THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

Mystery unfolds in Paris of the 1800s

By Clea Simon
September 11, 2008
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What's in a name? If you're Dr. Hector Carpentier, an impoverished young physician in 1818 Paris, everything.

As this intricate historical mystery opens, Carpentier believes he has recognized the neighborhood beggar, Bardou, and is taken aback when the apparently starving cripple turns out to be the legendary, and able-bodied, detective Eugène François Vidocq in disguise. Vidocq has it wrong, too. The man into whose home he has inveigled his way is a different Carpentier. Vidocq is really seeking Carpentier's deceased father, also a doctor named Hector. Back when the French Revolution was still fresh, Dr. Carpentier senior had treated Louis-Charles, son of the beheaded King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, before the boy died -- or so history would have us believe -- imprisoned in the infamous black tower. But Vidocq has a more immediate reason for his interest in the family Carpentier: A recent murder victim, whose mutilated body revealed that he had been tortured, has been found with Carpentier's name in his pocket.

As this twisted opening ought to warn readers, "The Black Tower" is a puzzle of identity and history. Louis Bayard chose his setting well. Paris during the Restoration is busy forgetting the revolution of only 20 years earlier, Carpentier recalls. It is particularly concerned with shutting out the Terror that followed the revolution, when heads rolled and the young prince was virtually condemned to die from neglect. But history as well as identity has a way of popping up. In Bayard's intriguing third mystery, the first clues come from journal entries, apparently written by Carpentier senior as he is sent to treat the malnourished, sickly boy in the tower. And when the younger Carpentier is drafted by Vidocq into helping him solve the more recent murder, they discover that the past, unlike the supposedly deceased offspring of Louis XVI, does not stay buried.

As he did with "The Pale Blue Eye" and Edgar Allan Poe, and earlier with "Mr. Timothy" and Charles Dickens, in "The Black Tower" Bayard takes history and literature as his raw material. This time out, the accent is on history, though the ghost of novelist Alexandre Dumas hovers over the period detail and remembered scandal. Certainly, the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in the person of King Louis XVIII (Louis XVI's brother) set the stage for a slew of pretenders, frauds of all sorts who claimed to be the missing, presumed dead Charles. And the real Vidocq, a former crook who became Paris's first plainclothes detective, did work at exposing them. While Bayard's Vidocq and Carpentier sort through the historical claims, they also have to deal with the more recent threat. That first murder is soon followed by another, and both the detectives come under fire as well.

Bayard, as he did with his previous novels, follows the fashions of the times with a light hand. Although he indulges in the kind of ornate prose one would expect from the period, as well as a sharp eye for the actual fashions of the era ("Three waistcoats, worn one over the other, each a different shade of olive"), he keeps the action moving at a modern pace, piling on the chases and fight scenes. His Carpentier makes a sympathetic everyman hero, a lost young man who finds himself by the end of the adventure, and if Vidocq remains a bit cryptic -- larger than life, slightly scary -- that fits with the historical reality. Only at the end, when Bayard throws a few surprises in, does the logic begin to fold in on itself. Is Vidocq pulling a fast one on Carpentier? Is Carpentier sharper than we realized? Bayard leaves the ending slightly ambiguous, much like history itself.

Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cries and Whiskers" (Poisoned Pen Press).

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