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Originally published Friday, November 16, 2012 at 5:35 AM

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'The Black Count:' the epic true story behind 'The Count of Monte Cristo'

Tom Reiss' swashbuckling new book, "The Black Count," tells the true story of Alex Dumas, son of a French nobleman and an African slave, the father of author Alexandre Dumas and the inspiration for the younger Dumas' classic novel "The Count of Monte Cristo."

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo'

by Tom Reiss

Crown, 414 pp., $27

There are no statues in monument-laden France commemorating the legendary 18th century swordsman and general Alex Dumas, whose son Alexandre based literary classics like "The Three Musketeers" and "The Count of Monte Cristo" on scenes from the elder's epic life story.

It's a sad civic oversight, but nothing compared to the tragic decline suffered by the novelist's heroic father as laid out in Tom Reiss' fascinating, and dare to say, swashbuckling new biography, "The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo."

It turns out that the heroes in those classics are modeled on a black man who was born in 1762 in the French colony of Haiti. Alex Dumas was the son of a wayward French nobleman and an African slave, and it is his biracial identity that adds such rich complexity to his rise through the ranks of the French military to become one of the most beloved generals of his time, arguably even more admired than Napoleon, a fact that probably didn't sit well with the megalomaniacal future ruler.

It was Napoleon who tapped Dumas to command the cavalry that invaded Egypt, an enormous, and as it turns out, fateful honor.

"The Black Count" meticulously evokes the spirit of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, but it also explains the exasperating paradox of a nation that was simultaneously a huge slaveholding empire and the pioneering exponent of the concept of "liberté, egalité, fraternité."

Let's not forget the context. By the 1750s, black slaves taken to France were able to sue their masters for freedom. After the French Revolution in 1793, special schools were set up in France to educate the children of "revolutionaries of color" from the colonies. Black and mixed-race politicians were allowed to serve in the national government.

Dumas comes across as something of a superhero, a formidable warrior but also a man of great integrity who cares as much about the dignity of the victims of conquest as he does his own soldiers'. The more intimate details of his life after moving to France are interesting too, given that Dumas had "the unique perspective of being from the highest and lowest ranks of society at once," as Reiss writes.

"A black face in a sea of white," the dashing Dumas certainly stood out in the fashionable haunts of Paris, but he didn't let his uniqueness hold him back.

It's no wonder that the general's son drew on his life adventures for literary inspiration. The story of "The Count of Monte Cristo," in which a sailor is wrongfully locked up in a fortress and seeks justice afterward, echoes what actually happened to his father as a prisoner of war who loses favor with Napoleon and fights just to receive reparations for his ordeal. Reiss's explanation of these circumstances makes this lost chapter of history come alive.

Interestingly, his son had mixed fortunes in France, too. "George," the story of a mixed-race Parisian swordsman from the colonies inspired by his dad, was a flop for Alexandre Dumas, compared to stories of his in which the race of the hero is left unclear. Times in France had clearly changed since the idealistic days of the Revolution.

The author himself was bitterly mocked by his French contemporaries for his African heritage, despite being only one-quarter black.

There actually used to be a statue of Gen. Dumas in France, but as Reiss explains, the Nazis destroyed it. It was never replaced.

At least we now have a monument to the lives of both Dumas and his adoring son in the pages of "The Black Count."

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