Those seeking a bit of swash in their buckles need look no further than the master himself, Alexandre Dumas, whose delightful historical novel The Three Musketeers has been polished anew in a smooth new translation by Richard Pevear.
The magic of Dumas lies in his shameless sense of entertainment, an unerring notion that makes his 162-year-old novel read like a contemporary thriller, albeit one set in the 1620s, and written with much more artistry than anything you'll find on today's bestseller list.
Which is not to say Dumas was an affected writer above considering the taste of the masses. To the contrary, he was a popular entertainer of huge proportions (in literal and literary terms alike) whose serialized works offered enough digressions and cliffhangers to make Steven Spielberg nod in approval. Dumas can be charged with many sins – starting with the size of his doorstop novels – but in the end his heart, brio, and dazzling storytelling put other quibbles to rest.
"The Three Musketeers" tells the story of d'Artagnan – a proud, brave, but naive and penniless young man from the sticks – and his quest to become one of King Louis XIII's noble musketeers, the Secret Service of their time. Before d'Artagnan even makes it to Paris to begin his quest for glory, he finds himself enmeshed in intrigue, meeting up with a stranger on a reconnaissance mission for Cardinal Richelieu, who, in Dumas's telling, serves as Louis XIII's puppeteer while wielding the true political clout in France.
Soon enough, d'Artagnan enters Paris on a hobbling yellow nag and makes rivals of the three musketeers who will become his inseparable companions: Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Their respective differences of opinion are settled soon enough and, before you can say en garde, shouts of "All for one and one for all!" can be heard from Notre Dame to the Louvre.
Though the infinite movie versions of Dumas's musketeers instantly (and not inaccurately) summon visions of men in silly hats and staged derring-do, they leave out the tastiest morsels of his story. Dumas uses historical figures with the slightest of accuracy to make larger points: that the fate of nations can be driven by ridiculous personal obsessions – such as a queen uninterested in her husband and prone to flirting with the Duke of Buckingham – enough so that two nations might go to war to prevent (or promote) cuckoldry.
More than anything, Dumas possesses a grand sense of theater – and humor.
Consider the siege at La Rochelle, a religious battle between Frenchmen: the Catholics and Huguenots. It is here that d'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis, and Athos find themselves in service to the king, bored by the political machinations but still trying to unravel side plots involving Richelieu and his many allies. In typical Dumas fashion, our protagonists trot out to an abandoned bastion, far removed from their colleagues and at risk of attack so that they may freely discuss their plans without threat of exposure.
The four musketeers (d'Artagnan, late in the book, earns the distinction he has long sought) go so far as to bring their lackeys and a succulent lunch replete with ample libations. Soon enough, their council is interrupted by enemy attack, prompting Athos to climb up to the breach with his hat and gun in hand.
Dumas then describes Athos's impromptu address to the bloodthirsty attackers with a delicious, wry perspective: " 'Gentlemen,' he called out, courteously saluting the soldiers and workers, who, astonished at his appearance, stopped some fifty paces from the bastion, 'gentlemen, some friends of mine and I are just having lunch in this bastion. Now, you know there is nothing more unpleasant than to be disturbed at lunch. We therefore ask you, if you absolutely must muck about here, to wait until we've finished our meal, or to come back later, unless you have a salutary desire to quit the rebellious side and come to drink the health of the king of France with us.' "
Moments later, four bullets whiz by Athos's exposed head in response, but, thankfully, none finds its target.
It is a testament to the skill of Dumas, and Pevear's nimble translation, which cleans up previous versions while preserving Dumas's dashing prose. ("The young man's heart was overflowing with joy. An occasion in which there was both glory to be achieved and money to be made had presented itself to him, and as a first encouragement, had just brought him close to women he adored.")
Mark Twain's condemnation of literary classics (books "which people praise and don't read") should never be applied to "The Three Musketeers." Dumas's famed work remains too compulsively readable and wields too sharp a blade to be called anything less than a pure joy.
• Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.