** Warning: May Contain Some Plot Spoilers **
Like many readers, I saw the Polanski/Depp film The Ninth Gate before I read Arturo Pérez-Reverte’sThe Club Dumas, and despite what I felt was a let-down ending in the film (we’re taken all the way to the final gate, and then...), I enjoyed it enough to pick up the book years later, hoping for a fleshed out story and an improved finale.
But for those wanting to dance with the devil after an eerie, mysterious, occult-infused plot, the movie may have come closer to a satisfactory ending than I first realized.
I’ll break down this review into four parts: The Book, The Good, The Bad, and The End.
The Book: I found the first 75% of the book to be very enjoyable. The idea of a somewhat disreputable, anti-hero book detective (Lucas Corso) rifling through the ancient book collections in Europe to hunt down the backstory of an original Alexandre Dumas manuscript and a Satanic/occult tome titled The Nine Gates (two books that may or may not have a deep and mysterious connection) was very appealing to a book nerd like me. There’s a lot of history discussed throughout the story, and deep examinations of Dumas characters, their namesakes, and the possible ways in which Dumas and the occult might be connected. It’s a fun detective story with enough twists and side characters to keep things interesting.
The Good: Corso is a fun character, not overly developed but enough for us to happily follow him. His “clever rabbit” description by the narrator (who physically appears here and there throughout the book) helps us understand how sharp Corso really is. I’m a sucker for historical/occult books, and this one is chock full of ancient, mysterious, and straight-up spooky woodcuts that hint at ways to raise the devil. The combination of historical fact and false history-as-fact was well done. A lot of thrillers these days seem to follow either this or Dan Brown’s blueprint for cult-related historic bestsellers. However, I found the writing in this book to be better than any of Brown’s books (which all contain the same basic plot, painfully underdeveloped characters, and poor dialogue) and FAR better than The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, which I found completely unreadable. The research put into The Club Dumas is impressive, with intensely deep discussions about the work and habits of Dumas, printing and binding (and forging) of ancient texts, and historical aspects of the occult and The Inquisition. While some of it pulled the reader away from the main action of the story for an extended period of time, I still found it all very fascinating.
The Bad: I’ll save my displeasure over the ending for the next section, but as the book neared the end, the generic thriller tropes started to shine through, as if the history aspect was running out of gas, so the author had to revert to the basic tricks-of-the-trade to keep readers moving. Descriptions of characters became repetitive (he mentions the girl’s “green eyes” and how she smells of “youth and fever” so often that I began to wonder if it was the author’s fault for forgetting he used those phrases previously or maybe I got a bad kindle version [which I did, it was rife with errors and typos]). The descriptions of others also become not just repeated but generic. For example, he describes the breasts of almost every woman in the book as “perfect.” Or their bodies as “perfect.” That’s a bit lazy. Also, Corso seems entirely too comfortable with the fact that the girl he falls in love with is either a demon or the devil himself (herself?), and her background is never fully explained, which is frustrating. I feel as if more could have been done with that…but that might have lead us down a whole other path. The final 25% of the book also contains far too many long, dull conversations where little of consequence is revealed, because as I will discuss below, there is little of consequence to actually reveal. Bummer. And even before the ending, the Dumas connection with The Nine Gates becomes weak, and I don’t think the way he attempted to meld the two stories into one tale works as well as the author wanted. It’s fun, it certainly got me into the book at the start, but it’s clear throughout the book that these are two different adventures that don’t have a hell of a lot to do with each other.
The End: (**Definite Spoiler Alert . . . Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here**) So, as I said, the two stories don’t have a damn thing to do with each other, as Corso discovers, despite piggybacking each other to the end of the book. The Club Dumas is a mere collection of Dumas fans who wanted the last piece of the original manuscript that Corso was carrying around as he tried to find the history of the text for an unrelated buyer/friend, and maybe the club members got a little carried away in trying to get it back. That's it. But now that they have the manuscript, hey, want to join the club? No? Ok, bye. Really, that’s it. Ok, then the part about The Nine Gates has to have a wham-bang ending, right? Well, not so much. In fact, Corso walks away from the whole thing, leaving Borja (his now insane “boss”) to discover the path to the devil on his own, be it blocked or otherwise (we get a general idea about which, but no fun details).
Corso actually knows who has the final piece that might truly unlock the last gate, but he doesn’t care at this point. He could have saved the book, the final pieces, and found out for himself later on. Instead he kills off any hope of anyone ever knowing the truth and just wants his money so he can go home. He’s a mercenary to the end, but because of all he’s been through, just wanting to go home makes him like a somewhat less interesting one. But then again, he already found the devil (wait, did he really?) in the girl, although as I said, it could have been explained a little more while still retaining that key sense of mystery. As is, it just feels like someone tells you the first two-thirds of a secret but refuses to say more.
It’s an underwhelming but adequate ending. At least in the movie Corso, like the rest of us, has become entranced with the book and the mission to raise the devil, and he seeks the final missing piece and heads off to the castle to do the deed himself. But in either case, we never get the big finale, probably because it’s an impossible task to end the book that way. I understand that and I can accept it. It’s hard to go, "Oh, here’s the devil. It works." The End. No, you’d need to keep going after that, wouldn't you? You'd need a whole other damned book, at least. So, for what it is, the ending is acceptable because anything else would become bizarre and probably laughable ... like a Bill & Ted adventure into Hell. Besides, isn’t the devil scarier when you don’t know where he ... or she ... may appear? I think so.
Rating: I give this book a B minus, a 3.5 out of 5 star rating. It’s a fun adventure, one I think back to often, but don’t expect to get the epic ending you’re hoping for.