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Zola is at the top of his game with this novel that combines murder, sexual obsession, revenge, railroads, and the cynical corruption of the legal/court system in the Second Empire. Part of the Rougon-Macqart cycle, the book features Jacques Lantier, a member of the "bad" side of the family (and the brother of Étienne in Germinal and Claude in The Masterpiece) as a train driver who is tormented by his desire to kill women. The complex plot involves a multitude of other prominent characters, including a railway station manager, Roubaud, and his wife Séverine; a family, including a remarkably strong but troubled young woman, responsible for a railroad crossing in a remote rural area; Jacques' usually drunken "fireman;" and a local judge notorious for his abuse of young girls. The railroad itself is an important character, with engines often described as if they were horses or even women.
I don't want to give away too much of the plot, because this is a suspenseful novel, so suffice it to say it starts off with a murder linked to the railway; suspicion falls on the real murderers but political maneuvering leads to nobody being prosecuted. The reader then sees how the murder affects not only the murderers but other characters as well and how Jacques struggles with his own murderous impulses by avoiding women and redirecting his energy and passion to the engine he usually drives. Sexual jealousy, a passion for money, and a poisoning also enliven the story as it builds towards a somewhat melodramatic conclusion.
Zola strove not only to examine the intersection of sexual passion and the uncontrollable urge to kill, but also to explore how railroads changed society as the novel takes place in the early days of train travel -- an era which changed how people and goods could move around (and war too as, at the end of the book, soldiers are traveling in cattle cars to the front for the Franco-Prussian war). He depicts both the ease and the discomfort of train travel, as well as how the hundreds of people daily hurtling by in trains mystifies some of the rural dwellers. He shows how the coming of rail travel completely altered multiple realms of society. Additionally, he portrays the trains so vividly that the reader hears the noise, sees the belching fires and steam, feels the rattling of the cars. This is especially true in some of the most dramatic moments of the novel: when Jacques struggles to drive the train through a blizzard, when one of the characters deliberately causes a train crash, when one of the initial murderers describes to a lover how the murder took place, and at the very end with a spectacularly dramatic event that I will refrain from revealing.
Zola shows compassion for most of the murderers in this book, seeing them almost as victims themselves: of their genetic heritage, of their passions, of jealousy. The murders are horrifying, of course, but the murderers themselves are complex and generally tormented. (The literal translation of the French title would be "The Human Beast" and the murderers are surely all too human in this novel.) However, the legal system is savaged. Zola lets the reader see how it is directed towards maintaining the good name of the people who run the Empire, even if it means that the innocent are convicted and the prosecutor who concocted the theory that convicts them is promoted. Another aspect of this novel is the portrayal of sexual love; more than in the other works by Zola I've read, he gets inside the heads and bedrooms of the lovers in this book.
At his best, Zola is a great storyteller who combines unforgettable characters and a thrilling plot with vivid portrayals of social conditions and an implied criticism of the powerful. In this book, he is at his best.