Palace of Justice

by Susanne Alleyn

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Palace of Justice by Susanne Alleyn Palace of Justice, the fourth Aristide Ravel mystery, finds the freelance investigator for the Paris police faced with a series of murders that weirdly echo the increasingly irrational sentences of the Revolutionary Tribunal. "Aristide could not see that a decapitated corpse in an alley was much different from the decapitated corpses that the executioners now carted away from the Place de la Révolution two or three times a week; some of those guillotined during the past fortnight had been sentenced to death for minor infractions against authority that once, before the Revolution, would have meant no more than a public whipping or a month or two in prison."

When another excess headless body appears, this time in the pit where executioners dispose of the government's victims, Aristide must question the executioners, overcoming an ingrained distaste intensified by the memory of his father's execution under the old regime. They are oddly likeable men, trying to cope honorably in a distressing profession. "Thank God for the guillotine," says one, "Why, if you don't set the rope properly around their necks, or if you swing the sword just an inch too high or too low--well, it's a pretty horrible scene." The mounting numbers of executions become even more personal when Aristide's closest friend is accused.

A thoughtful, unflinching exploration not just of the horrors of the Revolution but of the reasons why otherwise rational people might have allowed themselves to become part of its machinery, Palace of Justice works somewhat less well as a mystery. Aristide's first, overly pat theory about the murders goes unchallenged until near the end when, suddenly, alternative possibilities emerge. The ingenious solution ties together numerous threads set up throughout the novel and satisfyingly echoes its theme, but some readers may feel it depends on a few too many coincidences. Regardless, for readers interested in the French Revolution and the still-burning mystery of how good people can collectively commit evil, this is a novel well worth reading. (2010; 304 pages including a Historical Note and a Select Bibliography)

More about Palace of Justice at Powell's Books or

Interview with author Susanne Alleyn

Other novels set in Paris after the French Revolution:

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859), a Dickens classic and one of his few historical novels. Review or More info at Powell's Books

A Far Better Rest by Susanne Alleyn (2000), a reimagining of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities from Sydney Carton's perspective. More info

For the King by Catherine Delors (2010), a thriller about the hunt for a group of conspirators who plotted to assassinate Napoleon. Review or More info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction about executions and executioners in post-Revolutionary Paris:

Memoirs of the Sansons: From Private Notes and Documents, 1688-1847 by Henri Sanson (original French publication 1862), memoirs of a descendant of Charles Sanson, the Paris executioner who beheaded Louis XVI. More info from or read an 1876 English translation free online at Internet Archive

The Executioners by Robert Christophe (1961), a history of the Sanson family of executioners. More info

Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore by Daniel Gerould (1992), about the invention of the guillotine and its history into modern times. More info


The Heirs of Madame Guillotine, an article about the Sanson family by David Lawday, published in U.S. News and World Report July 17, 1989

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