UPDATE! I am updating this review, removing it from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel site, and restoring it to its proper place. This lovely book made it to the semi-finals of the contest only to be pushed aside by some works whose presence at that level mystified me--I read the pages available and the reviews, and gave up, shaking my head and wondering about reading tastes. True enough--we all have different tastes. While The Executioner's Heir did not make it to the top of this particular contest, it has been adopted as required reading in an upper level university seminar on penal institutions, punishment, and torture in Early Modern Europe. So the author is in excellent company, I think.
REVIEW: I was directed to Susanne Alleyn's Aristide Ravel mysteries by a kindly soul who'd read several of my reviews of very bad historical fiction set during the French Revolution, and who empathized with my despair about ever finding something not only historically accurate but also well-written. After devouring the four books in about a week, I wondered if that happy experience could ever be repeated. It was, not with another mystery, but with an eloquent, often stark, often very human story of a conflicted young man, his family, its occupation, and the burdens and constraints that singular occupation placed on them all. The novel moved between the darkness of the deeds Sanson was obligated to perform, and the light of his close-knit family life, the notion of sin, on the part of the guilty and on those who dispensed the king's justice, and redemption in the commingled art--and practice--of healing, and of treating the condemned with a dignity they perhaps never received in life.
Charles Sanson, the adolescent son of the 18th-century master executioner of Paris Jean-Baptiste Sanson, was raised knowing he would inherit his father's title and his duties of carrying out the sentences imposed by the Ancien régime courts against French subjects of all classes. His father also taught him anatomy and basic medicine as a gift to the poor living near them who could otherwise receive no medical care and as a way to sometimes lessen the horrific functions he would later perform. His father also tried to teach him that while he would carry out the sentences handed down by the courts, he was not to question whether those sentences were justified, or whether the condemned person was guilty. Instead, Charles must try to exercise his required function at the same time he acknowledged the deep fears, the mortal weaknesses, and the humanity of each of his "patients," as Jean-Baptiste called them, never "victims," and make each execution as easy as possible, and as dignified as possible. I saw the evidence of this in two of the Ravel novels, one featuring Charles, the other his son, another Charles. This theme runs throughout this book, more poignant, somehow, if that's possible, and more real.
Not only does Charles have to grow to accept his family's occupation, but he also has to come to terms with whether he will carry on the tradition. Although his choices are few indeed, his father's sudden incapacitation lessens those choices immeasurably. The decisions he makes, then, finally lead him to confront the draconian culmination of at least two subplots weaving through this remarkable tale. Those confrontations, like every other dramatic nuance, are powerful, but never, ever predictable or over-done. Additionally, we see how holding the distinction of this unique title wears on Charles, denying him close friends and acquaintances outside the family's profession, and places him in the almost heartbreaking position of having a Parisian prostitute claim she is better than he is, thus robbing him of even that small comfort.
Charles and his family were real, and their occupation was real. Ms. Alleyn researched the few contemporaneous documents, letters, and memoirs about the Sansons. She kept her fictional account as rigorously accurate as even the most exacting historian could wish at the same time fleshing out her characters, particularly Charles, with utter believability. Not a false note anywhere, I can assure you. As with the Ravel mysteries, Paris and the immediate countryside are also characters, and flawlessly depicted in shades of sunlight and gloom, as the situation dictates. She is also careful to let the reader see that Paris, and indeed much of France, was in the 1750s and 1760s a splendidly dressed but rotting grande dame intent on preserving the last gasps of absolutism even while the Age of Reason challenged the old ways. So did Charles Sanson, but only in his heart.
The Executioner's Heir is a rarity, a book that is historically accurate and true to its time and a tale skillfully and compellingly told, with a theme that lasts beyond its time. It is good enough, in all respects, that I would include it in a reading list for my history classes as an example of a vivid slice of mid-18th century French history that is difficult to come by, even in non-fiction.