“Christ in heaven! I’m no criminal! I’ve nothing to be ashamed of! I’m a good Christian, a gentleman, the King’s servant – an officer of the law, the equal of any of them – I only follow the orders the judges give me. Why should I be pointed at, hissed at, despised?”
I might as well admit at the outset that I’m vehemently anti-Capital Punishment, and that state-sanctioned murder strikes me as being abhorrent. I therefore approached a fictional account of an executioner (albeit a real historical figure), with some considerable caution. An executioner is an interesting figure, no doubt; but a sympathetic one? Not likely.
However, it says much for Susanne Alleyn’s skill that, within pages, I was won over. Admittedly, Charles Sanson is not an executioner through choice; in pre-Revolutionary France, the job is handed down from father to son, with very little chance of escape. Charles has never wanted to be an executioner, and at first entertains ideas of somehow sidestepping his destiny; medicine is his passion, and he dreams of healing rather than harming. When his father is forced to retire due to ill health, however, Charles not only reluctantly takes over his job, but does so at a frighteningly young age.
The Sansons’ lives are paradoxical: in many ways they are actually rather privileged. They have steady jobs, a good income, and a level of material comfort unusual for the time. However, their profession is the price they pay – that, and being the object (understandably) of almost superstitious horror. Few people outside their profession wish to associate with them; most people shun them. Theirs is a peculiarly isolated little world.
Meanwhile, in the countryside, the young François de la Barre, the son of a penniless aristocrat, is growing up in a manner which Charles might have envied. He has freedom, if not much money; the future looks bright for him. However, one of François’s traits is his inability to stay out of trouble, together with an extraordinary knack for making dangerous enemies. His life, seemingly so different, is in fact on a collision course with Charles’s.
Charles fulfils his duties, obediently but without enthusiasm, and seeks solace in various things: family, women, entertainment. He continues to dream of escape, but as he grows older those dreams become tinged with desperation, as all the doors that might lead him out of his current life close, one after the other. Meanwhile, his former rationalisation of his job as a necessary evil, and of his role as a mere official of the justice system, begins to wobble as he is asked to perform duties that he finds increasingly abhorrent. Justice, in pre-Revolutionary France, is a very fluid concept indeed; people are harshly punished for minor crimes, and many trials and convictions are politically motivated. Yet even as he realises this, he also realises that he is trapped. As he eventually, sadly concedes, “You’re right, all of you; I can’t escape. Even when my duty is at odds with my conscience, duty without honour.”
Like all good historical fiction, The Executioner’s Heir makes a particular time and place come alive through its very real and vivid characters. Alleyn’s research must have been painstaking, but it’s lightly worn; pre-Revolutionary Paris came alive for me in all its grubbiness and glamour. This is an interesting world: there are still years to go before the Revolution, but the Enlightenment is well underway, and the old system is gradually dying. The novel also examines many weighty issues: the extent of, and problems inherent in, the justice system, and the clash between personal freedom and responsibility. There is no easy way out for Charles, much as he (and the reader) wishes there were; there is only, in the end, his choice to be the best man he can be, within the limitations of his life.