Reading the The Black Tower by Louis Bayard made me remember once again why I relish good historical fiction. It is amazing how a well-crafted novel can conjure up the past, with its images of glory and horror, bringing back to life those long dead. Bayard's new work is one such novel, combining fictional characters with real people, weaving truth and fiction into a historical thriller.
The Black Tower revives, in the totality of his outrageousness, the infamous French police detective Eugène François Vidocq. Vidocq, a former convict, is considered to be the father of modern law enforcement. Coarse and cunning, with an unflinching sense of justice, Bayard's Vidocq has his hands full in the Paris of 1818, where the citizens are trying to forget the upheavals of the past twenty-five years. A bizarre murder forces Vidocq to reopen the case of the child king Louis XVII, tormented in the Temple tower in the darkest days of the Revolution.
The tale is narrated by Vidocq's reluctant sidekick Hector Charpentier, a medical student who has squandered his fortune on a former mistress. Hector lives in dire poverty in a boarding house kept by his mother, with a motley cast of eccentric "guests" who would do justice to a Dickens novel. Police protection must be given to a simple-minded young man named Charles, who appears to be the target of an assassination plot. When Hector is told by Vidocq to guard Charles, his life is further complicated, yet gradually transformed.
Charles, who suffers from amnesia, is a charming and gentle soul whose presence brings light to the inhabitants of the boarding house. Charles guilelessly says the wrong thing at the wrong time, as he and Hector are pursued all over Paris by an unknown enemy. As Charles' memories occasionally surface, Hector becomes more and more convinced that his charge is none other than Louis XVII, who had allegedly died in the Temple in 1795. Meanwhile, a long, lost journal gives the horrendous details of the cruelty inflicted on the child prisoner, while compounding the mystery of his fate.
Having researched the same era for the novel Madame Royale, I appreciate the realism with which Bayard depicts Restoration France. Bayard is able to capture the squalor and drudgery of the life of ordinary people in a land scarred and impoverished by the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. While everyone is longing for forgetfulness, for normalcy, the past keeps emerging, as if the entire nation were laboring under post-traumatic stress syndrome. Hector discovers that he is inextricably linked with the distant sufferings of the small, frightened son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. He learns that others in his life are connected as well to those long ago events. As Vidocq and his crew unravel the mystery, the old demons must gradually be confronted and exorcised. The author's insight into the agony of the Duchesse d’Angoulême, and the twist he gives to her dilemma, is as admirable as it is heartrending. Towards the end are some startlingly graphic scenes which did not lend themselves to the flow of the story. Otherwise, I am in awe of the writing. What a superb film The Black Tower would make.
Many thanks to my friend Catherine Delors, from whom I heard about this highly enjoyable novel. HERE is Madame Delors' interview with author Louis Bayard. Share