Saturday, February 19, 2011
A Hit From the Past
*About eight years ago I was asked to send three proposals for historical mysteries. This was the year I often tell you about -- with much storied drama -- "the year of the seventeen proposals." Speed was of the essence, so I came up with three concepts: A musketeer's mystery series, a Leonardo Da Vinci mystery series, and a Merlin mystery series. The first was sort of nebulous, just historical and using a form of the Dumas musketeers (not THE Dumas musketeers as such, because they'd make terrible characters for a modern day mystery -- they're not particularly deep or all that concerned with death, their own or others -- but still recognizably the same people from another perspective.) The second was... well, CSI Renaissance, and the third was supposed to make Merlin a Sherlock like figure.
But I realize I started telling it wrong. FIRST I was asked to send in concepts, and these are the only three I remember (I think I sent in a dozen, because it was a round number.) These three were approved, and I found to my chagrin that to do the third -- the Merlin one -- would require not only a lot of study but a strong stomach. Like Shakespeare or sports or military history, the round table obsesses people. As a non obsessive -- on this subject -- I'd essentially be performing to professional critics. Again, time was of the essence, so I didn't even attempt it.
I did attempt a Leonard Da Vinci murder mystery -- I think I'll post the first chapter in the diner! -- and the musketeers' mystery. Unfortunately for me, in the middle of all this (remember, I live under a rock, with my word processor) Dan Brown made it big and it was decided that Da Vinci mysteries were insufficiently like the Code to sell (apparently missing that plagiarism law thing. I joke. Actually, this is a well known publisher -- and general gatekeeper -- syndrome called "give me more of the same."
Anyway, I did five musketeer mysteries and, without going into detail, the company decided to stop publishing them. The blame was mixed. Covers were either too similar of had absolutely no relationship to each other -- two failings when it comes to selling a series -- but mostly, I think in an effort to promote it, the publishers brought them out (I THINK) three months apart, which back then was a novel strategy. So novel that when the second came out the bookstores must have gone "oh, ooops, I guess we have had these unsold for a year", and sent half the print run back on the first. And then ordered it again, when people requested it, but I guess it must have been pulped, because the first book was impossible to get for six months... while the second and third hit the shelves. Thereby leaving the series without a "head". (BTW this is something electronic books avoid.) The corollary is that I was writing these every three months, and by the last one I simply didn't want to. (I suspect the last one shows it too.)
At any rate, the rights to the first has reverted to me -- the others... the least said the better. And if I'm not required to write one every three months (with other books in between to keep up my other series, remember?) I would very much like to go on with the series which was lots of fun to write. Not only did I get to hang out with four archetypal heros, but I got to tell a mystery in four voices, which ... well, if you're a writer you'll understand the challenge and the fun of four different povs in crime solving.
The first one has never been available in ebook format, but Naked Reader Press is bringing it out in... two weeks? If it does well, I will continue the series with book six next year and then one a year from then on. Does well translates into being worth the publisher's time/space as well as my time. It has to pay at least as well as the mysteries I'm now bringing out with Prime Crime.
(When the four middle mysteries will revert is something else. By contract and technically, they already have, but... in what I suspect will be the norm in the future, they're simply refusing to give the rights back. No, I don't what will happen with that yet and right now for various reasons, it's not a battle worth fighting. Depending on how this book does, it may well become so.)
Of course, if these pay enough, in the fullness of time (possibly after the boys leave for college and I have -- ah! -- time on my hands) I might get around to doing the DaVinci mysteries and even my Kit Marlowe mysteries.
Anyway, without further ado, here is the first chapter fo the musketeers.*
How I came by the other Diaries Of Monsieur D’Artagnan
My first encounter with the gentlemen known to all the world as Athos, Porthos, Aramis–and, of course, D’Artagnan–came at a young age when, searching through the shelves of my grandfather’s library, I was called by several leather-bound volumes bearing the name Dumas on the spine.
I hardly need tell anyone who had the good fortune of reading Monsieur Dumas’s works at an early age with what rapt attention I followed the actions of the brash young man from Gascony and his three daring companions.
Over the years, I’ve returned to the same book — and its companions Twenty Years After, and Viscount de Bragelone — every winter, when the snow first fell. I re-read the adventures of the four charming rogues, again and again, by my cozy fireside. But I knew I’d never encounter them in any other writing.
