Women Sleuths in
Historical Mysteries

Late 18th Century Egypt

©1996-2013
womeninworldhistory.com

Napoleon Must Die:
A Mme. Vernet Investigation

by Quinn Fawcett

Recently married Victoire Vernet has followed her gendarme husband to Egypt where they are both camped near Cairo after the French victory over the Mamluks in the battle of the Pyramids (July 1798). When her husband is wrongly accused of theft and murder, Victoire sets out to clear his name and save his career. Defying the proper role required of the obedient military wife, she flaunts convention in her investigation by managing to cross the Western desert, boat down the Nile, wander through extremely dangerous Cairo, and, in disguise, enter the Pasha’s palace. In the process, she uncovers an insidious conspiracy to assassinate Napoleon himself.

The plot makes much of the oppressively narrow social restrictions on both French and Egyptian women. Victoire must overcome fears of potential kidnapping into “white slavery” when she ventures beyond the protection of the military camp. Upper class Egyptian women are secluded, and veiled outside their homes. Both European and Arab males agree that, “There are a few things women must do: they must be mothers, and they must obey the will of their fathers and husbands. Anything else is unnatural.” This attitude reflects both the regressive status of post-Revolution French women, enshrined in the harshly patriarchal Napoleonic Code, and the conservative Egyptian reaction to French imperialism.

One of two of the book’s authors, Bill Fawcett, is a Napoleanic-era history buff. His contribution provides excellent details of the unsavory, unsanitary conditions in the military camp and Egyptian villages. He provides interesting details of the destruction of the French fleet by Nelson in Aboukir Bay and the failed French siege of Acre. The story, however, provides little information about women beyond the sometimes overly relentless male admonitions. Victoire never has even one encounter with her female peers while at camp, and the reader meets only one young relatively well educated upper class Egyptian woman. A more sensitive portrayal of the full range of female experiences would have been welcome.

This is the first of the Mme. Vernet mystery series. Lacking is an indication of some of the sources the authors drew upon.

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