Writers of historical fiction are often faced with a problem: if they include real-life people, how do they ensure that their make-believe world isn’t dwarfed by truth? The question loomed large as I began reading The Black Tower, Louis Bayard’s third foray into historical fiction and fifth novel overall. He had already pulled off the conceit of recasting Timothy Cratchit from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as a Victorian-era sleuth in Mr. Timothy (2003), and succeeded in depicting Edgar Allan Poe as a young, petulant West Point attendee in The Pale Blue Eye (2006), justly nominated for Poe’s namesake award. So learning that The Black Tower revolves in large part around the exploits of Eug?ne Fran?ois Vidocq (1757-1856) increased my already high expectations, not to mention commensurate worries.
For Vidocq, the high-flying, outsized founder of the Sûreté Nationale, arguably the first formal police service, is a slippery figure. His transformation from petty criminal to detective grew out of a need to escape a life on the run and inform on other criminals. His contributions to detection are legion, from making plaster casts of shoe impressions to ballistics examination, contrasting his philandering nature and enigmatic personality. Vidocq came off so larger-than-life in his 1827 autobiography (helped by the embellishments of his ghost writer) that it’s little wonder he served as the inspiration for Poe’s landmark detective protagonist C. Auguste Dupin — and possibly warded off writers aspiring to make something of his exploits.
Just as Bayard relegated Poe to a supporting role in The Pale Blue Eye, he makes the same smart decision about Vidocq. As seen through the eyes of young medical student Hector Carpentier, The Black Tower‘s seemingly naïve, unformed narrator, Vidocq circa 1818 is a man of many facets, but his investigative acumen is in sharp focus:
Legend has it that if you give Vidocq two or three details surrounding a given crime, he will give you back the man who did it — before you’ve had time to blink. More than that, he’ll describe the man for you, give you his most recent address, name all his known conspirators, tell you his favorite cheese. So compendious is his memory that a full half of Paris imagines him to be omniscient and wonders if his powers weren’t given to him by Satan?
And yet he is doing God’s work, is he not? To hear the papers tell it, Vidocq, in the space of a few years, has sent hundreds of malefactors to prison. The ones that remain abroad cross themselves at the sound of his name. If a robbery falls apart at the last minute, it’s Vidocq’s doing. If a credulous old widow manages, against all odds, to keep her jewels, blame it on the scoundrel Vidocq. If an innocent man lives to see another morrow, who’s behind it? The accursed Vidocq, that’s who.
Carpentier’s first encounter with Vidocq arises out of a hard-earned lesson: “never let your name be found in a dead man’s trousers.” The dead man in question is one Monsieur Leblanc, a man Carpentier never met; he was murdered before he could pass on a startling bit of news to the young man. Vidocq picks up the scent early and co-opts Carpentier into his fledgling investigation, teaching the young man a second lesson when he dares to make inquiries on his own: “in the act of being caught, he manages to catch you.”
The inauspicious start gives way to genuine teamwork as Vidocq and Carpentier follow the clues of Leblanc’s murder to the home of a baroness, where they discover a watch with missing letters and uncover the startling news that Louis-Charles, the young son of guillotined monarchs Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, may not have died at the Bastille after all. Such news would throw the fate of France, current and future, into chaos, especially at a time, post-Revolution, post-Napoleon, that Carpentier refers to as a “great forgetting.”
The weight of its subject might have plunged a lesser novel into the quagmire of the political conspiracy thriller, but Bayard keeps a light hand, choosing character over exposition at every moment. Supporting players — including Carpentier’s mother; her buffoon-like boarders, with evocative names like Rosbif and Lapin; and Vidocq’s love interest, Jeanne-Victoire — are rendered with care, minimal description providing maximum insight into their flaws and how they help or hinder the mystery at hand. Even the seeming villains are graced with morally ambiguous natures, mirroring Vidocq’s transition from criminal to detective.
Naturally, Bayard focuses Vidocq with the most care, emphasizing not only the man’s formidable skills but his growing acceptance of Carpentier’s own improving prospects. “You’re thinking like a policeman,” Vidocq says approvingly, “When I remember what a timid little sod you were just a couple of weeks back, scared of your own voice, and now look at you, with your grand, beautiful theories!” The praise is cut mercifully short, as Vidocq retreats to enigmatic baseline (when the subject of heart comes up, he replies, “I’ve got one of those myself. I keep it in a box somewhere”) but the point is made: through partnership and complementary skills the duo is more likely to uncover the truth about what really happened to the Dauphin — even if that very knowledge forces them to question assumptions about the country, those they care about, and each other.
Once the twists are revealed — Bayard has a special knack for surprising the reader at a book’s close — and the shocks fade away, giving way to mordant humor (one of the closing images is of a middle-aged Carpentier subjecting an older Vidocq to a rectal examination, provoking a host of layered significance for the reader), The Black Tower remains haunted by the specter of memory and why total erasure is impossible. “In the end,” Carpentier ruminates, “there is no forgetting. History lies low but always rises up.” To neglect history is to ignore it and suffer the consequences. But to write about it, to take salient points about a particular time and place and character and create both an engaging mystery that provokes the reader, is to ensure a positive feedback loop of remembering that solves the problem posed at the beginning of this review. The make-believe world of The Black Tower succeeds by broadcasting larger truths that might otherwise elude us.