Christopher Moore is a chameleon of comic fantasy. His novels center on ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations of historical significance or supernatural wonder: vampires in Bloodsucking Fiends and its sequels, a grim reaper in A Dirty Job, and even Jesus’ childhood friend Biff in Lamb. Moore’s latest novel, Sacré Blue, is another genre shift, a supernatural murder-mystery draped in a lovingly inaccurate art-history lesson. It’s historical fiction in the National Treasure sense of the genre, playing fast and loose with the details to craft a thoroughly entertaining plot full of wit and whimsy.
Set mostly in Paris in 1890, during the Post-Impressionist era, Sacré Bleu centers on Lucien Lessard, a baker, aspiring painter, and best friend of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Lucien’s father was a great appreciator of art, giving bread to the starving artists who went on to form the Impressionist movement. When the re-appearance of Juliette, Lucien’s muse and great love, coincides a bit too conveniently with the news of Vincent Van Gogh’s mysterious death, Henri and Lucien get tangled up in the mystery of just how the desperate, starving Parisian painters produced a tremendous catalogue of masterpieces, most of them with a striking tint of blue.
Moore’s best quality as a writer is his ability to slowly weave metaphysical elements into his work at a comfortable pace, building a fictional reflection of our world like a giant snow globe, self-contained and impeccably organized. In this novel, the titular object is a shade of blue paint with seemingly mystical abilities that has been a part of art’s greatest masterpieces for centuries. Peddled by an associate of Juliette’s known only as The Colorman, a crippled but resiliently persistent paint salesman, the “Sacred Blue” affects artists in strange ways: They lose track of huge swaths of time, create scores of paintings they don’t remember, and recount impossible journeys to faraway places that make them appear entirely mad to their friends. Moore brings together a far-flung fictional tribute to the color blue, Juliette’s supernatural origins, and Lucien’s desperate desires to become a great painter in a way that will infuriate serious art scholars, but thrill most other readers.
Nearly all the major Impressionists show up in flashbacks: Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Bazille, and Berthe Morisot are all discussed, and selections of their work appear in the text. The great Post-Impressionists show up as well, with Gauguin and Seurat joining the Van Gogh brothers, and Moore even includes oblique references to Picasso, Baudelaire, Michelangelo, Raphael, and even Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray, the last of which offers just enough of a sly hint to the novel’s deeper mystery.
Woody Allen’s ability to represent famous artists as a reflection of their literary voices made the dreamlike Midnight In Paris ’20s sequences incredibly arresting, but Moore doesn’t possess the same flair for uncanny verisimilitude. Moore’s characters talk about sex with words like “bonk” and “boff,” making great painters sound inexplicably like juvenile schoolboys. Vulgar, modern voices and obsessive bravado overpower Lucien, Henri, and especially The Colorman, unlike the more complex diction in Moore’s Shakespearean re-imagining, Fool. Also disappointing is that Juliette and her shades are powerful women, but always in service to male artists. She inspires, but does not control, like a metaphysical precursor to Cameron Crowe’s Band-Aids in Almost Famous, valuable for physical beauty but not mental capacity. Still, Sacré Bleu is undeniably captivating, as Moore breaks down the history of Impressionism, only to build it back up into a comic mystery finely tuned for maximum fun.