From the back cover:
The year is 1623, the place Haarlem in the Netherlands. Diogenes—the first Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel’s ancestor—and his friends Pythagoras and Socrates defend justice and the royalist cause. The famous artist Frans Hals also makes an appearance in this historical adventure. Orczy maintains that Hals’ celebrated portrait of The Laughing Cavalier is actually a portrayal of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s ancestor.
What a perfectly abysmal blurb that is. Egads.
The Laughing Cavalier, one of two prequels to The Scarlet Pimpernel, tells the story of a penniless foreign adventurer who passed down his exceptional qualities—such as “careless insouciance”—to his descendant, Sir Percy Blakeney, the hero of the more famous work. This fellow, a half-English rogue enjoying the life of a vagabond in The Netherlands, goes by the name of Diogenes and has for companions/minions two fellows calling themselves Pythagorus and Socrates. When Gilda Beresteyn, sister of one man and former love of another who together conspire to kill the current ruler, overhears of these plans, Diogenes and his men are hired to spirit her away so that the assassination atttempt may proceed without her interference.
What follows is essentially a lot of what one would expect. Diogenes’ swaggering merriment (and, indeed, I ought to have counted the number of times his countenance, eyes, or laugh are described as “merry,” because the total would easily be in the triple digits) and saucy attitude make him the perfect adventure hero, capable of deftly handling many abrupt reversals in his fortunes. Gilda is the feisty and sensible noblewoman who is indignant at her plight at first but eventually comes to see that her captor is far more honorable than he originally seemed. The would-be traitor, Stoutenburg, is reduced to impotent fury by Diogenes’ constant smirking and eventually has his plans ruined and loses Gilda, whom he had planned to eventually woo back to his side.
As a story, the plot is not very deep or complicated. It takes fully one quarter of the book to simply arrange the details of the caper, making one antsy for Gilda to just get abducted already! Once she is, most of the rest of the book is comprised of simply moving her from place to place. The conclusion is fairly predictable, too. That the two leads end up together is neither a surprise nor a spoiler—this is a story leading to eventual parentage, after all—but it’s still fun to read their banter, even though Gilda’s sudden realization of her feelings comes rather out of the blue. I could very easily picture their relationship unfolding on screen—perhaps because it’s not exactly a new idea. (The Princess Bride comes to mind.)
I also really enjoyed the setting. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book taking place in The Netherlands before, so all the snowy landscapes, misty windmills, and icy rivers fit for nocturnal journeys on ice skates offered something new and different, even if the story itself did not. Also, there were tons of nifty Dutch honorifics and swear words! If you ever want to insult a Dutchman, apparently all you need do is call him a “plepshurk.”
In the end, I enjoyed The Laughing Cavalier and will read the follow-up volume, The First Sir Percy, at some point in the near future.