This is an engaging, exciting and intriguing tale of the orphan Bastien Bonlivre  and his friends, Sami, Theo and Alice, as they try to solve the mystery of the strange deaths of Bastien’s author parents. The conditions in the orphanage where the boys are virtually imprisoned are dreadful (cold onion soup for a main meal and being locked in a broom cupboard in the dark for hours as a punishment);  while the director, the villainous Monsieur Xavier,  eats a glistening roast duck with dauphinoises potatoes as the children starve. 

Theo and Bastien escape one night (helped by Theo’s lock-picking ability) to the bookshop Le Chat Curieux, owned by Alice’s parents, who were friends of the Bonlivres.  Here Bastien relives the delights of his former life, and the book conveys wonderfully the charms of Paris and its foodie pleasures.  ‘No visit to the bookshop was complete without the taste of warm croissants with home-made jam and hot chocolate so  thick it could only be eaten with a spoon.’   Alice’s parents reveal that several writers have gone missing and this, along with the curious fact that Xavier has stolen the notebook Bastien had been given by his parents provides the spur to their  adventures.  As time goes on they find more clues linking Xavier to the  disappearance of the writers and, perhaps, to his parents’ deaths. The boys have to return to the orphanage where they are joined in their dangerous investigations by Sami, a boy from Morocco who initially never speaks, but who eventually opens up to Bastien about his desire to reclaim something of his father’s from Xavier.  Bastien also wants to get his notebook back, imagining it contains clues to what happened to his parents and the three follow Xavier to find out.   Sami  proves the saviour of their little group  when they end up in the catacombs under Paris, the so-called Empire of Death. Sami guides them through the tunnels but the description of their journey in the darkness beneath the city, accompanied by the smell of the thousands of dead, is truly unnerving. Fear has no face, Bastien thinks,  but its home is the catacombs.  Alice, meanwhile, above ground with her parents, is trying to foil Xavier’s plans. 

The theme of the importance and power of storytelling runs throughout the book with Bastien, who is hoping to be an author,  telling stories to the orphanage children related to their different  lives and their hopes and dreams for the future.  Touching and uplifting, the tales highlight Bastien’s compassionate personality and his gift for storytelling, although I didn’t feel they advanced the plot very much and could perhaps have been used to greater effect.  Nevertheless  the tale rattles along at a great rate and we, the readers, are desperate for Bastien to find out what is in the notebook, locate the missing writers and expose the villainous Xavier.  A very worthwhile read.





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