This book is about what we would today call a “conspiracy theory,” although the events in question actually predate the use of the term “conspiracy theory” by several decades. It’s based on the idea that Marshal Michel Ney, one of Napoleon’s greatest officers, faked his execution and fled to America, where he lived under the name Peter Stuart Ney until his real death in 1846.
The book examines, in great detail, how this might have happened and what it would have required in order to be true. In broad outlines, it paints Ney’s supposed escape as a slap in the face to the restored Bourbon King by the Duke of Wellington, in retaliation for the king’s ingratitude to England’s Iron Duke.
Ney is portrayed as brave and heroic, unafraid to repeatedly face death. Which, by all accounts he was; with some saying he actively hoped to be killed on the field at Waterloo, only to somehow, by some devilishly ironic miracle, survive the carnage.
I have to admit, the notion that Ney’s execution was faked undercuts one of the most hardcore stories of his bravery: that he gave the orders to his firing squad himself. What kind of courage it would take for a man to look down the barrels of loaded rifles and order them to be fired! Obviously, if it was all a sham, this lessens Ney’s mystique.
Speaking of lessening mystique, I want to discuss how this book portrays the Duke of Wellington. Wellington is kind of a divisive figure. The British, of course, love him and say he’s one of the greatest commanders in history. Bonapartists, on the other hand, tend to view him as a merely mediocre fighter who happened to get lucky against a vastly superior opponent.
There are plenty of facts one can cite to support either viewpoint. But the way this book portrays him, despite the fact that his actions help the heroic Ney, Wellington seems cold, aloof, snobbish and arrogant. Admittedly, you can see how someone called “the Iron Duke” is probably not a warm fuzzy guy, but nothing about him says “great leader.” He seems tough and smart, but without any great vision or charisma.
I guess the easiest way to say it is, imagine Wellington in a situation analogous to Napoleon on the road to Grenoble. (See dramatization here.) I wonder if a British infantryman, hauled from some workhouse and flogged into obeying the regulations of His Majesty, might not have tried a shot?
But, I’m going off-topic. Wellington and Napoleon aside, Ney is certainly a fascinating historical figure, and the mystery of his possible escape is an interesting one. If you forced me to offer an opinion, my guess is that it probably didn’t happen, and he really did die by firing squad. But I can’t say it with certainty.
I enjoyed this book very much, and am grateful to Pat Prescott for recommending this author, which is how I learned about it. Mace has a number of other intriguing historical novels as well, which I plan to read in the future.