Robert Muchembled, in his latest book, Les Ripoux des Lumières, corruption policière et révolution (2011), argues that the eighteenth-century Paris police was a hotbed of corruption, exploiting its knowledge of the city’s decadent underbelly to manipulate, spy on, and blackmail its denizens, falsifying documents (hence our precious judicial archives might just hide a series of lies), and leaving false trails. The ancien régime itself would collapse from the rot and debauchery that he deems endemic. After 500 pages and counting, Muchembled’s real-life inspector Jean-Baptiste Meusnier, mastermind and knave, seems highly implausible, whereas Jean-François Parot’s fictional hero, Nicolas Le Floch, who navigates the same terrain, shows why the Paris police was deemed the best in Europe. Is truth then stranger than fiction or is this a matter of perspective? Parot’s old regime functions despite its foul sides; there is no fragrance in Muchembled’s world.
Parot’s Eighteenth-Century Mysteries
I have to admit that I rarely read historical novels, especially those set in periods and places I know something about. Even if they are well researched and accurate in their material setting, I am usually irritated by the way the characters almost invariably behave and think like modern people in funny costume. So it was with reluctance that I agreed to review Jean-François Parot’s series about the Paris police officer Nicolas Le Floch. I was wrong. Five volumes later, I am still enjoying Parot’s inventive plots, his amazing grasp of Paris detail, and his achievement in creating characters who function broadly in eighteenth-century manner while remaining comprehensible to a modern audience.
The main character is Nicolas Le Floch, introduced in the first volume as a young man recently arrived in Paris from Brittany. It is 1761, and Nicolas enters the Paris police thanks to the patronage of his godfather, the Marquis de Ranreuil, a friend of the Lieutenant-General of Police, Gabriel de Sartine. Thanks to his natural charm, discretion, and intelligence, the young man impresses de Sartine and is soon given a special task, investigating the disappearance of one of the police commissioners. This disappearance, it turns out, is linked to corruption within the force and to the theft of potentially embarrassing state papers. Three hundred pages and several murders later, in a dramatic final scene worthy of Hercule Poirot, Nicolas brings the case to a triumphant conclusion, using his impressive forensic and deductive skills to unravel a complex web of intrigue (I use the cliché deliberately, as it is entirely appropriate). Nicolas wins the admiration of both his subordinates and his superiors, and is rewarded with the post of commissioner. The main story is skilfully interwoven with Nicolas’s personal history: he is racked with anguish when the Marquis refuses to countenance his love for Isabelle, his godfather’s daughter, a rejection he attributes to his status as a foundling. But he later turns out, as in any good eighteenth-century tale, to be the Marquis’s illegitimate son, and his half-sister Isabelle is immediately set aside as a romantic interest. It is a gripping yarn, well constructed and well written, its implausibility perfectly consistent with the requirements both of the detective genre and of the eighteenth-century adventure novel.
Where the first volume was set in middle-class and plebeian surroundings, the second, The Man with a Lead Stomach, begins with a murder in an aristocratic residence in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Nicolas’s investigative skills are once again on display and the corpses pile up as we are plunged into noble society and Court intrigue and even into direct contact with the King and with Madame de Pompadour. I found this volume less successful, more gothic and macabre, the plot gripping enough to hold my interest but more contorted and even less plausible. Yet the characters are once again engaging and the writing excellent. With the third volume, The Phantom of Rue Royale, Parot returns to top form. It is set against the background of the disaster of 1770, when over 130 people (not 1200 as Parot has Nicolas report at one point, though inflated figures were given by many observers) were crushed to death in a crowd panic following the fireworks display to celebrate the marriage of the future Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. This time the intrepid Nicolas, sent as an observer by Sartine, uncovers a murder and the investigation leads him to the house of a furrier in the rue Saint-Honoré where a further series of unusual events take place. The volume ends with Nicolas again meeting the King, and this time the new royal mistress, Madame du Barry.
