Translator: Louise Lalaurie Rogers
Series: Commissaire aux morts étranges #1
Published by Pushkin Vertigo on October 6, 2020 (first published 2012)
Genres: Historical Mystery
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Fans of Abir Mukherjee and Sarah Waters will love this gloriously macabre romp racing through the glitzy Versailles Palace by way of the shady criminal underworld of Paris on the brink of the revolution
Everyone has secrets. Especially the king.
When a gruesomely mutilated body is found on the squalid streets of Paris in 1759, the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths is called to the scene. The body count soon begins to rise and the Inspector is brought even further into a web of deceit that stretches from criminals, secret orders, revolutionaries and aristocrats to very top of society.
In the murky world of the court of King Louis XV, finding out the truth will prove to be anything but straightforward.
The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths is the first in a series by Barde-Cabuçon, but it’s the only one currently translated to English. Hopefully, they’ll get around to the rest soon because I really enjoyed it.
The story takes place in 1759 Paris, somewhere between the shiny halls of Versailles ruled by debauched Louis XV and his cohorts, and the dirty, dangerous hovels of Parisian suburbs inhabited by the desperately poor. The general population of Paris is seething with resentment, misery, and anger, on the brink of revolution, while the elites seem oblivious to both the inequity and the risks.
On the streets of Paris, a horribly mutilated body of a young woman is discovered; the inquiry into her death quickly leads into dangerous territory – to the boudoirs of Versailles, where terminally bored Louis XV is mostly preoccupied with his newest sexual conquests. The detective who has taken on the case is Chevalier de Volnay, named the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths by Louis XV himself as a reward for saving the king’s life two years prior. The case becomes rather complicated. We’ve got Louis XV and his extremely influential mistress Madame de Pompadour, the mysterious Count Saint-Germain, Church fundamentalists, Freemasons, secret societies, desperate prostitutes, and would-be alchemists. Even the famous Giacomo Casanova, famous lover, womanizer, spy, courtier, scammer, memorialist, and adventurer, plays a significant role. He was one of my favorites actually. The Inspector himself seems to be the only honest, moral man in Paris. His partner, a monk, is brilliant and has a fascinating history of his own.
The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths is not exactly a traditional mystery. Yes, we have a murder and yes the detective goes about solving it, but that plot is almost secondary to the relationships, secrets, and society games. The mystery does get solved in the meantime, right between the romantic drama and the political intrigue. It cares more about characters’ personalities, dreams, and needs than clues. It’s a bit meandering, with detailed descriptions of clothing, food, interiors, and conversations, but for me that was part of its charm.
“Historical mystery” is a genre I love, but don’t read enough of. The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths was a good mystery with plenty of drama and a touch of romance. It was a good way to start my reading year.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges: