Palace of Justice paints a grim picture of pre-revolutionary France in 1793, Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine and a citizen’s panel of judges at the Revolutionary Tribunal more often than not consigns those before them to death. The images are graphic and bloody, a surplus of beheadings to amuse the crowds as a brief distraction from the suffering that continues to plague the city. Everyone is infected with “Revolutionary Fever,” the impulse to execute with intemperate haste.
However, when a series of bodies appears in random Paris jurisdictions sans their heads, the authorities cannot ascertain whether it is the work of a political fanatic or a serial killer. Aristide Ravel, a freelance investigator for the Paris police, is tasked with heading the investigation, starting with the identities of the victims and what connections there may be between them. Aristide carries letters of accommodation from influential officials to allow him the freedom to investigate wherever necessary. Unfortunately, there appears to be little in common between a newly-impoverished streetwalker and a gentleman of means other than their lack of heads.
Ravel is acutely aware of the volatile political climate, a detail Alleyn employs as part of the tension in her novel, as the lives of many citizens are summarily ended by a tribunal drunk on its own power. When Ravel’s best friend and his compatriots are arrested under the broad umbrella of treason for their political leanings, Aristide is devastated. Nor can he find any way to help his friend as the day of execution nears. As a distraction, Ravel shares the details of his current cases that the time might pass more companionably for the imprisoned men.
A series of ominous events accelerate in the final chapters as Ravel focuses on the only man capable of engineering the bizarre beheadings that seem at first glance to have no connections. But his quarry is sly and not unfamiliar with the halls of government or the myriad tunnels that run beneath the city of Paris. Refusing to be intimidated by the powerful or the threat of harm, Ravel pursues his suspect through dark and winding tunnels and the public venues of government, haunted all the while by the realization that he has been unable to save his friend from the guillotine.
All Aristide has left in this moment of grief is his personal devotion to justice and his belief in law and order. He has the soul of a patriot and the instincts of an investigator, a winning combination in troubled times when anything vaguely aristocratic is destroyed in favor of the common good. While not always a compelling novel, the plot gains traction near the end with a confluence of violent engagements. A satisfying denouement exposes evil in all its ugliness.