Historical fiction can be tricky as it demands that the author accurately captures a particular period while crafting a dramatic story. A compelling murder mystery with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) as a backdrop and whiffs of analytical geometry are a tall order. Andrew Pessin’s novel The Irrationalist succeeds in using these elements to create an engaging story. Pessin, Professor of Philosophy at Connecticut College, used René Descartes’ untimely death to uncover the renowned thinker’s motivations and inspirations. The tragedy, the loss, and the epic quality of the intertwining stories that span decades are reminiscent of authors like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.
Europe in the 17th century—with its candelabras, palace intrigues, secret passages, and rapiers—is a fitting setting for this kind of story. Pessin made use of these elements and more to reconstruct frigid, windswept Stockholm. A French Jesuit named Baillet (the name of an actual 17th century Descartes biographer) is assigned to investigate the philosopher’s death and to confirm that he died from natural causes.
Palace intrigue is embodied in the Swedish Chancellor Zolindius. These kinds of stories benefit greatly from antagonists with enough heft to convince the reader that the protagonist is in real jeopardy. A manicured beard that conceals a secret, a penetrating stare and a limp, combine to portray the Chancellor as a gripping villain in the tradition of Cardinal Richelieu.
You can’t have a mystery without clues and suspects. Pessin provides generous amounts of both, introducing false leads and suspicious characters whose true motivations remain opaque for much of the story. Baillet’s struggles to find his way through Stockholm’s dark, snowbound alleys are a metaphor for his frustrating investigation that is thwarted at every turn. But as he becomes more familiar with the inhospitable city, he begins to grow into his job. Along the way, he decides it is his job actually to uncover the truth behind Descartes’ life and death. It becomes a dangerous compulsion that threatens to undo him, but Baillet continues to pull at the threads of the mystery, as dark forces swirl around him.
There is no shortage of violence, murder, and betrayal in The Irrationalist, but there is also a fair amount of humor that helps keep the dreariness of everyday life in the 17th century at arm’s length. At one point, the would-be hero is huddled under his blankets shivering with cold and fear as he decides what to do about the noises he hears in the next room. He finally gathers a candle and enough courage to leap out at the intruder, only to discover a small boy waiting patiently to deliver a message.
Pessin filled the pages of this book with fascinating information from the period, teasing the reader with suggestions of secret societies and conspiracies lurking in the shadows of a Europe emerging from terrifying bouts with the Plague and decades of brutal religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Descartes’ advances in mathematics and natural philosophy are revealed as a flickering flame with the promise to light the way to a new world of reason. While his work is an important facet of the story, it doesn’t get bogged down trying to convince the reader of Descartes’ genius. Pessin understood that equations, even a sought-after, but elusive “equation of everything,” cannot really drive a story. On the other hand, perhaps there are one too many kicked-in doors and ransacked rooms to advance the plot, but this is quibbling. The climatic sword fight, complete with a loquacious villain is an enjoyable scene that propels the story toward a satisfying ending where secrets are finally revealed.
People who are not interested in history often claim that it is boring. The Irrationalist proves this argument is not true. Readers with a base of historical literacy will appreciate it more than others. But even the general reader can enjoy this book as a good thriller. Perhaps they will be inspired to learn more about the ideas and events of this pivotal period in history. Like a geometry proof, Pessin laid out a series of characters, events, and themes that will engage and entertain readers as they attempt to solve the mysterious equation that was René Descartes.