I was wrong. This winter, when snowflakes first danced on the thin mountain air of Colorado and while my slippers and my hot chocolate waited with a leather-bound book by my comfortable chair, a delivery service dropped an unpromising battered cardboard box on my front porch.
Inside it was a brief note from my father-in-law, some of whose ancestors immigrated to the New World at the end of the seventeenth century.
Not a French speaker, he said he thought it best if I were given these papers, found in the estate of an elderly relation.
I confess I perused them, at first, with some distaste. The pages had mildewed to an unappetizing shade of greyish yellow and I had to turn them with the greatest care to prevent their falling apart. I picked a word here and a word there, amid decay and mildew. The spelling was quite the oddest I’d ever encountered.
However, on page two I encountered the name D’Artagnan, on page five the name Athos and on page ten the names Porthos and Aramis together. By page fifteen I realized these diaries referred to murders investigated, solved and often avenged by the three musketeers plus one. I was hooked.
After that, I devoured the twenty mildewed diaries with the eagerness of one too long separated from a childhood friend. Woven around the events that Dumas told the world of in his books, the diaries started with the fateful duel at the Barefoot Carmelites. However, they very quickly turned into a series of murder mysteries often involving the highest nobility of France.
The bulk of it was written in ink that had faded to brown, and in an angular handwriting that marched across the pages with the certainty of a military officer on campaign.
However, over it all, there were notes in other hands, squeezed in the margins and scribbled between the lines. I soon learned to identify the small, sharp, inclined hand with Athos, the round, well formed ecclesiastical one — still with a hint of violet to its tints — with Aramis and the laborious printing with Porthos. The notes gave details that the writer of the main diaries — certainly D’Artagnan — couldn’t have known at the time he wrote them.
I do not know how his friends came to editorialize D’Artagnan’s diaries. And I have no idea how or by what crooked lines of descent and inheritance or happenstance and luck those diaries passed into the hands of my family.
The only thing certain is that those diaries, which I edited for coherence and adapted to our modern storytelling mode, reveal murders as intricate and fiendish as any writer could dream, and that these crimes could only be solved by Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan.
To whose spirit, nobility and courage I hope my retelling will do justice.
The Duel that Wasn’t;
Where the Cardinal’s Guards are Taught a Lesson;
A Handy Guide to the Taverns of Paris
D’Artagnan knew he was going to die.
It was April 1625 and the spring sun, fierce and blazing, shone like an unblinking eye over the bustling city of Paris. Henri D’Artagnan, aged seventeen, a slim, muscular young man with olive skin, dark hair and piercing black eyes, had arrived in town just the day before.
Now, under the noon sun, he stood outside the convent of the Barefoot Carmelites, a religious house situated in a conveniently deserted spot on the outskirts of town.
Around him spread fields of green wheat. The wind being still and no breeze stirring the sheaves, the only sound was the drowsy droning of insects, drunk with midday languor and heat.
And D’Artagnan thought this was the last day of his life.
If he weren’t himself, if he were not the only son of nobleman Francois D’Artagnan, a hardened veteran soldier, D’Artagnan could have turned and taken off running through those fields, relying on his young, agile legs to get him away from death.
His mind cringed at such an unworthy thought.
His opponent, with whom his sword was crossed, scraped the sword lightly along the length of D’Artagnan’s. Just enough to gain the young man’s attention.
And D’Artagnan turned towards him, at the same time that his opponent’s second, who served as their judge in this case, dropped the white handkerchief signaling the beginning of combat.
His opponent came at D’Artagnan like a tiger, his sword pressing D’Artagnan close and demanding all of the young man’s concentration.
The man was called Athos, and he fought like a veteran duelist. Which he was, being one of the older and more experienced and — as far as D’Artagnan could determine — one of the most feared members of his majesty Louis XIII’s corps of musketeers. Other things D’Artagnan had heard, once he’d given himself the trouble of checking: That the man had the personal friendship of Monsieur de Treville. That he was of noble birth. That Athos was a nom-de-guerre, picked up to hide disgrace or guilt.
Athos attacked, driving the young man back and back and back, till D’Artagnan’s shoulders were solidly against the white-washed wall of the convent and only his quick wit and quicker reflexes permitted him to step sideways and avoid being skewered.
