Written by Jean-Francois Parot — We’ve already introduced the Nicolas Le Floch historical crime fiction series earlier this year, but Gallic Press is currently re-issuing its translation of these novels for the US market. A great opportunity to take a look at them in more detail, starting with the first one The Chatelet Apprentice.
Nicolas Le Floch is a foundling from Brittany who has just arrived in Paris with little more than a letter of recommendation from his godfather, the Marquis de Ranreuil, a smattering of culture and a willingness to learn. The Lieutenant General of Louis the XV’s police force takes him on as an apprentice, lodges him with the family of Commissioner Lardin, and even entrusts him with the task of investigating Lardin’s disappearance at the height of the Carnival season. However, Le Floch cannot help feeling that he is not being told the whole truth about this mission.
The idealistic young man has a lot of growing up and learning to do in a short period of time, as he navigates through a complex tissue of intrigue, murder and foul play, political and professional rivalries, all set against a background of smelly sewers, dingy brothels and the pilfering of rotten meat in knackers’ yards. He is assisted in all this by his loyal Inspector Bourdeau, royal executioner Charles Henri Sanson (a real historical figure, by the way) and a whore with a heart of gold, Antoinette. Le Floch develops as a character nicely throughout the series, and that is evident even in this, the first novel. He learns about corruption and diplomacy, as well as how to use intimidation and lies if necessary. Yet he remains a man with a strong moral code and an acute sense of fairness.
The political intrigue, paranoia and gossip at the court of Louis XV, the unfair distribution of wealth and casual cruelty towards the poor, are all vividly rendered in The Chatelet Apprentice. If anything, you might say there is almost too much rich period detail here, which at times threatens to overwhelm the story. Being the first novel in a series, there is also perhaps too much initial setting up of the main character’s origins and background. For instance, the book starts promisingly enough with a disturbing body dump witnessed by a vagabond. However, it then loses momentum as we go back in time to explore Le Floch’s arrival in Paris 18 months previously, before finally going back to the events described in the prologue. There is a Russian dolls feeling about the mystery: just when you think it has been satisfactorily resolved, another layer is revealed. In the end, it’s all resolved in a rather implausible Agatha Christie style gathering of all the prime suspects.
The indefatigable Parot, who is also a career diplomat, has now published his 11th novel in the Le Floch series in his native tongue, and has a website dedicated to his main character and that historical period. The books are highly successful in France and have been turned into a popular TV series. Six are available in English and they just keep getting better and better. We have the opportunity to watch Le Floch change and mature, as well as bear witness to a very dramatic period in French history. This first in the series may not be the best or most exciting, but it is a good place to start.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
Readers in the US can order the book here.