The Nicolas Le Floch Affair continues the Court theme, moving forward to 1774. This time Nicolas is implicated in the murder of his own mistress, and while investigating that, is sent on a secret mission to London on the personal orders of the King. This enables him (and the reader) to be introduced to Court intrigue in the final part of Louis XV’s reign, when Madame du Barry is the victim of scurrilous libelles. He meets the androgynous Chevalier d’Éon and the pamphleteer Morande de Théveneau. Nicolas later witnesses the death of Louis XV from smallpox, before going on, in yet another complex dénouement, to bring his mistress’s murderer to justice. Finally, The Saint-Florentin Murders again begins with a brutal killing, this time of a female servant in the city residence of the royal minister, the Duc de La Vrillière. We are introduced to the hierarchies and bitter rivalries at play within a nobleman’s house, and again the plot moves between Paris and Versailles. The novel ends with Nicolas once more revealing, this time to the new police chief, Lenoir, and to the lieutenant criminel, Testard du Lys, the complex reasoning that has led him to solve the mystery and to foil the foreign plot that lies behind it.
Much of the charm of this series derives from its imitation of aspects of an eighteenth-century adventure novel, but with a pace and character portrayals drawn from modern crime fiction. The hero, Nicolas Le Floch, is a dashing figure, intelligent and energetic, who inspires loyalty in his subordinates and confidences from almost everyone. He is able to adapt to any situation, but remains engagingly unaware of his own charm. The device of the illegitimate nobleman’s son, well educated but penniless, is an eighteenth-century cliché, and makes him a chameleon, able to gain acceptance at Court but to mix with all sorts in the city.
His role in the police, of course, offers the opportunity for him to visit every part of Paris and to interact with men and women of every social group and occupation. He is a mixture of eighteenth-century and modern characteristics. On the one hand, he accepts without question the social hierarchy of Old Regime France, is loyal to the King even before meeting him, accepts eighteenth-century medical ideas and even wrestles with the issue of demonic possession (in The Phantom of Rue Royale). On the other hand, he is obsessive about washing every day, an anachronistic detail I found somewhat mystifying. He is squeamish about judicial torture, which was often used to force suspects to confess and to reveal their accomplices. Parot tiptoes around the issue, obligingly having one suspect commit suicide just as Nicolas has to decide whether to have him tortured, and exonerating the young commissioner (and sometimes de Sartine as well) from any direct involvement in such barbarity. Public executions are an equally difficult issue, largely avoided. The executioner, Sanson, turns out to be a charming man, only torturing and executing people because that is the duty he has inherited from his father. He also happens to be a whiz at autopsies, which greatly assists Nicholas in solving the various murders! In return, Nicolas characteristically breaks with social convention by treating the executioner as an equal, shaking hands with him, even accepting an invitation to dine at his house.
Parot develops a variety of other fascinating characters that reappear throughout the series: the surgeon Semacgus; the executioner Sanson; the former procureur Noblecourt; the police inspector Bourdeau. And there is the police chief de Sartine himself, an eccentric wig collector, snuff-taker, presented as a man of the Enlightenment, a freemason and a Voltairean anticlerical. Each of these figures is finely observed and consistently portrayed, although they, like Nicolas himself, are chameleon characters, recognisably eighteenth-century in many of their attitudes and aspects of their behaviour, yet sometimes reacting in modern fashion. Artistic licence justifies most of these departures from strict historical accuracy. A variety of more minor characters also return in successive volumes: the brothel-keeper La Paulet and one of her prostitutes, La Satin, who at one stage is Nicolas’ lover; and Tirepot, a part-time police spy whose regular job provides the perfect cover for wandering the streets and observing events, since he carries two buckets suspended from a pole across his shoulders that enable those caught short in the street to relieve themselves. Other individuals are stock eighteenth-century characters: the pompous notary; the incompetent surgeons and puffed-up physicians; the proud and arrogant nobles.