D’Artagnan flitted and skipped, danced away from trouble and contorted away from tight spots, but his mind became oddly detached.
His body moved and seemed to think with a reasoning of its own, while it parried and thrust, and made Athos back away. Meanwhile D’Artagnan’s mind — what his mother used to call his quick and lively mind — had gone away, to some place at the back of himself. Some place away from the battlefield, where it could do its thinking.
When Henri D’Artagnan had left the paternal abode, his father had given him only one substantive piece of advice. And that was that he fight often, that he fight well and that he never tolerate any insult from anyone but the king or the Cardinal who was, truth be told, as powerful as any king.
Henri had tried to follow his father’s advice and, on the road to Paris, in the small town of Meung, had challenged a nobleman who laughed at his attire and horse. This had cost him dearly, as his opponent had his servants hit Henri from behind. While Henri was unconscious, the stranger had stolen Henri’s letter of recommendation to Monsieur de Treville. The letter that would have got him into the musketeers this very day.
But I don’t learn, do I? D’Artagnan thought to himself, as he pushed hard with his sword arm, forcing Athos’s sword away, shoving the musketeer back at the same time.
Athos fell away and tripped and bent down upon his knee.
I had to challenge three musketeers for a duel today. Three. Musketeers. Today, D’Artagnan thought, as he jumped nimbly back, ready to parry Athos’s next thrust.
No, he didn’t learn. He’d continued following his father’s advice, until he’d managed to challenge the three men that the rest of the corps called the three inseparables: Athos, Porthos and Aramis. One of whom would kill him today.
D’Artagnan’s mind was so preoccupied with its gloomy thoughts that he didn’t at first realize that Athos hadn’t got up from his position, half-bent over his knee.
“Monsieur,” he said, when he did notice it. “Monsieur, if it would suit you to adjourn our appointment to another time….”
He noticed Athos’s hand pressed hard at his right side, and he remembered the scene, that very morning, in Monsieur de Treville’s office, where an obviously wounded and ill Athos had come in to present himself to his captain and to deflect Monsieur de Treville’s anger at all of the three musketeers who’d been bested in a skirmish with the Cardinal’s guards.
“Monsieur, if you are in too great a pain…,” D’Artagnan said. He’d got in this duel with Athos by careening against the musketeer and making him bleed. And failing to apologize sufficiently for the injury he’d caused.
But Athos only shook his head. He took a deep breath, audible in the midday stillness, and he rose slowly from his knee. “It’s nothing,” he said, his face ashen. “It is nothing. I didn’t want to distress you with the sight of blood you haven’t drawn.” A red stain showed on the side of his doublet. He changed his sword to his left hand. “If you don’t mind, I will fight with my left hand, though. It will not put me at a disadvantage, as I can use either hand to equal effect. But it might be harder for you to defend yourself.”
D’Artagnan nodded. He knew he would die anyway. And if he was going to die, perhaps it would be best if it was at Athos’s hands. Of his three potential opponents, he liked and admired Athos more than the other two. It was no dishonor to be killed by such a man.
Athos straightened and pulled back a stray lock of pitch black hair, which contrasted glaringly with his alabaster-pale complexion.
D’Artagnan had heard that Athos was considered handsome by many men and even more women in Paris. This opinion baffled D’Artagnan.
Athos’s face was spare, with high cheekbones and intense, eyes burning with zeal. The rest of his features, precisely drawn and finely sculpted, made the man look less like a living being and more like those caryatides of Greece and Rome — columns given human form and forever holding aloft the white marble roof of a temple or palace.
Athos’s character, like his appearance, seemed as spare, as certain, as controlled as those columns. Rightly or not, he gave the impression of a man who served a cause greater than his own whims, purer than his own advancement.
And this, D’Artagnan thought as Athos raised his sword, was what D’Artagnan would have liked to be — if he ever got to live beyond his present seventeen years.
Aramis, Athos’s second and D’Artagnan’s next arranged opponent, stepped up. He was a blonde man, so dainty-looking that one might fail to notice he was almost as tall as Athos and as muscular. Accounted a gallant by all who knew him, he was said to be popular with the ladies and rumored to be entertaining duchesses and princesses by the score.
