Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

A subpar effort by Dumas
I consider myself a fan of Alexandre Dumas. I’ve read enough of his works to know that they’re not all action/adventure novels like the Three Musketeers. Yet, when I pick up a book by Dumas, the bare minimum that I expect from him are at least a few surprises, a certain degree of suspense, and most of all, some good honest entertainment. With The Black Tulip, I was disappointed on all counts.

Originally published in 1850 as Le Tulipe Noire, this novel takes place in 1672 in the Netherlands. Dumas opens the book by depicting an actual event in Dutch history. William of Orange has taken power in Holland. John de Witt, who presided over the previous republican government, and his brother Cornelius de Witt, a high official in his administration, are deposed from their offices and brutally assassinated in the streets of The Hague. This incident takes up the first few chapters of the book, but the main story revolves around Cornelius de Witt’s godson, Cornelius van Baerle. There exists a packet of executive correspondence written by the de Witts that everyone wants to get their hands on, though I cannot for the life of me figure out why these letters are so important when the people they are supposed to incriminate are already dead. Despite the attempts at political intrigue, the main plotline of the novel centers around Cornelius van Baerle’s avocation of tulip growing. The horticultural society of Haarlem has sponsored a lucrative prize to the first successful breeder of a perfectly black tulip. Van Baerle is on the verge of achieving this elusive goal, but a rival tulip fancier, envious of his botanical accomplishments, schemes to rob him of his precious flower.

Though Dumas is most famous for the Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, the best thing about his work is not swashbuckling swordplay but rather the intricacy and ingenuity of his plots. The storyline of The Black Tulip, on the other hand, despite being adorned with a lot of historical details and tulip trivia, is painfully simple and straightforward. Although this is a rather short novel, there’s really only enough plot here to sustain a short story. What’s worse, it’s all very predictable. Dumas basically tells you what’s going to happen ahead of time, so all that’s left is to wait for the characters to experience what you know is coming. He often jumps back in time to portray the same scene from a different perspective, and the reader must sit through the characters explaining events to each other that were already covered in previous chapters. Not surprisingly, there’s a love story. “Whom do you love more, me or your tulip?” she asks. I don’t know, let’s discuss it for three or four chapters. Almost every scene in the book presents a circuitous conversation leading to a foregone conclusion. At no time did I ever feel surprised or wonder what was going to happen next. Other than the obvious historical research that was done to set the stage, it feels like Dumas and his team just phoned this one in to pay the bills.

There’s no doubt that Dumas is one of the world’s greatest storytellers. Perhaps I’m being too harsh because I set my expectations too high. After all, a bad book by Dumas is probably better than the best book by 90% of the authors that ever lived. However, the guy was one of literature’s most prolific authors. He wrote a lot of great stuff, so why read this one?

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