Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Review: The Black Tower, by Louis Bayard

The Black Tower is a what-could-have-been murder mystery. Set in 1818, not long after Napoleon had been deposed and the French monarchy reinstated, the novel begins when a man is found murdered in the streets of Paris, carrying a calling card with Dr. Hector Carpentier’s name on it.

Enter Eugene Francois Vidocq, one of the most legendary and feared detectives of the early 19th century (and such an influence that Victor Hugo modeled both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert on him; a Wikipedia search on Vidocq reveals that he is credited with introducing record-keeping, criminology, and ballistics to the field of criminal investigation). Vidocq has just established the very first plainclothes police force, said to be composed of some very dangerous ex-cons. It’s into this world, where the line between the law and crime is smudged, that Dr. Hector Carpentier enters.

On the surface, the dead man, Leblanc, and Carpentier have nothing in common. But the mystery soon leads Carpentier and Vidocq into a dangerous search into the secrets of the murdered royal family—and entertain the thought that Louis-Charles, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and who was imprisoned for many long months, might still be alive.

I’m always skeptical of historical fiction that’s written in the first person—but surprisingly, Louis Bayard manages to make it work in this book. The Parisian underworld is sufficiently creepy, and Carpentier, plays a perfect (albeit watered-down) Dr. Watson to Vidocq’s Sherlock Holmes. I just loved inspector Vidocq, for his razor-sharp wit and ability to transform into another character through disguise. He’s arrogant and cocky (and not above strutting like a peacock when someone compliments him!), but very sure of his abilities as an investigator. He's also sarcastic. One of my favorite quotes from this novel:

And then his voice shifts into a sharper register.
"Of course, if you don't have the stomach for this work..."
"I have the stomach," I answer, lifting my head towards his. "It so happens
I have a heart, too."
"Oh, yes," he says, breezily. "I've got one of those myself. I keep it in a
box somewhere."

There’s a hefty amount of political intrigue and espionage in this novel, made even juicier by the idea that the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette might have still been alive in 1818, long after a time period which everyone wished to forget. The novel is well-written; not a word is wasted here. It’s a fast-paced and utterly convincing novel. To be released on August 26th.

Samantha asked: "A question about The Black Tower; would you call it historical fiction? If the answer is yes, can you tell us in what historical period it plays and if that historical period is accurately depicted in the book."

I answered the first two questions in my review, but as to the third, I'm not exactly sure if the time period portrayed is correct. Although I have a degree in history, the history I studied was mostly medieval, not the world of post-Revolution France. But even if the book wasn't historically accurate, I believe that Bayard did a fantastic job of convincing the reader that it was real.

Book Zombie asked: "I have a question about "The Black Tower, by Louis Bayard" but actually its more about the fact that it is an ARC.To me, reading an ARC is almost like reading a "blind buy" - what I would like to know is if you enjoy finding a good book this way?Also when reading ARCs do you find that the treasures out weigh the duds? Or the other way around?What is the best book you have read that was an ARC?"

I belong to something called Amazon Vine, where preferred Amazon members are invited to select items (not just books) to try out and review. So the selection process gives me the freedom to choose what I want and ignore the rest, which can sometimes be a wonderful thing. Sometimes, when I receive "blind items" like this one, I'm very surprised by what I've discovered. In addition to The Black Tower, I fell in love with Kate Morton's novels through an ARC of The House at Riverton. I also enjoyed Blind Submission, by Debra Ginsberg and So Brave, Young and Handsome, by Leif Enger. But on the other hand, I've read some real duds, including Beginner's Greek, by James Collins, Now You See Him, by Eli Gottlieb, and The Secret Scroll, by Ronald Cutler. So its really more of a crapshoot on whether or not I love a book I read.

Also reviewed by: The Boston Bibliophile, BCF Reviews


literatehousewife said...

I haven't read any historical mysteries, but this sounds really good. I also haven't much explored France in my reading. I need to get with the program. :) I like your weekly geek add ons with questions, too. I might have to jump on the bandwagon with that feature.

Book Zombie said...

Great review and your answers were perfect - although mention of Beginners Greek still sends a shiver of nausea through me :)

Confuzzled Books said...

Just curious but do you have to review at Amazon to become a member of Amazon Vine? Or how do you become a preferred member?

Jordan said...

Ooooh, this sounds like a yummy book.

nbbaker1102 said...

The Spiritualist is kind of a historical mystery. The Black Tower sounds like a good read.

Samantha said...

Hello, I wanted to let you know I answered you questions about Gods Behaving Badly, you can see the answeres here:


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