The Irrationalist: The Tragic Murder of Rene Descartes by Andrew Pessin

November 10, 1619. In a clearing within the Black Forest a gentleman and his servant begin an argument, resulting in a rapier duel to the death. When one is disabled his antagonist runs him through the chest and walks away. 

Rene Descartes died in Sweden in 1650, and based on most accounts, from pneumonia. The Irrationalist appears to be based, in some part, on a controversial theory that Rene Descartes was poisoned. Using that theory as a jumping point, Pressin weaves in known aspects of Descartes’s life and creates a mystery around, not only his death, but his life as well. 

Set at the end of the Thirty-Years War, this very imaginative story is told in two separate narratives, the first unfolding via flashbacks of Descartes life, from the time of his birth, and working its way towards his death. The second narrative begins with the investigation into his death, following clues that lead back into his past. 

This story is told mostly from the perspective of Adrian Baillet, characterized as a young man of little talent, sent by the Jesuits at the Collège La Flèche in France to the Court of Queen Christina, for reasons we never fully understand. Once there, Adrian is given the job of investigating Descartes’ death and proving that the rumors that his died as a result of poisoning are unfounded. What follows is good historical fiction which made for interesting reading. I found much of the historical information quite interesting, more so than the actual mystery. While there are a number of twists and reveals throughout, the reader can guess, almost from the beginning, one of two major twists.

The author uses vivid and detailed descriptions to evoke settings which are cold, dark, and filled with intrigue. There are good, if brief, characterizations of many historical figures of the period. The character of Adrian is very charming, intelligent, and very witty (his puns and unintentional snappy comebacks are truly delightful). He is stumbling and bumbling at the beginning, but through perseverance and luck he works to learn about Descartes and his fate. In the process, he also develops a fuller understanding of himself.

Long story short, while I did enjoy this, but I do have a few of reservations. 

  1. In attempting to create a mystery, the plot often got bogged down in the fictionalized complexity of Descartes’s life prior to his death. Such as, like Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code used Opus Dei, Pressin attempts to explain certain events based on the supposition that Descartes was involved with the Rosicusians (a mystic religious society). There are other examples but it would mean spoilers, which I just can’t do.
  2. Every mystery needs its coincidences. There were just a few too many for me in this one. Again, I wish I could tell you what they are, but as River Song would say, “Spoilers Sweetie.” 
  3. Lastly, the author uses in a modernized style for the narrative and dialogue, yet some of it is just too contemporary. For example, I don’t believe the word vibe was used in the 17thcentury.

So, an interesting and entertaining read, but with a few issues.

My Judgement 3.5/5

My thanks to Open Books for making a copy of this book available for my review.

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