The Chatelet Apprentice by Jean-Francois Parot (translated by Michael Glencross) is set in Paris in 1761, some 30 years before the Revolution. Signs of the discontent, and the obvious reasons for the discontent, are obvious. The strict hierarchy and class conflicts, extreme poverty, the costs of the Seven Years War with Britain were already in place long before events began to escalate in the 1780's.
This Paris of 1761 that Jean-Francois Parot describes in sometimes excruciating detail is a dominant character in the novel. The contrast of the filth, the smells, and the poverty at one end of the spectrum and the wealth, exclusivity, and privilege of the the elite is deftly rendered.
Nicolas le Floch is a young detective who has been housed with one of his superiors for the unstated purpose of determining his loyalty. When Commissionaire Lardin disappears, Nicolas is charged with the investigation.
Nicolas is a pleasant and intelligent young man who believes in the tenets of the Enlightenment and seeks evidence through investigation. He refuses to take things at face value and looks beyond the external appearances in his attempts to determine the truth.
I also liked Bordeaux, an associate Nicolas requested to aid him in his investigation, but perhaps the most interesting character, although he makes only a few appearances, is the executioner Charles-Henri Sanson. Sanson did not want to be an executioner and had studied medicine, but when his father died, he was persuaded to take up the family business. Parot's depiction of Sanson seems to be consistent with historical information. Sanson was the official executioner for forty years, but in the novel, he is young and at the beginning of his long career (which includes the execution of King Louis XVI).
The style of the book is a bit stilted with very short sentences that often give an awkwardness and stiffness to both narrative and dialogue. This may be a result of the translation. At any rate, it is noticeable and a little irritating, but didn't prevent my interest in the story.
From Gallic Books: "The Chatelet Apprentice is the first in a ten-book series of French historical crime novels called The Nicolas Le Floch Investigations. They are a phenomenon in France, with nearly one million copies sold and two successful television series based on them."
I enjoyed the novel for the characters, the mystery, and the historical information. This is a series I would not mind continuing, and I will look for more English translations.
ARC from Gallic Books and Meryl Zegarek PR, Inc.
Historical Mystery. Oct. 13, 2013. 401 pages.