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He can write a mean story, that Alexandre Dumas.

Action scenes – they can be difficult to write, for some of us. How to construct them, how to keep them going? Raymond Chandler said that if you don’t know what should happen next in your story, have a man come into the room with a gun. Advice from the master.

Dumas père was another master. And could use his own version of Chandler’s Law to great effect! I’ve just read Dumas’ Marguerite de Valois (La Reine Margot in the original French). A gripping 460 pages of adventure, fighting, skulduggery, plotting, deception, murder, amours and heroism. When one dastardly plot has been foiled, that’s no problem, Dumas just starts another. One action scene follows another.

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It’s set in the 16th century Wars of Religion in France. It starts with the Massacre of St Bartholomew in August 1572, graphically related. Thousands of Protestants have come to Paris for the wedding of the Catholic King Charles IX’s sister Marguerite (she of the book’s title) to Henry, King of Navarre, the leader of the French Protestants. The wedding will, they think, start a period of religious peace. The wedding does indeed take place, but is immediately followed by a massacre of Protestants, instigated by the weirdo King Charles and the villainous Queen Mother Catherine de Médicis: the lowest estimate of those killed was 5,000.

The novel then shows us Henry of Navarre a virtual prisoner in the royal palace of the Louvre and relates his efforts to survive and escape numerous plots against his life. In this he is aided, remarkably, by his Queen Marguerite, despite his open passion for another woman (with whom he spends his wedding night). In the foreground of all this Dumas creates two heroes, young noble gentlemen (La Mole and Coconnas) who during the Massacre do their best to kill each other but who become the firmest of friends, friendship which proves itself in the most desperate of situations.

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Other notable characters include King Charles’ jealous and unscrupulous younger brothers, a perfumer-cum-poisoner, an accomplished assassin, and the public executioner whom Coconnas befriends (most usefully, as it turns out). The novel has a splendid selection of the apparatus of adventure stories, such as secret passages, people hiding behind curtains in bedchambers, ingenious methods of poisoning people, a skeleton key, an oubliette, a dangerous boar-hunt, a torture-chamber, lovers climbing in through windows, etc, etc. Wonderful stuff.

One device I see in an exciting thriller I’m reading at the moment (The Night of Wenceslas, by Lionel Davidson, published in 1970) is to have the hero escape from one danger but then almost immediately to find that in fact he hasn’t escaped it … More danger looms: the sigh of relief is short-lived and is replaced by renewed alarm.

So careful plotting is called for. Or, if you haven’t done that, have a man come in with a gun.

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