The popular account of Vincent van Gogh's suicide claims the troubled painter wandered into a field, shot himself with a revolver and then limped home to seek treatment. But that makes "no sense" to comic writer Christopher Moore. So he kicks off his bawdy new novel, Sacre Bleu, with a characteristically zany version of his own.
Vincent is painting in a field when "a twisted little man" known as the Colorman steps out of the corn and demands a painting: "The picture, Dutchman, or no more blue for you." An argument ensues, and the Colorman's revolver goes off, shooting Vincent in the chest. He dies, but not before warning his brother, Theo, to hide the painting. "Keep her from him," Vincent begs. "The little man."
Watching that mystery unfold is part of the fun in Sacre Bleu. From that opening scene, the novel leaps to the bakery of young Lucien Lessard, an aspiring painter living in Montmartre. When Lucien gets word of Vincent's death, he sprints to tell his friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and they set out on a delightfully ribald romp to figure out exactly what happened to van Gogh.
The two make for a splendid dynamic duo. Lucien is a starry-eyed romantic for whom stories about famous paintings "were the fairy tales of his childhood," while Toulouse-Lautrec, when he's not with a French prostitute, is an unfailingly loyal comic hero.
Moore's work has tended to fall into what one critic called the "zonked-out comic horror" category, but Sacre Bleu is different. Let's call it a historical comedy, with an emphasis on the comedy. There's even a soupcon of art criticism along with a number of color reproductions of famous paintings. For example, when Lucien sees Diego Velazquez's Venus at Her Mirror, he comments, "She was a beauty to be sure, and because she was looking at you looking at her, in a mirror held by a cherub, there was just the slightest feeling of naughtiness, the voyeur exposed."
Moore says that "the possibilities absolutely explode" when you set a novel in late 19th century France, and he takes full advantage of them. Renoir, Monet and all the other great artists of the period make appearances, as does Oscar Wilde, whom Moore uses at the end of Sacre Bleu to take a final, knowing jab at scribblers everywhere. "Write, write, write, Oscar," Toulouse-Lautrec says, "it's what men do when they can't make real art."