Rebecca Stott’s second novel, The Coral Thief (new in hardback from Spiegel & Grau), tells the story of a naive medical student ensnared in a web of scientific intrigue in post-Revolutionary Paris. In July, 1815, shortly after Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo, Stott’s hero Daniel Connor enters the occupied capitol armed only with the valuable coral specimens he plans to bring to his new place of study, the Jardin des Plantes. Riding on a mail coach into the city, Connor meets an alluring, mysterious woman (of course) who ends up stealing his coral samples, but also introducing him to a radical new idea that will soon change the world: the theory of evolution. In Connor’s pursuit of the coral thief, he also becomes entwined with a sharp police chief who is also searching out the mystery woman.
Stott’s novel moves at a nice, steady clip, propelled by simple dialog and meticulously neat historical detailing that doesn’t intrude into her narrative. The Connor narrative is balanced with short intercalary chapters describing Napoleon’s journey into exile, suggesting a division of ways of thinking: as the Emperor is retired, a new mode of thought going beyond the Enlightenment’s obsession with rationalism is on the rise–evolution. In a sense, Stott’s novel is an attack on dogma, as Connor, the coral thief, and the picaresque band the two take up with, work to challenge the institutions that dominate European thinking. (It’s weird to think in America today that evolution is still a debatable, divisive issue).
While The Coral Thief is a novel that weighs history and philosophy, it’s also a great detective story that will appeal to those who want a bit more out of their adventures than Dan Brown can offer. Stott’s writing is succinct and well-researched, with none of the ponderous pretentiousness that can sometimes weigh down historical fiction. (Stott does, however, include a not-too lengthy bibliography for those who wish to read further into her post-Napoleonic France; listed authors include Victor Hugo and Balzac). The Coral Thief is great good fun for thinking people. Recommended.