Saturday, 26 April 2014

Let Nothing Escape You ... (Plot Spoiler Alert)

The case of Marquis de Croisenois is set in motion first: "He will do as we wish, but under certain conditions. Mademoiselle de Mussidan must be his bride. ... the engagement between Mademoiselle Sabine and the Baron de Breuhl-Faverlay will be broken off." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 3) Gaboriau keeps all the plates spinning with impressive skill and astuteness as the Croisenois plot unravels in chapters with hints and clues to the Champdoc case. Even if one plot line takes precedence in Caught in the Net, the other plot line is carried along throughout.

To achieve Mascarin's goal, the de Mussidans must be blackmailed to change the plans for their daughter, "Mademoiselle, at her age and with her tastes, is not likely to have her heart seriously engaged" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 5). Mascarin goes to meet the Count du Mussidan, while Dr Hortebise has an audience with the Countess.

Mascarin tells the count that unless he agrees to marry his daughter to De Croisenoois, Mascarin will bring to light a murder. As evidence Mascarin has three pages in the diary of Baron de Clinchain, who was present when the Count shot his secretary Montlouis point-blank. De Clinchain famously writes everything down, and Mascarin shows the Count photographs of the damning pages (Caught in the Net, Chapter 5). The Count goes through all counterarguments: madness, a forged diary, the limit of statute) but Mascarin is more cunning than this. He threatens the Count with a newspaper article followed by a libel case: "they introduce into the matter a fifth party, of course an accomplice, whose name is introduced into the story in the paper. Upon the day of its appearance, this man lodges a complaint against the journal, and insist on proving in a court of justice, that he did not form one of the shooting party." (Ibid.)

This round-about way of threatening the Count with court demonstrates Mascarin's mastery of law. As he says himself: "the Penal Code ... no on has studied them more deeply than I have." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 10) Mascarin is very aware that if he gets caught he faces life imprisonment (Ibid.) Elsewhere too, there are references to Mascarin's legal knowledge (Caught in the Net, Chapters 10, and 25). He also has excellent detective skills, rivalling those of Sherlock Holmes, as we learn when Dr Hortebise confronts Countess du Mussidan with the information that letters stolen from her show that she knows what happened to de Croisenois's brother George when he vanished twenty-three years ago:

"People say, remarked he, that Mascarin never makes a mistake. One cannot help admiring his diabolical sagacity and unfailing logic. From the most trivial event he forges a long chain of evidence, as the botanist is able, as he picks up a withered leaf, to describe in detail the tree it came from." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 6)

Mascarin's actions destroy the family of Mussidan. After the blackmailers have departed, the Count and the Countess have an almighty domestic: "I could hardly keep my hands from clutching your ivory neck until life was extinct and failed utterly to decide whether I loved you or hated you the most!" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 13) In the course of the heated argument we learn that the Count's victim, his secretary Montlouis had a child with a shop-girl, and the Count supported the mother and the child. The scene is magnificently melodramatic with "the pent-up anger of twenty years." The argument is vitriolic and convincing, we see the facade of marriage collapsing before our eyes. And behind the door, Sabine is eaves-dropping on her parents. What can the poor innocent girl do but to swoon and develop fever? (Caught in the Net, Chapter 13).

"Success, perfect success!" said Hortebise gayly after is meeting with the Countess. (Caught in the Net, Chapter 6)

The scenes with Mascarin executing his plans begin to alternate with those where his opponents are coming together. This brings suspense and tension into the narrative, and Mascarin's success begins to look a little less certain.

Mascarin has not taken into account that Sabine has a secret lover. André is an artist and a stone-mason, both sensitive and manly. He is a foundling (Caught in the Net, Chapter 7), just like Paul, but that is where the similarities end, as Paul puts it: "this life of toil and self-denial, so different from his own selfish and idle career." (Ibid.) Sabine had "dared to cross that social abyss" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 8) and she and André have been for lovers for two years. Gradually he joins forces with Sabine's jilted fiancé de Breuhl-Flavery to save Sabine from what the two men are sure is a forced marriage.

"We can work well together in our different circles: you, in the world of fashion, can pick up intelligence that I could not hope to gain; while I from my lowly position will study the hidden side of his life, for I can talk to the servants ..." André suggests. "M. de Breuhl was delighted at finding that he could have some occupation which would fill up the dreary monotony of his life." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 24).

"Now, said André, ...we are on the track of De Croisenois." (Ibid.)

Mascarin, the master villain, very soon learns about André and the threat he poses:
"What! said he and clenched his hand firmly, 'shall the headstrong passion of this foolish boy mar my plans? Let him take care of himself; for if he walks in my path, he will find it a road that leads to his own destruction." (Chapter 19).

Gaboriau's plotting is excellent. The arrangement of the scenes and dropping of clues and hints about things to come are well balanced. Minor characters are used effectively; their appearances are natural rather than contrived and they stay in character throughout contributing to the plot in a way appropriate to each one.
We start with the villains appearing invincible, but just as we think that the du Mussidans are doomed, a band of friends emerges with the potential to thwart Mascarin.

De Croisenois's debts, George de Croisenois's mysterious disappearance, Sabine and André's fate, du Mussidans' marriage, and André and Paul's parentage and Paul's role in Mascarin's plot are all left open at the end of Caught in the Net. In the last chapter, Mascarin shifts the focus of the narrative, he shows his fellow-villains an encrypted note from Duchess de Champdoce pleading "Give me back our son," with a scribbled answer "No." The story continues written by Mascarin himself, and read by Paul Violaine "in a voice which quivered with emotion" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 27): Mascarin

"... opened a drawer, and drew from it a large pile of manuscript, which he waved over his head with an air of triumph."This is the greatest work I have ever done."" He hands it to Paul and tells him to read it carefully "Let nothing escape you, for there is not one item that has not its importance." (Ibid.) Good advice for Gaboriau's writing. The title of Mascarin's manuscript is The Mystery of Champdoce" just like the title of the second volume of this sensation novel.

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