You can dive into Sacré Bleu, the most recent non-spinoff work from comic/fantasy yarn spinner Christopher Moore, without an art history degree, but it might not be a bad idea to have a working knowledge of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters of Paris in the late 1800s before you start.
That’s because most of them (at least those Moore can place within temporal or physical proximity to the setting) make appearances in Sacré Bleu, a paranormal mystery that casts artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the unlikely role of investigator when his pal and fellow painter Vincent van Gogh suffers what appears to be self-inflicted gunshot wound, but then proceeds to walk to find a doctor, dying not long after he arrives.
Toulouse-Lautrec has reason to believe that his friend’s death was instead a murder, and sets out to find out who might have been the killer. He enlists the help of a young baker, Lucien Lessard, whose father was both an aspiring artist himself and a patron of the Impressionist community. Lucien, it turns out, has some talent of his own, and as such is doted upon by the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec and his peers.
Central to the plot, as you might gather from the title, is the color blue, specifically the “sacred” blue reserved in European art for the shade of the Virgin Mary’s gown. Its origins and mysterious purveyors – and how they relate to the artists of late 19th century France – help Moore explore the primary themes of talent, inspiration and madness, and how the three can be inseparably intertwined.
Stylistically, Sacré Bleu hews mostly closely among Moore’s works to Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. In Lamb, Moore took the established canon of the New Testament and, through legitimate historical and theological research, filled in the blanks of the missing years of the life of Jesus with fictional suppositions about his travels and the earthly inspirations for his later, better documented ministries.
Of course, Moore being Moore, he did so with a heaping helping of satire, naughty wit and downright hilarity, and Sacré Bleu is no different, reflecting the same narrative base – actual people and history are folded into a completely fantastic storyline that somehow manages to incorporate real events and landmark art in a way that makes you pause and say, “Well, maybe it could have happened that way after all.”
As a character in a Moore novel goes, Toulouse-Lautrec is so perfect it’s like history planned for him to star in this book. Short in stature but overwhelming in his confidence in his own talent, the artist was well known as a libertine and based much of his oeuvre on the sensory experiences of spending lots of time in burlesque halls and brothels.
Complementing it all are the full-color (at least in the first edition hardback copies) illustrations of nearly every painting Moore references in the course of the narrative. They are used both as a (very subtle) art history lesson and to place into context the interactions between the artists and their mysterious muse. It’s a clever – and to my knowledge, unique – device that does nothing to interrupt the story and so very much to remind the reader that the characters placed in these fictional situations were indeed real people doing real and very relevant work.
I noted earlier that this is a “non-spinoff” work to distinguish it from the pseudo-sequels of two of Moore’s earlier novels, Bloodsucking Fiends and A Dirty Job – those being You Suck and Bite Me. While, as a Moore fan, I enjoyed the latter two, at times it felt as if the author was phoning it in to try and grab some of that tasty vampire mojo that keeps copies of the Twilight series flying off the shelf.
This novel doesn’t suffer from that feeling. Indeed, when Moore puts his mind (and research and shoe leather) to it, he can craft a detailed and stylistically pleasing novel that incorporates a detailed and well organized story, plenty of Tom Robbins-style wordplay and sexy-sexy plot points with the abundantly weird supernatural/science fictional elements that keep readers coming back.