The start of Napoleon’s Russian campaign is the setting for a serial killer hunt in Armand Cabasson’s award-winning The Officer’s Prey, the first in a series featuring French captain Quentin Margont as a detective trying to solve crimes amidst the fog of war. His blend of history and mystery has been called masterful.
You have an ancestor who was a medical officer in Bonaparte’s army—have you seen any of his writings?
There were several generations of doctors in my family. The first was Jean-Quenin Bremond, who was a medical officer in Napoleon’s Great Army. I don’t know if he fought, because he was a medical officer, but we still have his two pistols with silver butts and his sword. One would be quite pleased to have those things at hand when Cossacks were coming too close during the Russian Campaign of 1812. He was not there to kill, but neither to be killed. We also have his letters, including a very sad one in which he announces to his family that his brother died during the siege of Saragossa, in Spain.
Why start the series at the beginning of the march on Russia?
Because it represents the climax of the Napoleonic era. Napoleon was at that time the most powerful man on earth; the Great Army seemed invincible. Then came the fatal order: cross the Niemen and attack Russia. Napoleon led a fantastic army of 400,000 men to Moscow, but in fact they were all walking towards their own destruction.
What was the inspiration for your sleuth, Quentin Margont?
I wanted to catch the spirit of the period. One day, Napoleon gave a military order to which one of his generals responded: “Sire, that is impossible!” Napoleon replied “The word impossible is not in my dictionary!” The soldiers obeyed the order and were indeed victorious. Since that day, there has been a famous proverb in France: “Impossible is not a French word”—we are so modest, we French…). So in this novel, you meet Margont, who is convinced that anything is possible and Napoleon’s armies are fighting for a better world. They want to overthrow all the kings of Europe, and to bring the ideals of the French Revolution to all European peoples. At the same time, they are led by a general who is starting to turn more and more into an emperor. They fight for peace but each time they win a war, another one is launched. Step by step, they find themselves caught in a war machine over which they have less and less control. Napoleon can be seen as a pathological gambler using his soldiers as his money. He is convinced that he will always win, and so suddenly one sunny day in June 1812, he sends 400,000 soldiers into the Russian meadows, which is the similar to putting 400 million dollars on a green table in a Casino and rolling the dice. So Margont is torn between his humanist dreams which he believes Napoleon could fulfill and a situation that is descending into total war.
Were officers of his rank really able to voice dissent?
Oh yes! The relative freedom of speech in Napoleon’s Great Army came from the French Revolution in 1789. People were suddenly considered as all equals, all “citoyens” (citizens). Napoleon could not simply erase this, for it would have been a betrayal of the Revolution. He could not risk being seen as a kind of “new French king” which would have precipitated a second Revolution against him. So he was trying to become a “republican emperor,” an Emperor respecting the key values of the Revolution. He was forced to let the citizens speak and complain.