Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore (ARC cover)Christopher Moore is one of my favourite humourists for his satirical wit, wry tone, and intelligent material. When I first read A Dirty Job about death and soul-collecting in San Francisco, I laughed myself to tears. Since then (2008) I have also read Fool and Bloodsucking Fiends, both which I enjoyed, but neither topped A Dirty Job.

I recently finished Moore’s latest work, Sacré Blue: A Comedy d’Art (published April 2012). Unfortunately, Sacré Bleu does not hit it out of the park, and instead finds a more historical, almost reflective tone in 19th century Paris.

It is the color of the Virgin Mary’s cloak, a dazzling pigment desired by artists, an exquisite hue infused with danger, adventure, and perhaps even the supernatural. It is . . . Sacré BleuIn July 1890, Vincent van Gogh went into a cornfield and shot himself. Or did he? Why would an artist at the height of his creative powers attempt to take his own life . . . and then walk a mile to a doctor’s house for help? Who was the crooked little “color man” Vincent had claimed was stalking him across France? And why had the painter recently become deathly afraid of a certain shade of blue?

These are just a few of the questions confronting Vincent’s friends—baker-turned-painter Lucien Lessard and bon vivant Henri Toulouse-Lautrec—who vow to discover the truth about van Gogh’s untimely death. Their quest will lead them on a surreal odyssey and brothel-crawl deep into the art world of late nineteenth-century Paris.

From the publisher, HarperCollins Canada

A satirical take on the Impressionist era in Paris, Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art is a very well written and thoroughly researched novel, definitely Moore caliber. However, it falls short of the unstoppable praise that has characterized his past novels.

The characters are either loosely or fully based on historical truths. Lucien, as the main character, is strongly written and the depth of his character feels authentic. Most of the artists are seen only in passing, but the personality tidbits that Moore includes are amusing and add to the interest of the story. I ended up really enjoying Lucien and Henri, both characters were colourfully illustrated and brought to life. The Colour Man and Juliette felt a little flat, and I would chalk this up to their supposed ‘mystery’. The narration was more focused on developing Lucien and Henri’s quest than the other characters. All the peripheral characters—Lucien’s family, the other artists, van Gogh’s brother—were all very two dimensional puppets to the plot.

The satirical elements are strong, and the humour is mild, save for occasional classic Moore-isms that caught me out of the blue and had me in tears laughing. The plot and story itself felt a little weak, and at times I wasn’t really sure where it was going. Unlike Fool, Moore’s 2009 novel loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, there wasn’t such a rigid direction.

I think, by basing his novel on previous work or historical events, Moore then stunts his own creativity. As Moore explains in the afterword, “I simply set out to write a novel about the color blue; I can’t remember why now. When you start with a concept that vague, you have to narrow your scope fairly quickly or it will get out of hand, so very early in my research great bits of history had to go by the wayside so I’d have room to make stuff up.”

In the end, it is the small touches that count: the blue ink throughout the novel, and several dozen full-colour masterpieces from Monet, Manet, van Gogh, Renoir, Seurat, Michelangelo, and more. Oh, and the ridiculous number of times the word ‘penis’ is used.
Please note, the cover image seen here is for the Advanced Reader Copy.

Full disclosure: I received this book for review purposes from the publisher. I wrote a review published in The Peak, SFU’s Student Newspaper in Summer 2013.