Assassinating Napoleon: The Eagle and the Viper by Loren D. Estleman
Loren D. Estleman’s latest, The Eagle and the Viper (Forge, 2021), is the story of an attempt to assassinate Napoleon. In fact, it’s the story of two attempts to assassinate Napoleon: the first the real-life attempt in 1800 which is often cited as the first-ever use of a vehicular IED, the second a fictional effort the following year. Spoiler: Napoleon survives.
Full disclosure: I’m currently working on a book set in Paris in 1809, not that long after the events of this book, so I was fascinated to see how another author tackles the problem of writing about spies and assassins in that world. And, given that Loren Estleman is a massively more successful author than me, I hoped I might pick up some clues.
Estleman is not known as a writer of historical fiction, though he points out that his many Westerns “often employ actual historical figures, and the research behind them [is] painstaking and thorough”. Certainly he’s put a lot of effort into researching this story. He has long been fascinated by Napoleon and says he owns 200 books about him. He’s clearly read most of them and his book contains some lovely details.
I’m interested that Estleman seems to share my approach to research, which is to read an awful lot about the period and then write without too much reference to your source material.
“One of the most enjoyable things about writing historical fiction is when you go back and read it you can’t separate what you found out from what you made up,” Estleman said. “When you reach that point, you realize you have been solidly in the period.”
This approach can lead to occasional errors, but it means that the story flows and he avoids the tendency to dump information into the plot, which is the curse of so much historical fiction.
Estleman avoids these “information dumps”, respecting his readers’ intelligence and interests. While there is a lot of historical detail in this novel, it is all subordinated to the interest of moving the plot forward. For example, the attempt on Napoleon’s life in 1800 occurred as he was on his way to the opera. Estleman could tell us about the opera and its importance at length. Instead he limits himself to:
“It’s Creation. Haydn’s one of your favourites, isn’t he?”
“I daresay Haydn is more popular with me than I am with him, since the surrender of Vienna.”
That’s how to put ‘facts’ into historical fiction. No words wasted on the details of the opera, but a detail about the war that places us clearly at the time of one of Napoleon’s great early triumphs.
This approach to historical fiction means, as Estleman points out, that you discard most of the work you put into the research. He told me: “Strictly speaking, you use only about 10 percent of what you took in.”
Having just worked my way through the first volume of Fouché’s memoirs (he was Napoleon’s Minister of Police and features heavily in The Eagle and the Viper), I am all too conscious of just how much time reading that 90 percent of discarded material can take. Estleman has clearly put in the hours, reading voraciously in the name of research. “As a reader, I average 200 books a year at least, counting research and pleasure,” he said.
This is an impressive amount of reading to fit around his literary output: he’s published more than 80 books and continues to produce a couple every year.
So what is the secret of Estleman’s success? A lot of research, certainly. And he can write (sadly not a given these days). His prose flows and his pacing is good too, bursts of violent action alternating with more descriptive narrative. His characters are rounded and credible – in part because he is happy to invent details that make them more relatable, though much of the personality he gives people like Napoleon fits well with what we know of him. With his fictitious characters he has full scope for invention and his villain is given an interesting sexual life, which means that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to the vicar. Estleman points out that sexual morals were “lax” at the time and it does give his character more depth.
“Nobody accepts a hero who is without flaws,” he points out. “Why, then, should anyone embrace the perfect villain?”
So we have lots of research, combined with giving free rein to his imagination. That is always a difficult balance for any historical novelist, but it’s particularly interesting here. The description of the first attempt on Napoleon’s life is essentially dramatised documentary – probably truer to the actual facts than, say, The Crown. The second assassination, by contrast, is entirely fictional and, given that the climax is very public, we know that it didn’t happen. Does that worry me? To be honest, it does a bit, but many writers of historical fiction are happy to ignore the facts if they get in the way of a good story. Even Bernard Cornwell has Sharpe winning a crucial battle by exploiting a weakness in an enemy fortress where this weakness simply didn’t exist in real life. Personally, I like to try to fudge historical anomalies, for example by explaining that some events were covered up at the time, but that’s not always possible if you want to keep your plot moving. Every writer has to draw their own boundaries. As Estleman points out, his approach “has been in use from the time of Sir Walter Scott through the more recent adventures produced by such contemporary authors as Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follett.”
Whatever your view on his playing with history, Estleman has produced a book that is great fun to read. Sadly, he says that he isn’t planning a sequel.
About the contributor: Tom Williams writes thrillers about James Burke, a spy in the Napoleonic Wars, and rather heavier books about Victorian colonialism. He blogs on 19th-century history and other random stuff (mainly Argentine tango). Tom’s latest book, Burke in Ireland, was published in March 2021.