Book review: The Chatelet Apprentice by Jean-Francois Parot

The Châtelet Apprentice
by Jean-François Parot
translated by Michael Glencross
The first Nicholas Le Floch Investigation
Gallic books, 2008.

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.

The whole series has been reviewed at Euro Crime.

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.

12 thoughts on “Book review: The Chatelet Apprentice by Jean-Francois Parot

  1. Maxine – Thanks; as ever; an excellent review. ‘Though I enjoy historical crime fiction, I agree with you that all too often, the author focuses on either the setting or the plot, but not both. It’s difficult to weave those two together effectively (although I think Ariana Franklin did so quite successfully, for instance, and so does Philip Kerr among some others). I can understand why that might put you off historical crime fiction. It bothers me, too, and I like the sub-genre.

    • I think the longer ago into the past you go, the more of the “self-consciously historical” effects one gets, Margot. Some of those WW2-era novels are very good eg Laura Wilson’s – maybe being in living memory helps. I have not read Araiana Franklin though I know she is very well regarded and Prof P (who usually prefers factual historical tomes) thought “mistress of the art of death” very good.

      • Maxine – Oh, now that’s an interesting possibility! I’m going to have to think about that relationship between how long ago a story takes place and how “self-conscious” it gets (I like that expression, btw). I feel another post coming on….

  2. I’m still reading this one–this past month hasn’t been a good reading month for me, but I was very much enjoying this when I had to set it aside (will definitely be picking it up again soon, though). I’m not sure if I’ve read any mysteries set this far in the past–but you’re right there is so much scene setting and description it does make it hard to balance it all out with the actual mystery. Perhaps in later novels he pulls it off a bit better. Despite its flaws it still has an appealing quality to it. Very nice balanced review even though it’s not your ‘cup of tea’! I’ve got Laura Wilson on my pile btw, so glad to hear you’ve enjoyed her work. Have you read any of Andrew Taylor’s post-WWII mysteries? I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read by him.

    • I haven’t read Andrew Wilson, Danielle, though he is very well regarded. Laura Wilson’s Stratton’s War books are very good in my opinion, focusing more on social issues, character and plot than the history per se, so you don’t get “factoids” tossed into the narrative every so often, for example!

  3. Maxine- I read the Saint Florentin Murders and agree that it did not quite know whether it was an interesting historical novel, or a crime fiction novel set in the past with an enormous amount of historical information given to the reader. The crime seemed almost irrelevant at times.
    I had some reservations about the Stratton book I read. It was very well written and enjoyable, but the plot assumed some kind of disorganization in wartime Britain that was very far from the truth. Even during the Blitz, Britain under the wartime restrictions and controls, was probably more efficient than any other country, and people’s identity papers were more closely checked than during peacetime.

    • Thanks, Norman. I think the one you read was the second, about the hospital murder? The first, set in the Blitz, and the third, set some years after the war, were better, I think. I am happy to defer to your superior historical knowledge. (Mind you, if you believed my mother who lived through it all, everything was perfect and there was no such thing as the black market as all brits were far too patriotic to stoop to any such thing. Whereas now, one reads letters in the Times about looting of homes while people sheltered in the underground. What to believe?!)

  4. Maxine, I would very much like to believe your mother. My father’s shop was closed for most of the war, and was never looted despite being located in Camberwell.

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