The Chatelet Apprentice

Written by Jean-Francois Parot Michael Glencross (trans.)
Review by Sarah Bower

Paris, 1761. A senior police officer disappears and raw recruit, Nicolas Le Floch, is instructed to find him. When unidentified human remains come to light in macabre circumstances, the young Breton seems to have a murder investigation on his hands. Against a background of Carnival debauchery and the glittering, doomed court of Versailles, le Floch’s investigations bring him into conflict with the highest in the land.

Gallic Books is a new kid on the block, an independent devoted to bringing translations of modern French literature to a British audience, and I would like to be able to report favourably on this new title because I am committed to independent publishing and to the rare and intriguing skill of translation. Alas, The Chatelet Apprentice was a bitter disappointment. As I have not seen the original French text, I cannot comment on the translation, which may well be excellent, but I could find nothing to commend in the novel itself.

Its structure frustrates all reader expectations of a murder mystery by opening with a brief, occluded account of something unspecified being dumped by persons unknown. We know it’s ghastly because of the reaction of an aged prostitute straight out of Central Casting, but it is more than fifty pages before we return to it after an unforgivably long flashback into Le Floch’s childhood. Le Floch and his colleagues have the shallow, chippy eagerness of a bunch of public schoolboys, and 18th century Paris is lazily depicted through the usual range of sewage in the streets and whores plying their trade in tavern doorways interspersed with lists of street names which sound more like directions than passages of fiction. By the time I finished the book, I felt the Revolution couldn’t come soon enough!