November, apart from everything else going on, is German Lit Month, this year hosted by lovely Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life (Volume 2) – you can find out more on her site here. This is an event I always like to take part in, and I was determined to do so this year; there’s also Non-Fiction November and Novellas in November, and pleasingly today’s slim volume counts for the latter of those two events! As you may have noticed from my October round-up, I did actually finish this book last month – but as usual I’m playing catch up with reviews! Anyway, on to today’s book, which is “Mademoiselle de Scuderi” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by Andrew Brown for my Alma Classics 101 Pages edition; and Lizzy is also responsible for this as it was her review of the book which convinced me I should read it…

Hoffmann is, of course, famous for his fantasy and Gothic horror stories, often collected as “Tales of Hoffmann”; and “Scuderi..” was first published in 1819, becoming an instant success. It’s apparently still one of Hoffmann’s most highly regarded works and its not hard to see why. The story is set in Paris, during the reign of King Louis XIV, and the city is in the grip of a crimewave. A band of thieves appear to be attacking citizens and stealing their jewels, often resorting to murder to get hold of the booty. Alongside this, a series of poisonings has taken place, and the king has established a special court to investigate the crimes. Unfortunately, the man tasked with investigating has more zeal than sense, establishing a reign of terror and not really getting to the bottom of the things.

Enter Mademoiselle de Scudéri, an elderly poetess who is a favourite of the king and his mistress. One night, a frantic young man comes to her house and pleads to see her, but her maid keeps her from seeing the poetess. The young man escapes into the night, leaving a piece of jewellery behind him; and thus Mme de Scuderi is drawn into the plot which will turn out to be much more complex than you might initially think! The piece of jewellery turns out to has been made by the master craftsman Cardillac; but how has it got to the young man and the Mme de Scuderi? Who *is* the young man? Who is behind the crimes? And will Mme de Scuderi be able to ensure that justice is done?

Despite its short length, “Scuderi…” is packed with action, and has a wonderfully conjured historical setting! It’s been hailed as one of the earliest examples of a murder mystery, and it’s not hard to see why; there’s a lot of detecting and investigating done in the story, albeit not in the traditional Golden Age manner and within the societal structure of France of the time. But there’s also plenty of drama, romance, Gothic terror and also the fear of injustice. Certainly, the king’s investigators are thorough and brutal, and once they have a culprit they believe is guilty they’re immoveable. It takes all Mme de Scuderi’s talents to get to the truth of things and the denouement is perhaps unexpected but very satisfying.

As far as I’m aware, this is the first Hoffmann I’ve read and I really enjoyed it; brimming with drama and atmosphere, it was a wonderfully distracting little novella and evidence of Hoffmann’s skill as a storyteller. I also sensed undercurrents, as it’s possible to read into Hoffmann’s narratives criticism of a way of rule which depends so much on the whims of a monarch, as well as the moral of the investigator who is anything but willing to consider an alternative to his conclusions. The portrayal of the ‘criminal’, too, is fascinating, with quite a lot of psychological depth. All in all, this was a fascinating and thought-provoking read, and it’s definitely left me keen to read more of Hoffmann’s work!

I’m counting this read for two events in November – the aforementioned German Literature Month, and also Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746Books and Bookish Beck! 😀