I seem to have a 'thing' for fictional detectives. Just recently I was falling under the spell of Inspector Montalbano, and then there is the delectable Nicholas Brisbane (if you've read Deanna Raybourn's books I'm sure you'll know exactly what I mean), and I'm very keen on Inspector Thornhill as well (and those are only the first few that come to mind right away). Maybe they just appeal to my more adventurous side. I like men with charisma and with intelligence. Now I can add Nicholas Le Floch to my list. He's a very sympathetic character and one you can't help liking as he traverses the murky underbelly of 18th century Paris.
Jean-Francois Parot is, from what I understand, hugely popular in his native France, and The Chatelet Apprentice is Parot's first Nicholas Le Floch mystery. I love the cover illustrations of the books by the way. They're elegant and sophisticated and to me have a certain French flair about them, and for once the cover gives a real sense to what's inside the pages. The story is smart and atmospheric, though perhaps a little more intellectual than edge of your seat. If it gives you an idea of how solidly Parot plants his characters in the era--there is even a list of notes in the back of the book. But after reading it, I felt like I was transported if even for a short while to the Paris of King Louis XV and his courtesan Madame du Pompadour.
Nicholas Le Floch is an orphan of unknown origins living in Brittany in the household of his godfather, the Marquis de Ranreuil, as the story opens. When the fondness he harbors for the Marquis's daughter is discovered he's sent off to Paris, letter of recommendation in hand, to Ranreuil's good friend M. de Sartine. Sartine is a magistrate but more importantly an up and comer who has just been appointed by the King as the criminal Lieutenant of the Chatelet Prison. Nicholas is taken under his wing to work as his apprentice, a job that if handled correctly could mean many opportunities for Nicholas who as a young man is just beginning his career.
Assigned to work directly under Commissioner Lardin, Nicholas also lives in the Lardin household along with the commissioner's second (and much younger) wife and the daughter from his first marriage. When Lardin goes missing Nicholas is set the task of finding out what happened to him. To complicate matters the charred remains of a body are found in a trashheap, so a murder is added to his already full plate of investigations. Are the two connected. Does the merry young widow have motives that might implicate her in Lardin's disappearance?
With the aid of the very loyal as well as very savvy police inspector Pierre Bourdeau Nicholas must piece together a very complicated puzzle. His job is burdened further when M. De Sartine requests Nicholas find and retrieve some very sensitive letters belonging to someone in the very highest echelons of Parisian society, and do so with the utmost secrecy. The Chatelet Apprentice is an eye opening mystery into the intricacies of a police investigation carried out by a young man of fine intellect, growing experience though moments of self-doubt, as well as a peek into what the Sunday Times calls (and I think their description is apt so must share it here as well) the "casual brutality" of eighteenth-century France. Where else would the hangman know more about bodies than a medical surgeon?
I really enjoyed The Chatelet Apprentice. It may not race along at a rapid clip, but I found it a satisfying and thoughtful mystery chock full of just the right amount of period detail. I've been in the mood for some good historical fiction and this fit the bill perfectly. It's translated from French by Michael Glencross, and probably the highest praise I can give is to say--had I not known it was translated ahead of time it wouldn't have crossed my mind that it wasn't written in English--the translation is so seamless. I've got The Man with the Lead Stomach all ready to go and would love to dive in now had I not already started two other mysteries. But I'm looking forward to reading it soon. Gallic Books is the publisher, and I'm going to check out the rest of their offerings now as well.