Is this a set of books one could recommend to history students? From a purist historical perspective, many elements are impossible and misleading. Nicolas’ intimate interactions with his subordinates are utterly implausible, as are his increasingly frequent interviews with the King. It is impossible that such a man would or could have joined the Paris police in the first place, let alone as a “commissioner”: the commissaires au Châtelet paid a large sum for their offices and would have vetoed an untrained outsider, and the police certainly employed no such free-ranging investigator. Indeed, the depiction of the Paris police is largely historical cliché, with its all-knowing Lieutenant-General and ubiquitous spies; while Nicolas’ forensic skills and analyses, and the whole method of investigation derive from modern crime fiction, as do the Perry Mason style dénouements. Many individual situations are equally implausible: the way everyone confides in Nicolas, from the high nobility to the humblest concierge. On the other hand, Parot captures the spirit of eighteenth-century French society in many small details. The contempt of the Court nobility for domestics and for practically everyone else; the hints of bawdiness that sit strangely, to modern eyes, alongside high culture; the role of rumor in the city; unquestioning religious belief, with just a touch of anticlericalism; the confidence and impotence of eighteenth-century medicine; the taste for epigram and acrostics; and the way ordinary Parisians got on with their lives. We witness the patronage system in action, and Parot implausibly puts into de Sartine’s mouth a partly (though not entirely) accurate explanation of Old Regime justice: the accused is presumed guilty, and the aim of trial is to condemn, then impress the public by making an example (Nicolas Le Floch Affair, 270).
For once, the publishers’ blurbs get it right: the wealth of eighteenth-century Paris detail and color is extraordinary. Parot trained as a historian (I recall, years ago, reading a 1974 maîtrise on the “social structure” of three central quarters of the city that I assume was his), and while he is now a diplomat, he has certainly retained his skills of observation and his grasp of historical detail. Specialists of eighteenth-century Paris will recognise many of his sources, notably Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s wonderful Tableau de Paris, some of whose picturesque descriptions are somewhat uncritically reproduced. But Parot draws on a very wide range of documentation to portray in exquisite and accurate detail the topography of the city, the interiors of apartments, and the appearance of the streets. We learn about the posters on the walls, informing the population of royal decrees, court decisions, auctions, death notices, lost dogs and cats, the upcoming performance of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, interspersed with advertisements for patent medicines. At the door of an actress, Nicolas encounters an old, toothless hag, wearing a rabbit-skin jacket and selling combs, pins and playing cards. The volumes offer many cameos of this kind.
The books abound, too, in literary references, facilitated by Nicolas’s Jesuit education that enables him to quote both classical and modern authors. And the love of food and cuisine permeates each volume, much of it genuinely eighteenth century, with a particular taste for offal, lovingly prepared: pig ears grilled in mustard; head of pork in terrine. We are given entire recipes: for a stew made of potatoes (an exotic vegetable), cooked with bacon, garlic, thyme and bay, burgundy; for fricassee of pig trotters; and for Bourdeau’s home brew of mulled wine.
Parot’s diplomatic interests presumably explain the recurrence, particularly in the later volumes, of high politics and diplomacy, whose ins and outs are beautifully and clearly explained. We learn much about rivalries at Court, about Anglo-French tensions, and about debates surrounding the Austrian alliance. We learn about the role of the King’s mistresses, about Court ceremony, and the weaknesses and virtues of key figures, including the monarchs. There are hints of modern French as well as eighteenth-century patriotism in the sympathetic depiction of Louis XV as a wise, benevolent, and effective monarch (despite the loss of Canada, which the authorial voice deems deeply unfortunate). He contrasts sharply with Louis XVI’s “weak” and indecisive character, and Marie-Antoinette does not emerge well in comparison with Madame de Pompadour.
So yes, these are volumes that students should read, that will entertain and instruct them. It would be a useful classroom exercise to discuss the characters and how accurately they reflect eighteenth-century attitudes, either in a subject on pre-revolutionary France or one on history and literature. The translations are excellent, capturing the flavour of the original French, with only occasional slips or dubious choices—such as “provost of the merchants” for Prévôt des Marchands (Rue Royale, 3). Parot has written another four volumes – on the latest count – that so far have appeared only in French, but that will no doubt in due course entertain us with the further adventures of Nicolas Le Floch.
Jean-François Parot, The Châtelet Apprentice, trans. by Michael Glencross (London: Gallic Books, 2007; first published 2000); The Man with the Lead Stomach, trans. by Michael Glencross (London: Gallic Books, 2008, first published 2000); The Phantom of Rue Royale, trans. by Howard Curtis (London: Gallic Books, 2008; first published 2001); The Nicolas Le Floch Affair, trans. by Howard Curtis (London: Gallic Books, 2009; first published 2002); The Saint-Florentin Murders, trans. by Howard Curtis (London: Gallic Books, 2010; first published 2004).