Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake meets Agatha Christie’s Poirot in C18 Paris

This is my review of The Châtelet Apprentice: The Nicolas Le Floch Investigations 1: The First Nicolas Le Floch Investigation by Jean-François Parot,Michael Glencross (Translator).

This first novel in the Nicholas Le Floch detective series, set in C18 France, reminds me of William Sansom's Shardlake series because of its attention to the details of social history and its intricate plotting. There is a whiff of Agatha Christie in the denouement to which Nicholas invites all the interested parties – still left alive- and summarises the situation: this was helpful in confirming that I had not "lost the plot".

Nicholas is an attractive hero, saved from the irritation that his good looks and charm might provoke by a refreshing capacity to commit blunders as well as the thoughtful and introspective side to his nature. This seems to stem from his experience as an orphan of unknown parentage, who has often met with resentment because of the generous support of his godfather, le Marquis de Ranreuil.

Armed with a letter of introduction from this benefactor, Nicholas travels to Paris and is taken on by the capricious and calculating Monsieur de Sartine, newly appointed Lieutenant General of Police and a rising star with King Louis XV himself. After his initial training, despite his youth, Nicholas is given the assignment to find what has befallen a missing colleague, and the complicated plot spins off from this point.

Apart from some rather gruesome corpses, the sex and violence in this book would not shock a maiden great-aunt – except perhaps for the hero's casual but probably true-to-life relationship with a prostitute. Some scenes are unlikely and a bit clunky, as when the brothel keeper, La Paulet, provides sensitive information too readily without checking Nicholas out, or when he eavesdrops on a revealing conversation involving de Sartine by entering a room without being noticed! His victory over an arch-villain in a swordfight is also implausible.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the "Frenchness" of it all – the obsession with eating well, the discussions about the pros and cons of haute cuisine, the details of how to cook pigs' trotters, a tasty working man's dish. Also, Parot often demonstrates his classical education "as a matter of course" , taking it for granted that the reader will understand an allusion, or be pleased to be told about it.

Although some of the cast e.g. the promiscuous Louise Lardin are a bit caricatured, Nicholas is an interesting character with quite a complex personality. I was a bit irritated by the Sherlock Holmes ploy of having him work out a solution on very slim evidence, but not reveal it to the reader for some time!

The translation may not quite do justice to Parot's literary talents, but the slightly stilted style fits with the period. I recommend this for those in search of a new detective series in an admittedly old-fashioned mode with an essentially predictable end if you want to try to work it out.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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