The Three Musketeers by Dumas started off great; a young man with a chip on his shoulder dreams of becoming one of the king's musketeers. Lucky for him, short-tempers were in fashion. One by one he meets the Three Musketeers and separately offends them so deeply each challenges our young hero to a duel to the death. Through a series of events he wins their affection and loyalty. Without a doubt the first 100 pages of this book were some of the funniest I have ever read. Of course, with an author like Dumas 100 pages in means you're just getting started. Little did I know what I was getting into.
I read a book about writing stories once which suggested that you start at the beginning, then write your conclusion, and then figure out what in the world you're going to do to fill in all those extra pages in the middle. I think Dumas might have read the same book. This book seriously dragged in the middle, but amazingly it ends as good as it begins. My favorite scene involved the villain who had been locked in a prison by her brother-in-law convincing a Puritan prison guard to set her free and then kill her enemy. No easy task. It took Dumas over 10 chapters to do it. 10 chapters in a prison cell with an evil genius, used to getting her way through seduction, trying to figure out how to control a man immune to her wiles. And she does! Convincingly so. Brilliant writing... it made the entire book worth it.
To say that the middle dragged is not entirely accurate. In fact, most of the book was very entertaining and surprising; it just suffered from the high hopes generated by its opening pages. Reflecting on the story now I genuinely enjoyed the entire work; it just took 300 pages for me to get over how my initial disappointment, that's all.
Before reading the Three Musketeers I had heard that Dumas' readers often wonder if he has any idea where he's going with the story. This book was no exception. That's part of what made the middle so difficult. You think you know who the villain is, then he disappears. Then a new villain comes on the scene, but he is untouchable by any of the Musketeers, and it is clear that that's not going to change. Finally, a person you thought was completely inconsequential is slowly (slowwwwly) shown to be the corrupter of all that is good and pleasing. This made the book frustrating. I couldn't figure out who to hate. Once the villain is finally revealed, however, nothing is left but pure vitriolic delight.
This book is light historical fiction. It is set in the historical world with caricatures of major figures blending fact with fiction to ridicule some and honor the genius of others; but mostly to ridicule. I imagine for his contemporaries it is something like when Gerald Ford was portrayed in the Pink Panther movies and a buffoon who cared more about the scores of football games than then destruction of civilization. No doubt there were several layers of humor along these lines that could have made the arduous middle more of a delight. Perhaps when I have mastered the nuances of French history I will give it another go.