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Friday, January 29, 2016

The Officer’s Prey by Armand Cabasson

Gallic Books, 433 pages, $15.95 (c2002, 1st Eng. ed. 2007)
Translated by Michael Glencross from the French

“The Officer’s Prey” is a fine novel about war and, incidentally, one about crime. Although we follow the investigation of Captain Quentin Margont of Napoleon’s army in 1812* as he attempts to catch a vicious serial killer, it is really one person’s view of the deadly march to Moscow by Napoleon’s forces to make tsarist Russia part of his empire. 

War inevitably begets death and that is accepted by all. In Margont’s view war is necessary to institute the egalitarian republic that France has fought for and modeled. But what an atrocity when someone deliberately adds to the death toll, and not for any lofty ideal.

A woman has been killed by her “Prince Charming,” as she described him, in a Polish town overrun by Napoleon’s forces on their way to Moscow. Prince Eugène, the general in charge of Margont’s division, suspects the murderer is someone of note who has killed before, and he wants to keep the investigation on the down low. Without giving much background on why Margont was chosen (prior military investigations? civilian experience?), he begins his investigation by determining it was one of four colonels. This is a pretty clever, albeit contrived, deduction to narrow the field from four hundred thousand men to four.

Through slog and travail, gunfire and cannonshot, snobbery and idealism, French author Armand Cabasson depicts his investigator’s tenacity against long odds. Beating Death to the punch would be a worthy punchline.

I was captivated by this vivid portrayal of war and death. Although a true rendering of the horrors of this death march would have contained more grotesqueries, Cabasson includes enough horrors to put the strongest Napoleanic republican ideals to the test.

Cabasson wrote three novels with Margont as his hero. Cabasson is a psychiatrist, and “The Officer’s Prey” reflects this background. Examination of the psychological underpinnings of his characters adds a lot to the story. As an aside, Cabasson gave a real medical ancestor of the time, Jean-Quenin Brémond, a fictional role in his books. 

*I’m ashamed to say that for a time I heard “It’s the cereal that’s shot from guns” (the ad slogan from the 50s-60s for Quaker Puffed Rice set to the 1812 Overture) running through my head.

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