One of the many surprising things I learned from the historical mystery The Rhetoric of Death by Judith Rock is that an important part of the curriculum of 17th century rhetoric, as instructed by the Jesuits, was ballet. I don’t quite get the connection, but there it is. This novel, written by a historian whose dissertation is about the Louis le Grand in Paris, is full of interesting details about life in 17th century France.
Charles du Luc, a Jesuit maître of rhetoric, has had a position arranged by his cousin, the Bishop of Marseilles, at the famous Louis le Grand school. Du Luc isn’t really qualified to be employed by such an esteemed school, but the bishop wants to get him out of Provence because Charles has just finished helping smuggle his Huguenot cousin from there to Switzerland.
The school is two weeks away from its annual performance, an enormous, lengthy (some were as long as 12 hours) ballet and rhetoric production of The Labors of Hercules that will be attended by the king himself, and du Luc is assigned to assist with the dance rehearsals. On his first day, the distracted student who is to play Hercules runs off from the rehearsal and disappears. On the same day, his little brother is almost run down by a horse. Charles thinks these two events may be connected and is even more sure when the first boy is found strangled in a latrine.
At the same time Charles finds himself under suspicion from the authorities because he was the last person to see the first boy alive and was on the scene right after the second boy was almost run down. He is also facing hostility from a fellow member of the Jesuit school who takes an instant dislike to him, a member of the powerful De Guise family.
This novel does a good job of making the period come alive. Unfortunately, the mystery is not nearly as effective as the history. I figured out the motive and the person behind the murders on about page 50. Shortly thereafter I figured out who the actual murderer was. However, the test for me on a mystery, since I often figure out the solution, is whether I am still interested in reading it. In this case, I found the characters, story, and historical background interesting enough to finish.