The Black Tower

Written by Louis Bayard
Review by Susan Higginbotham

In 1818, a street beggar follows Hector Carpentier to his home in the Latin Quarter, only to transform himself into Vidocq, Paris’s master detective. What does Vidocq want with Hector, whose life with his drab mother, a trio of loutish student lodgers, and an elderly boarder is a model of law-abiding obscurity? The answer puts Vidocq and the reluctant Hector on the trail of a lost prince—Marie Antoinette’s young son Louis-Charles, supposed to have died in captivity during the Revolution. Along the way, Hector will learn some startling truths about his family and acquaintances—and about himself—all while trying to evade the men who suddenly want him dead.

This was my first go at reading a novel by Bayard, and won’t be my last. Bayard’s writing is exceptionally good: clever yet unpretentious, with wonderful turns of phrase that made me go back and re-read passages for the sheer enjoyment of it. The characters drawn from real life (including Vidocq himself) are vivid, as are fictitious ones like Hector (the narrator) and his motley companions. Even the minor characters are sharply rendered. Best of all, perhaps, is the manner in which Bayard portrays the plight of young Louis-Charles, with a self-assured combination of anger, compassion, and wit that is moving yet never maudlin.

Thanks to these qualities, readers of historical fiction, literary fiction, and mystery should all thoroughly enjoy this novel.