humiliating defeat in that war.  The film's director is his adopted son André, the Comte de Montfort, whose crumbling chalk castle in Arras is the production's headquarters.  André also runs a theater in Paris, of a very different kind: the Necro, where Grand Guignol stories of bloody murder and madness play out nightly.  In an afterword, Ms. Smith acknowledged that he shares more than a name with Count André de Lorde, a co-founder of the Grand Guignol.   I wouldn't want to attend one of those performances, but I found the film production fascinating.  The author has clearly done her research in early motion pictures.

There are other stories woven around the film, in Paris and in Arras, which often interrupt the production.  Count André, recently married to Sabine, a local heiress, thinks his wife is poisoning him.  He is rather obsessed with poisoning, and gradually we learn why.  He has cast Sabine as one of the Three Witches, without realizing that she is a prominent member of the local coven.  Another member of the coven is found dead in her home, poisoned, and more deaths follow.  Meanwhile Reisden, whose company Jouvet Medical Analyses is financially stretched to the limits, is in the running for a lucrative contract to provide psychological testing on the French army's new conscripts.  Cyron is deeply suspicious of this Austrian, doubts he shares with his old allies in the army, but he enlists Reisden for a part in the film, and to keep an eye on André.  There are other, more personal elements to Reisden's story here, building on the previous two books - and that's all I will say, to avoid spoilers.

All of this takes place during the Agadir Crisis of 1911, which for a while looked like it might bring war between France and Germany.  (It was also my introduction to the Agadir Crisis.)  That, and the setting in French Flanders, with Vimy ridge looming in the distance, of course invoke the war that would follow just three years later.  Everyone in the story expects a war, and a German invasion.  The shadow of death seems to hang over the young soldiers recruited as extras, playing the troops in Mabet's army.

I have never given up hope that Sarah Smith will write another book in this series, perhaps set in Paris during the war.  In the meantime, I learned that she has written a young-adult novel, The Other Side of Dark, which I got from the library yesterday.  There is also her very different book Chasing Shakespeares, which I read when it came out in 2003.  It was the first thing I'd ever read that dealt seriously with the debates over his authorship of the plays; I remember I found the arguments compelling at the time.


  1. Well, I am even more intrigued now, and I've discovered that I have this particular trilogy in a box in the attic. So that's more on my ridiculously long 'must read' list for 2015.

    1. Jane, I've been wondering if these books are still in print - so I'm glad you have copies already. And isn't it lovely to rediscover our books?


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!