This exhilarating first stab at a murder mystery by veteran historical novelist Sawyer (Rebel, 2014, etc.) rings true.
Primarily set in France during eight days in 1735, the novel centers around military police corps member Victor Constant, who is propelled by a strong sense of justice, which often keeps him from noticing whose toes he steps upon. It’s this stunning indifference to France’s very strong class structure that earns Parisian Constant an involuntary transfer to the picturesque rural region of Champagne. As he muses in a flashback, “Learn not to arrest gentlemen with friends in high places, or you’ll be cashiered from the military police corps of France.” Constant launches the investigation of the murder of a nobleman’s ambitious clerk on a nearby estate. At the estate, he meets, in an inevitably adversarial manner, the playwright Voltaire, opinionated lover of the estate’s mistress, Madame du Chalelet. Other members of Constant’s Chaumont brigade quickly pick up a penniless outsider as a suitable suspect in the crime. But the victim’s reputation as a philanderer and his unlikely, hidden wealth lead Constant to doggedly seek out a more conspiratorial solution to the crime, procedure be damned, especially after another man of dubious character is also found dead. Constant is soon racing the clock to find the true mastermind behind the heinous deed as he battles provincial attitudes. His partner, Renard, proffers, “If you tell me there’s conspiracy brewing [in Paris] in every street, I’m ready to believe you. But here, amongst our gentry? That’s not our way….We’re shoved away in a sleepy corner where nothing happens.” Sawyer has created a winning character in the obstinate Constant in what is the first book in a proposed series, and she has surrounded him with memorable characters, both noble and commoner. Her experience as a historical researcher shines through, such as when Constant performs the 18th-century equivalent of a ballistics match. Some of the language, especially the curse words, seems a bit anachronistic.
A promising start in a new direction featuring a headstrong but street-smart detective.