D’Artagnan, who had challenged him to a duel over an argument started on a point of honor, had at first thought him just a dandy and nothing more. But Aramis’s bright green eyes showed such a keen appreciation for the irony of D’Artagnan’s situation, that perhaps there was more to him.
As he stepped up, picking up his white handkerchief from the ground where it had lain, he said, “You must restart the duel.”
D’Artagnan noticed that Athos was very pale still, his skin tinged with the grey of a man fighting extreme pain, and realized that Athos’s old fashioned Spanish-style doublet was laced tightly over his musketeer’s tunic. “I would not object if you undo the ties on your doublet, since the sun is so devilishly hot.”
But Athos shook his head. “I thank you for your courtesy,” he said, “but really, I’m afraid if I do it will restart the bleeding. The wound is bothering me.”
“Do not misunderstand me; I am eager to cross swords with you,” D’Artagnan said. “But if you wish to wait and perhaps drink something for your present comfort…”
Athos smiled, a flash of genuine amusement. “Your sentiment does you credit, but I believe in collecting my debts promptly and drinking afterwards. And then, it is not the first time I’ve fought while wounded.” He shifted his feet and tilted the upper half of his body forward, baring his teeth slightly, as if allowing the animal to peer out of his noble features.
“Come, come,” Porthos spoke, from where he stood by the white wall of the convent, hands the size of hams folded over the guard of a very substantial sword. A redheaded giant, he dwarfed other men with the size of his lean, muscular body. Each of his arms looked to be the size of D’Artagnan’s thigh, each of his legs like an oak tree trunk. And yet he gave the impression of suppleness, of not a wasted ounce on his huge frame. “You are all talk. Less talk and more fighting. Remember, Athos, he owes me satisfaction after you and Aramis have your turns. He offended me most horribly on a matter of fashion.”
Did D’Artagnan fancy that a smile crossed Aramis’s and Athos’s lips, when Porthos spoke?
Aramis raised his eyebrows and, still holding his handkerchief aloft, turned towards Porthos. “When you wish to be so rude, you should speak for yourself only, Porthos. I have no objection to the noble and proper sentiments these gentlemen express. Indeed, I will gladly listen to them for as long as necessary, before they feel it fit to cross swords.”
And now another flinch of remorse came to join D’Artagnan’s regret that he would die so early, leaving so much untasted of life’s joys: that he would never get to know these men better. There was such an easy camaraderie between the three of them, so devoid of the formality of most friendships, that he imagined they could have been his friends.
“Only,” Porthos said, pulling a large red handkerchief from his sleeve and mopping at his forehead with it, “it’s too blazing hot.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Athos said, and leaned forward, displaying his teeth, again, in that expression that was more animal threat than human smile, “for we are ready.” He pushed his sword against D’Artagnan’s and said, “En garde,” between clenched teeth.
Aramis dropped the scarf.
A throat was cleared, nearby, neither by Aramis nor by Porthos.
Their swords still crossed, D’Artagnan and Athos turned to look. Five men stood near them — so near that they could only have approached unnoticed while the musketeers and D’Artagnan were distracted with talk and worry for Athos’s wound. All of them wore uniforms similar to those of the musketeers, but where the musketeers wore blue, their knee breeches, tunics and plumed hats were bright red, like freshly spilled blood.
They were guards of the Cardinal, sworn rivals of the Musketeers, their enemies in a thousand brawls, a million street skirmishes.
“Well, well,” said the leading guard, who had a suntanned face and a Roman nose. “What have we here? Dueling Musketeers? What? In open and defiant contravention of all the edicts against dueling?” He smiled unpleasantly, revealing a wealth of very large, yellowed teeth. “I’m afraid we’ll have to arrest the lot of you.”
“Leave us alone, Jussac,” Athos said, without turning to look, his sword still crossed with D’Artagnan’s. “I promise you if we found you in the like amusement we’d sit back and let you proceed. Enjoy and amuse yourselves, have the profit of our injuries with none of the pain.”
Jussac smiled wider. “That’s as it may be, Monsieur Athos. But the thing is there is an edict against dueling and our master, the Cardinal, wants laws obeyed.”
Athos lowered his sword. He turned to Jussac and, with an air of strained patience, said, “Nothing would please me more than to oblige you. But, you see, our captain, Monsieur de Treville, has forbidden us from being arrested.”
