The first of this series, immensely popular in France, is set in 1761, slightly less than 30 years before the French Revolution, which adds a bit of anticipatory spice to the action. Young Nicholas Le Floch travels to Paris from the countryside to study with the monks as a legal clerk. He is called back home when his guardian is ill; when the old man dies, Nicholas is surprised to find his guardian has organised for him to join the Parisian police service, reporting to the secretive M de Sartine. He attempts to see his childhood sweetheart before he leaves, but her father (also Nicholas’s godfather) is strangely annoyed at this and sends Nicholas packing back to Paris. Sartine tells the young man to live at the house of commissioner Lardin and to investigate possible police corruption, but to be totally discreet about what he finds.
What follows is a fairly standard crime investigation, as Nicholas, complete with an older, lower class (ie suitably deferential) officer, follows all kinds of leads as people disappear and a dead body needs identifying. At the same time, there is lots of local colour about the debauched and disgustingly dirty city that was Paris at that time, when the monarch (Louis XV) lived in complete luxury at Versailles in his own sealed-off world. It is very easy to see the roots of dissent in this novel, as the aristocracy and the clergy grind their heels into the poor. Nicholas, however, rises above all this and pursues his investigation, complete with a sidekick who seems rather like Hastings in the Hercule Poirot books. This involves some quite gruesome aspects, in particular a fairly pointless detailed description of a horrific hanging, drawing and quartering of some poor person who inadvertently touched the king – apparently based on a true event but not exactly relevant to the plot.
And this is where I often part company with historical fiction. This novel is really two stories, one of “historical France” with lots of detail and descriptions of life as it was lived then; and the other a murder investigation which frankly is so sub-Agatha Christie as to be risible. The climactic scene, where Nicholas assembles all the suspects and police officers in the same room and goes through the case, tricking a suspect into self-incrimination by a hoary device, is really so clunky, rendered even more irritating by Nicholas’s boss and colleagues constantly interjecting admiring comments about the brilliance of the young man – extending even higher, by the time the book is done.
There is nothing wrong with this novel: it’s a brisk, light read, and if you don’t know much about 18th century France you might learn a bit. However, for regular readers of crime fiction the plot is very obvious (the identity of the criminal can be determined by a very easy method) and the unveiling of Nicolas’s true identity at the end rather predictable also. So my verdict is “not my cup of tea”, though if you like historical novels with a pretty straightforward plot and an amiable young hero, this may be a book for you.
I purchased the Kindle edition of this novel at an offer price of 99 p. The rest of the series is more expensive, but the fifth title, The Saint-Florentin Murders, was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA International Dagger.
Other reviews of this novel: Euro Crime (Laura Root); A Work in Progress (nice post providing some “teasers” about the novel); Chasing Bawa; and Mondo’s Info. All these reviewers except the last liked the book much more than I did.