Reviewed by David Maclaine
The Châtelet Apprentice of this novel's title is a fledgling policeman named Nicolas Le Floch, who investigates a series of disappearances and murders in the Paris of 1761. These sensational events are eventually explained with sufficient clarity. It was, however, a different mystery that impelled me through the pages and which baffles me still. I had hoped to solve the puzzle of how this novel came to be published, first in France, then in translation in England, and to give rise to a whole series that now includes five novels. Surely readers are necessary to keep an author employed, and I couldn't imagine many others in my position who would begin the work out of a sense of professional duty, and persevere to the end out of a dogged determination to see if it ever got better.
Although the novel shows shockingly poor craftsmanship,The Châtelet Apprentice is not without virtue. It offers some vivid scenes of the streets of Paris and its suburbs in the age of King Louis XV, and includes loving descriptions of how some choice dishes were prepared. But it lacks the usual prerequisites for success: a basic command of storytelling technique and a central character with whom the reader can sympathize. The narrative lurches from scene to scene; Le Floch's transformation from utter tyro to competent apprentice is told in sketchy summary; and the background mystery of his origins is absurdly easy for the reader to guess, so that Le Floch's inability to figure it out casts doubt on his mental faculties. The plot consists of a steady barrage of surprises, and in that respect alone resembles the work of Raymond Chandler. But Chandler's sometimes-hyperactive plots play out against the rock-solid viewpoint of Philip Marlowe, and Le Floch, a youth who lacks anything like a distinct personality, is no Marlowe. (2000, 403 pages)More about The Châtelet Apprentice at Powell's Books or Amazon.com