Jussac sighed, in turn. He lifted his hat and scratched under it at his sweat-soaked hair. “Think about it,” he said. “There are only three of you, one of you wounded. Three of you and a child who was dueling you. If you force us to fight you, they will say it’s murder.”
The three musketeers formed a circle, from within which their worried voices reached D’Artagnan’s ears.
“I’m afraid he’s right, you know,” Aramis said. “There are only three of us, one of us wounded. And there are five of them: Jussac, Brisac and Cahusac, the three fiercest fighters in the Guards, and two of their companions. They will slaughter us.”
Athos paled yet further and glared, his zealous blue eyes seeming to flame. His features hardened into a harsher pose of dignity. “I would rather die than appear before Monsieur de Treville defeated again.”
“Me too,” Porthos said.
D’Artagnan remembered the scorching reproach that Monsieur de Treville had inflicted on the three musketeers that morning. Everyone waiting in the captain’s antechamber had heard it. He didn’t blame the three for not wishing to face such humiliation again.
“Very well, then,” Aramis said. He straightened a little and squared his shoulders. “We’ll die here.”
“You, the child,” Jussac said, pointing at D’Artagnan. “Save yourself. We’ll allow you to go.”
D’Artagnan looked at the three musketeers who were so calm, so resigned, gallantly preparing themselves for death rather than facing dishonor. He looked over at Jussac, who smiled benevolently at him, showing long yellow teeth.
He pushed himself into the musketeers’ circle, shoving his sweaty face between Aramis’s and Porthos’s shoulders. “You are wrong,” he said. “When you say there are only three of you. I count four of us.”
They looked back at him, and for a moment it looked as though Porthos were on the verge of asking who the fourth one might be. But, before he could, Athos smiled. “You’re a child,” he said. “And someday you’ll be a man I’d be proud to call a friend. But right now you’re a boy. And this is suicide. Our chosen death. Save yourself.”
“No,” D’Artagnan said, his certainty growing with the rebuff. “No. I’ll stay and fight by your side.”
“But, you’re not a musketeer,” Aramis said. “Why would you want to die with us?”
“Though I don’t wear a musketeer uniform,” D’Artagnan said. “In my heart I am a musketeer. And though I might only be able to give you very little help, if I leave and save my life, I’ll never be able to live with myself.”
For a moment Aramis stared at him, Porthos frowned at him, and Athos furrowed his brow as if in deep thought.
And then Athos smiled. “You’re right,” he said. “There are indeed four of us. Athos, Porthos, Aramis and–your name, my friend?”
“D’Artagnan,” D’Artagnan answered, as his heart hammered faster and faster in his chest, and once more he was sure he was going to die.
This time he knew he was going to die at the end of the guards’ swords. But he would die next to musketeers. He would die almost a musketeer. His father would be proud.
“Well, then, Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan. One for all and all for one. If death is to come for us, let us not keep her waiting. Let us go out and meet her halfway, like gallants, and receive her kiss proudly.”
“We grow impatient,” Jussac thundered, outside their circle. “Will you save yourself or not, boy? Because if not, we’re coming to get you.”
The circle broke apart as though they had rehearsed, and the four of them faced the five guards.
“We’ve made a decision,” Athos said, his voice steady and calm.
“Oh,” Jussac said. “I hope it’s a sensible decision.”
“Very,” Athos said, and removed his hat, and bowed with a deep flourish. “We’re going to have the pleasure of charging you.”
Before the guard could snap shut the mouth that he’d let drop open in his astonishment, Athos’s hat was back on his head, and Porthos and Aramis had unsheathed their swords.
“One for all and all for one,” they shouted, as they fell on the guards.
By the rational odds of combat and war, they should have lost. There were but four of them, one of whom was severely wounded, and the other little more than a child.
D’Artagnan’s only experience of dueling had been his mock duels with his father, in the field behind their house, in the calm Gascon countryside.
If that duel had been decided on body count, or on experience, or even on the relative size of the opponents, surely the guards of the Cardinal would have won.
But wars and duels are fought with the mind, the heart, and that other thing – that thing that is neither loyalty nor camaraderie, but which has hints of both.
That thing allowed D’Artagnan to know and come to the rescue when Athos’s breathing grew too labored. That thing allowed him to go away when Athos had recovered enough to resume his own battle.
