The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy

Okay, I read this for exactly two reasons: one, I thought this book was on The List (it’s not); and two, the Scarlet Pimpernel is the inspiration for the Bruce Wayne/Batman dichotomy and I am a giant dork.

For a book about a secret team of English noblemen working to rescue French nobles from the scary revolutionists who want them dead, this is a surprisingly unexciting book. The pace is fast, and there’s plenty of spying and blackmailing and races against time, but there isn’t a single fistfight, swordfight, gunfight or slapping fight in the whole book. There’s sort of a chase scene at the end, but the pursued party is in a slow-moving cart and the pursuer is on foot. There’s plenty of drama and intrigue and excitement, but just one duel would have been nice.

Luckily, the characters are all great. Sir Percy, in addition to being a precursor to Bruce Wayne’s vigilante-disguised-as-idiot-rich-boy act, also reminded me of Lord Peter Wimsey (another fan of the Badass Disguised as Fop method), which was awesome. His archenemy is Chauvelin, basically the French version of Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, and everybody was generally so cool that I forgot about how amazingly not scary a name like “Scarlet Pimpernel” is.

The true hero of this story, surprisingly, is not the Scarlet Pimpernel. He mostly stays in the background while people talk about him, and throughout the whole book we never really get to see him in action. Instead, we see almost everything through the eyes of Sir Percy’s wife, Marguerite, who despite everything manages to be awesome. The issue I had with Marguerite was that she’s repeatedly referred to as the cleverest woman in Europe, but god damn is she stupid. Sir Percy might as well have been dancing around wearing a sign that read “Hello, I am secretly the Scarlet Pimpernel” and she wouldn’t figure it out. At one point, Marguerite snoops around in Percy’s study and sees the following objects: maps of the English and French coastlines on the walls, and a small ring with a scarlet pimpernel flower engraved on it. Marguerite stares blindly at these objects and is like, “But what does it all mean?”

The major flaw in the Percy/Marguerite marriage was a lack of communication. First we find out that Marguerite informed on a French family by accident and they got arrested before she was married, and she never told Percy about it even after she found out that she’d made a mistake. Then, when Chauvelin tells Marguerite that she has to work as a spy for him or he’ll kill her brother, Marguerite doesn’t tell her husband what’s going on until after she sells out the Pimpernel without knowing who he is. I mean, Jesus. Also he’s in disguise for the last part of the book and it was so fucking obvious which character was actually Percy in disguise I wanted to throw the book at the wall.

But fortunately, this all ends with Marguerite becoming awesome, racing against the clock to save her husband and defeat Chauvelin, and the ending between Percy and Marguerite is surprisingly sweet and very satisfying.

(that got a bit rambly, didn’t it?) Anyway, in conclusion: a fun espionage story, even if it’s not as swashbuckling as I expected and everyone except the Pimpernel is an idiot. I’ll be looking up the movie version soon, and will likely prefer it to the book.

Verdict: three out of five stars

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