The Black Count : Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

The Prologue to The Black Count, opens on 26 February 1806, the night General Alexandre Dumas died. The General’s son, Alexandre, was just four years old and away from home for the night. The young boy woke and felt on his face a comforting breath as if his father had exhaled before taking leave of the world.

Later the boy — Alexandre Dumas — was to become one of the most well known and loved novelists of the nineteenth century best remembered for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas would write: “I worshipped my father … I love him still with as deep and as true a love as if he had watched over my youth and I’d had his blessing to go from child to man leaning on his powerful arm.”

There is something captivating and heartwarming about a son’s love for his father and with that story, from the very first page of The Black Count, it is as though Reiss is shining a lantern into the eighteenth century illuminating with life and color a cast of characters who live their lives at most interesting moment in French history.

“To remember a person is the most important thing in the novels of Alexandre Dumas,” Tom Reiss tells us. And it is the novelist’s memory of his father that first intrigued Reiss and led him to investigate the life and career of General Alexandre Dumas. The Black Count tells the story of the General’s life, from his boyhood and early career to his development into a strikingly handsome, swashbuckling and successful military hero who led his soldiers to victory in the name of France.

Unusually for a man in his position, General Dumas was of mixed race. His military career spans the last years of eighteenth century France including the French Revolution and continues through the Napoleonic wars. Perhaps because of his background, Dumas had “thrown his life and soul fully behind the Revolution”, Reiss explains, suggesting that: “In a world where men of his color were slaves, revolutionary France was his promised land, even if he had to share it with some unsavory characters.”

Reiss draws on primary sources and presents excerpts from letters, memoirs and other documents to powerful and dramatic effect as he describes in color and detail historic events in which Dumas played a significant role. For all that The Black Count is a tale of wars and sword fights, of swashbuckle and history, it is also an intensely human story where, for example, Dumas has moments when he is struck down by depression which seems oddly modern until Reiss explains that “there was a well-established belief in the eighteenth century that depression was the cause of everything from infections to heart disease and cancer.” Similarly, the importance of family relationships, the love of Dumas for his wife, his daughters and son make him seem quite a contemporary figure as does his empathy for his compatriots. In 1796, for example, while with the Army in Italy, he writes of a soldier “unworthy to be called a Frenchman” and notes at the end of an arrest order: “You will also warn the hussars of that detachment that all the requisitions that they had the impudence to make in my name are void, and that all the cattle which have been taken must be returned immediately to their owners …”

Reiss’s passion for history is evident and his use of primary sources adds drama and color to The Black Count. The result is a cracking good story with plenty of notes and additional sources that will appeal to historians as well as fans of Alexandre Dumas’s novels and may well inspire readers to continue to explore this exciting and interesting period of French history.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is published by Crown publishers, 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-38246-7; eISBN 978-307-95295-0.

An advance review copy was provided free of charge by the publisher for the purpose of this review.