And duels are also fought with pride and fear. The three musketeers were too proud to surrender, too fearful of Monsieur de Treville’s wrath to allow themselves to be arrested. They fought like fury unleashed.
Porthos fought and defeated two enemies at once.
And so, fifteen minutes later, the only one left standing of the small army of Cardinal Guards was de Brissac – like D’Artagnan, a Gascon, and like D’Artagnan, ill-suited to surrender. Surrounded by all the musketeers, he broke his own sword upon his knee to avoid losing it.
But then he gave up. He helped the musketeers and D’Artagnan take the wounded and dead to the convent’s door. And stayed behind with them, while the musketeers and D’Artagnan rang the bell and walked away.
Years later, D’Artagnan would try to recall the rest of the afternoon. All he would remember was Athos’s promising that he would show D’Artagnan the best taverns in Paris.
And then they’d gone to the Louis, where there were ten musketeers and where, when Porthos had told their story, people had rushed to buy them strong, sweet, fiery liquor. From there, they’d walked a block to The Maiden’s Head, where the seven musketeers present had listened to their story with awe. And then to The Head and Bucket, where, at the telling of their tale, musketeers and sympathizers had bought them a sparkling white wine.
D’Artagnan remembered there had been a pause between The Grinning Corpse and The Coup de Grace, while he leaned against a wall in an alley and lost most of the wine he’d drunk in the preceding hours.
But then they’d taken him to the Drinking Fish for a few mugs of house special, and from there to The Drunken Lord for something that tasted like liquid fire.
Night had fallen when D’Artagnan found himself stumbling along the back alleys and narrow staircases of the working-class neighborhoods of Paris, one arm thrown over Aramis’s shoulder, Porthos’s huge hand on his other shoulder, singing softly a song about the queen, the king and the musketeers that would surely be treason if they weren’t all drunk and all so loyal that they’d just risked their lives to ensure the king’s own musketeers suffered no defeat.
“We should take the boy home first,” Athos said. He had to be drunk. He’d drunk more of all the various liquors than all of them combined. He had to be dead drunk. But he walked steadily and his voice sounded, if anything, a little slower and calmer and more controlled.
Porthos giggled. “‘s right,” he said. “It is past the time schoolboys should be asleep.”
“Where do you live, D’Artagnan?” Aramis asked.
“Rue des Fossoyers,” D’Artagnan said, glad he’d rented lodgings before going in search of his fate outside the Barefoot Carmelites. Looking back it had been presumptuous to think he’d survive three duels. But, at least, he’d have a place to sleep tonight.
“Good,” Athos said. “That’s just around–”
He turned, as if to get his bearings, and as he turned, and they with him, they all saw a figure in the uniform of a musketeer cross the alley right in front of them.
“Oh, I say, wait,” Athos said. “Wait, friend. King’s Musketeer, hold. Have you heard that we defeated Jussac outside the Barefoot–”
The musketeer jumped, as if touched with hot iron, and took off running, the sound of his steps echoing and reverberating through the maze of narrow streets.
The musketeers stopped and frowned at the space where the unknown musketeer had been.
“That’s abominably rude,” Aramis said.
“Musketeer or no, someone should teach him some manners,” Porthos said.
“He should buy us a drink to make up for it,” Athos said. “After all, there must be a place still open.”
As one man, they ran, pursuing the fugitive. D’Artagnan followed the sound of their steps.
They ran down so many blind alleys, careened precipitously down so many worn staircases, that D’Artagnan was sure they’d never find the runaway musketeer. He’d be lucky if he didn’t get separated from his friends.
But at last, they all surged into an alley. And there, on the ground, the musketeer lay.
The three musketeers had been calling and jeering and laughing, but now all their noises stopped.
It was suddenly very quiet, in that alley. Far away, an owl hooted, chasing prey in some attic. D’Artagnan drew a deep breath that sounded too loud in the silence.
“It can’t be,” Aramis said, under his breath.
But though D’Artagnan had never seen a dead body, he knew the musketeer lying on the muddy, smelly ground of the alley was dead.
If asked, he could have given no more justification than a certain angle of the arm protruding from under the body and the stillness, the eerie stillness of whole body.
“He’s dead,” he said.
Aramis crossed himself and Athos stepped forward, towards the corpse.