As an avid reader, book snob and baccalaureate in English, certain things are expected of me. One of them is that I’ve read every famous old book written in English. Of course, this is unrealistic and unfair, but there it is. As a result, books like The Count of Monte Cristo get put on my list by the prissy old-school professor in my head that thinks you can’t call yourself educated if you haven’t read the entire English-language canon. Moby Dick, Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities, Siddhartha, Anna Karenina and others have made it onto the list – and not all of them make it back off fully perused (if you know what I’m saying).
I put TCoMC on my list because my friend, Rita, recommended it. She paints crystal and glass for a living and – rather than listen to music – she listens to books on tape (or more accurately, on her IPod) while she’s working. She was telling me how much she really enjoyed this book – she didn’t expect she would like it so much. All I knew about TCoMC before I picked it up (besides the fact that Rita loved it) was 1) it was written by Alexandre Dumas, the same guy that wrote The Three Musketeers, and The Man in the Iron Mask (both movies I had seen, books I had not read) and that Guy Pearce played the count in a recent film adaptation (which I had not seen, I just remember a clip of Pearce escaping from a scary island prison).
I am happy to report that I did indeed finish all 1200+ pages of TCoMC. In fact, it was difficult to put down. The intro to the new Penguin Classic translation I got from the library says that the book was written during the time when the modern-day detective novel was being born (it was written 40 years before the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes). It is also among the highest selling books of all time. Of course, since he was popular, Dumas didn’t get much in the way of critical props (as the intro also informed me. I know I never read Dumas once in any of my lit classes – and that is a LOT of lit classes).
In the story, Edmond Dantes is a poor French sailor who is about to get married and also be promoted to captain of a ship. Some jealous acquaintances anonymously accuse him as a traitor, and the prosecutor finds him guilty to protect his own interests. This takes place during the post-Napoleon era, before the Emperor returns briefly from Elba. As a result, Edmond spends 14 years in jail, in solitary confinement, for a crime he never committed. He escapes with help from a fellow prison, who bequeaths to him a fortune that no one else believes exists. With this fortune, he becomes the Count of Monte Cristo and patiently sets out to repay those acquaintances for the harm they’ve inflicted as well as repay those who were faithful to him, some to their own detriment.
I’ve read plenty of mystery/detective novels, and most of the time I can figure out what’s going to happen. The best part of TCoMC was that, while you could see the pieces that the Count was assembling, you couldn’t be sure what he was going to do with them until it was about to happen. And he never concocted lies to punish the wicked – he merely tempted them, lured them in, then exposed their wickedness to the world. Nor did he commit violence against any of them. Those with violent natures turned upon themselves or else were attacked by their fellow villains. And when the innocent were hurt, he mourned.
I also liked the fact that the ending wasn’t trite and unrealistic. The novel as a whole is over-the-top, but not ridiculous. There is no possible fairy-tale ending that could have replaced what the Count/Dantes lost, so Dumas does not insult our intelligence by giving us one. What we get is a happy, believable ending that doesn’t diminish what came before. And there’s even a gay sub-plot! In 1840! And while I wouldn’t say that the female characters were positive role models (they are either pure as the driven snow or nasty schemers), they are reasonably intelligent for the most part (the young ones are smart but naïve, the older ones are pure in spirit or conniving but not heartless). I guess one of the reasons I really liked the book was because the characters were well done, and everyone is human. The villains love their kids and/or wives, the heroes make mistakes, honor is important, but truth and honesty even more so. Evil is punished, and goodness is rewarded. The Count sees himself as an agent of God/Providence, appointed to punish the wicked and reward the faithful.
If you want a fast-paced (but long) detective/mystery story, it doesn’t get much better than this. And (most) people will be all impressed because you’re reading high-brow Victorian Literature – two for one!