Parot, Jean-Francois - 'The Chatelet Apprentice' (translated by Michael Glencross)
THE CHATELET APPRENTICE, first in a series featuring Nicolas Le Floch, is a historical thriller set in pre-revolutionary Paris at the time of Louis XV. Young orphan Nicolas Le Floch has been plucked from comfortable provincial obscurity in Brittany as a legal clerk, and sent to the capital to study policing, lodging at the house of a police commissioner, Lardin, and reporting to a rather aloof superior, Monsieur de Sartine. When Commissioner Lardin goes missing at the height of Carnival, Nicolas is put in charge of the investigation.
As Nicolas investigates, he soon has to run the gauntlet of corrupt fellow officers and the general drunken debauchery of Carnival. Nicolas searches the taverns, brothels and wasteheaps of the city for evidence, taking forensic advice from the city hangman (who proves a rather more cooperative and informative source than the medical establishment). Given that Lardin's widow seems a touch too merry and doesn't really regard Lardin's disappearance and death as reason to cut short her social life, Nicolas also has to consider Madame Lardin a suspect. To complicate matters further, Nicolas discovers there is a further political dimension - the disappeared commissioner was in possession of potentially damaging Royal correspondence, which is particularly sensitive as France is in the middle of the Seven Years War. The King and Nicolas' boss are therefore rather more concerned about the whereabouts of the letters than of the commissioner.
THE CHATELET APPRENTICE is surprisingly vibrant for a historical thriller. Parot is very strong on conveying convincing detail of the period without letting this slow the pace of the novel. He doesn't stint on depicting the more gruesome sights, smells and squalor of the period. The hero, Nicolas Le Floch is an engaging character, who quickly climbs the steep learning curve from ingenue to principled police officer. My only very slight quibble about this book is that the resolution of a subplot involving Nicolas' paternity and a budding romance with the daughter of his godfather is too predictable. I look forward to reading future books in this series.
Laura Root, England