First Sentence: “This is the sword of justice,” Jean-Baptiste told him, lifting it from its long, straw-lined, padlocked crate.
to the illness of his father and pressure from his grandmother,
Charles-Henri Sanson is forced to assume the position and title as the
fourth generation hereditary master executioner of Paris. It is a
position of title and power. It is also a role into which one is born
and has no choice but to assume as no other professions are open to the
inheritor of that role. Yet Charles must both learn his position and
strive to maintain his humanity while so doing.
Ms. Alleyn wisely
provides a “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of this book. This is
critical, and very helpful in avoiding confusion, as she is dealing
with many members of one family. That she takes this family, whose
profession is as terrible as one could imagine, and make them both human
and sympathetic is a remarkable accomplishment.
Charles is the
antithesis of what one would imagine for his role, yet part of the power
of the book is that it breaks down stereotypes. He is, to paraphrase
another character’s observation, prosperous, has a good education, nice
manners and is very, very handsome. He also despises what he does,…”It
was rather pathetic, Charles often thought, that among the crowds who
came to stare at public chastisement, the one least eager to be present
was the man in charge of the business.” Conversely, his grandmother and
sister are very matter of fact about the profession and proud of the
family’s title and status. That conflict makes for a very thoughtful
The story deepens with the introduction of an
antagonist. Although she has so done throughout the story, it is at
this point, Ms. Alleyn forcefully speaks to our emotions. One doesn’t
just end the story, one muses over it long after the last page is
The historic detail doesn’t just create a sense of time
and place, but includes us and informs us. It is fascinating to learn
the levels of what could and could not be done, both in terms of the
punishments and types of executions for different levels of crimes and
society, but how bodies were handled after death. We also learn about
the legal process in the days before defense lawyers.
“The Executioner’s Heir” sounds as though it could be very grim, it is
not. Yes, there are passages difficult to read, but never unnecessarily
graphic. It is a very human story and, in the end, about a man
deciding to be the best he can be. It is a remarkable book.
THE EXECUTIONER’S HEIR (Hist Novel-Charles-Henri Sanson-France-1760s) – Ex
Alleyn, Susanne – Standalone
Spyderwort Press (1st electronic edition), 2013