Saturday, October 5, 2013


First Sentence: “This is the sword of justice,” Jean-Baptiste told him, lifting it from its long, straw-lined, padlocked crate.

Due 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 reading.

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 turned.

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.

While “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

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