Saturday, May 24, 2008

Book Review: "The Black Tower"

Louis Bayard's new work, The Black Tower (William Morrow, forthcoming) is a riveting and masterful work of historical and literary fiction. Drawing on the legends of the "lost king of France" (Louis XVI's son Louis-Charles, who "died" in prison in 1795), Bayard lays the groundwork for a delicious complex story involving returning royalty, mistaken identities, the power of memory, and some good old-fashioned detective work (or, I guess I should say, new-fashioned detective work).

That last is courtesy of François-Eugène Vidocq, the real-life crook-turned-cop who initiated the establishment of the 'police de sûreté' during the Napoleonic period and went on to influence Poe's Inspector C. Auguste Dupin. Bayard's Vidocq is an investigative mastermind, and even if he remains a bit undercooked here, he's still one of the most fascinating characters I've read in a long time. He's accompanied in his investigations by the pathetic but well-meaning quasi-doctor Hector Carpentier, who is drawn (unwillingly) into the grand intrigue when his name is found on the body of a murdered man.

I won't give away the plot, but will note that it twists and turns right to the very last page. Just when you think you've got it figured out, Bayard throws over another curveball (always making them just believable enough to steer clear of overkill). He's written some very fun characters and spun a good yarn with this book. Oh, and his chapter titles ("In Which a Corpus Is Exhumed," The Reeducation of a Parrot," "Foiled Hopes") are wonderfully effective; I had to remember to go back at the end of some chapters and make the connection, but found myself chuckling out loud when I did.

Highly recommended.