Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review: The Black Tower [2008]

In addition to Call of the Mild and The Passage, Louis Bayard's The Black Tower also came up in my first Reading Roulette draw. I was able to get the audiobook through the library, and was pleased to discover that it was narrated by my perennial favorite Simon Vance. The book is one that's been on my list for a long time, but I never would have gotten around to reading it if not for this project. I even learned a bit about French history!

The year is 1818. In Restoration France (only recently delivered back into the hands of the monarchy after Napoleon's rule), medical student Hector Carpentier is startled out of his routine by the appearance of one Vidocq, the criminal-turned-policeman who was responsible for creating the first detective bureau. Vidocq is investigating the death of a man who bore a well-concealed paper with "Dr. Carpentier" and Hector's address on it. Vidocq, brusque, crass, and possessing qualities similar to a terrier, is convinced that Hector must know something, and brings him along as he makes inquiries. As they trace the dead man's contacts, they uncover leads that stretch back to the days of the French Republic, when Hector's father was called to minister to the ailing dauphin, held captive in the Black Tower. Official reports claimed that the boy, Louis-Charles, died in 1795 at the age of ten.

They discover that there are certain people who believe the dauphin, who would have been Louis XVII if not for the overthrow of the monarchy during the French Revolution, is still alive, and there are several dead bodies to prove their earnestness. Vidocq and Hector find themselves with someone who might be the presumed-dead dauphin, but with no way to prove or disprove his identity. Questions abound: Is this Charles the real prince? How did he get out of the tower? If he did, who died in the tower in 1795? How was Hector's father involved? Throw in a buried journal, disguises, the guillotine, a duel, the nobility, Mesmer, and family secrets, and you've got a fun and dramatic mix of elements.

Grade: B

I enjoyed this both as historical fiction and as a good detective story, although this one ends with some questions still unanswered. One of the best parts of the book was Hector's slow maturation from predictable pushover to surprisingly unreliable narrator.

What to Read Next:

Although he and Vidocq are nothing alike (aside from their aptitude for clever disguises), The Black Tower made me want to read some Sherlock Holmes. Hector Carpentier plays a role that's very similar to Watson's at times.

Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which actually mentions Vidocq by name.

And again, I will recommend Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. Princes in a tower!

In terms of nonfiction, I'd recommend The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale (audiobook also narrated by Simon Vance), which concerns a country house murder and a celebrated London detective in the 1860s.

Book Review Index

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The description of Vidocq sounds like Pratchett's Sam Vimes (Discworld). I may have to check this out just for that!
- @schomj