A murdered man is found in a Parisian cemetery in 1786, where struggling writer Aristide Ravel recognizes the strange symbols surrounding the body to be Masonic.
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In the icy winter of 1786, hunger, cold, and seething frustration with the iron grip of France’s absolute monarchy drive poor and rich alike to outright defiance. Slums, fashionable cafés, and even aristocratic mansions echo with discontent and the first warning signals of the approaching turmoil of 1789.
Paris’s cemeteries are foul and disease-ridden during the last decades of the eighteenth century, but no one, including penniless writer Aristide Ravel, expects to find a man with his throat cut lying dead in a churchyard, surrounded by strange Masonic symbols. Already suspected of stirring up the people’s anger by writing against the royal court, Ravel must now evade the ever-present police and clear his name of murder. His search for answers amid the city’s literary and intellectual demimonde--with the aid of friends who, he quickly learns, may not be all that they seem--leads him into a bewildering tangle of conspiracy, secret societies, royal scandal, and imminent revolution, which grows only more complex when the corpse disappears . . .
From the author of Game of Patience and A Treasury of Regrets comes the third Aristide Ravel historical mystery, a prequel steeped in the atmosphere of the brilliant, perilous world of Paris in the final years before the French Revolution.
Aristide Ravel stumbled upon the first fire early on All Hallows’ Eve.
The rising sun at last allowed him to see his way past the gutter that ran down the center of all the streets, thick with the black slime that Parisians politely called mud--a trampled stew of horse manure, nightsoil, rotten rinds and parings, ashes, and every other sort of muck and filth that the inhabitants of a vast city could produce. He strode on toward the center of Paris, trying to ignore his squalid surroundings in the outskirts while anticipating, with some pleasure, the four gold louis he would receive for a handful of manuscript pages he had written for a printer-bookseller on the Quai des Augustins.
His lodgings lay, in the autumn of 1785, on the sixth floor of a dilapidated tenement at the edge of the city, not far from the prison-hospital of La Salpetrière, which he could smell from his room whenever the wind was right, and unpleasantly close to a pair of slaughterhouses and the desolate paupers’ graveyard of Clamart, all of which he could smell all the time. To reach the printers’ district by the Seine, he had first to pick his way along the refuse-strewn cobbles on the slopes of Rue Mouffetard and the neighboring streets, past the butcher shops, abbatoirs, and tanneries that crowded the landscape and poisoned the air of the neighborhood with the vile stench of soaking hides and stale blood.
He was approaching the steep hill, avoiding the scraps of offal that littered the streets near the slaughterhouses, when a large, unruly crowd and a plume of smoke caught his attention. Made up of the usual assortment of early-rising day laborers, journeymen, fishwives, errand boys, and ragged vagrants that one encountered in the seamy faubourg St. Marcel, the crowd streamed toward the church of St. Médard.
Fifty years before, a mad sect of religious fanatics had gone into convulsions there over purported miracles. Curious, he followed them, pushing the lank dark hair that spilled to his shoulders and whipped in the breeze away from his face, and wondering if new miracles had manifested themselves. As he approached, he found the spectators equally divided between those who--eager for any free entertainment--were hooting, shouting, and stamping their feet, and others, mostly women, who were on their knees, praying and sobbing. Above them all, gray smoke drifted from the church’s porch, muddying the overcast sky above.