The New York Times
The Black Towerby Louis Bayard
Vidocq! Master of disguise and chief of a newly created plainclothes police force, Vidocq is a man whose name sends terror rippling through the Parisian underworld of 1818—and the inconsequential life of Hector Carpentier is violently shaken when Vidocq storms into it. A former medical student living in his mother's Latin Quarter boardinghouse, Hector finds… See more details below
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Vidocq! Master of disguise and chief of a newly created plainclothes police force, Vidocq is a man whose name sends terror rippling through the Parisian underworld of 1818—and the inconsequential life of Hector Carpentier is violently shaken when Vidocq storms into it. A former medical student living in his mother's Latin Quarter boardinghouse, Hector finds himself dragged into a dangerous mystery surrounding the fate of the dauphin, the ten-year-old son of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette presumed to have suffered a cruel death years earlier in Paris's dreaded Temple. But the truth of what happened may be even more shocking—and it will fall to an aimless young man and the most feared detective in Paris to see justice done for a frightened little boy in a black tower . . . no matter what the cost.
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The Washington Post
Occasionally, a brilliant audio can improve upon the print original. Simon Vance's skillful enactment of a cast the size of Balzac's The Human Comedy is a joy. The characters include the credibly naïve and incredibly good bourgeois narrator, Dr. Hector Carpentier; several members of the royal family; and, of course, the servants, soldiers and government hacks that form the majority of the populace. Most amazing is Vance's portrayal of Vidocq, a criminal turned police inspector. A master of masquerade, Vidocq takes on many disguises, complemented here by unique voices. When uncloaked, Vance returns Vidocq to his natural speech, a sort of East Ender drawl. Vance smartly avoids pasting French accents onto the characters. The pace is perfect, as Vance skillfully swirls the reader through a complex Restoration plot that is sure to please. A Morrow hardcover (Reviews, July 21). (Oct.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Making his Morrow debut, Bayard (The Pale Blue Eye) sets his latest historical adventure in the streets of Paris as the blood lust of the revolution subsides. It is 1818 when Vidocq, a former convict and the (real-life) founder of the newly created plainclothes investigative force known as the Sûreté, tracks down obscure medical student Hector Carpentier, whose name was found in the pocket of a dead man. As they work through the clues together, they move from the slums of Paris out to the royal gardens of Saint-Cloud. The duo soon realizes that the murders they are investigating may be connected to the whereabouts of Marie Antoinette's lost son, said to have died in the Black Tower. Then they conclude that they might have found the lost prince. As Vidocq and Carpentier fight to keep him alive, they face a dark cover-up and evil alliances that will shape the history of France. Bayard's well-crafted mix of history and suspense keeps this novel from getting bogged down in historical trivia. Recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/08.]
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Read an ExcerptThe Black Tower
By Louis Bayard
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
The Beggar at the Corner
I'm a man of a certain age—old enough to have been every kind of fool—and I find to my surprise that the only counsel I have to pass on is this: Never let your name be found in a dead man's trousers.
Name, yes. Mine is Hector Carpentier. These days, Professor Carpentier, of the École de Médecine. My specialty is venereology, which is a reliable source of amusement for my students. "Come with us," they say. "Carpentier's going to tell all about the second stage of syphilis. You'll never screw again."
I live on the Rue du Helder, with an orange tabby named Baptiste. My parents are dead, I have no brother or sister and haven't yet been blessed with children. In short, I'm the only family I've got, and at certain intervals of calm, my mind drifts toward those people, not strictly related, who took on all the trappings, all the meaning of family—for a time, anyway. If you were to pin me down, for instance, I'd have to say I recall the lads I went to medical school with better than I recall my own father. And Mother . . . well, she's present enough after all these years, but from some angles, she's not quite as real as Charles. Who was perhaps not real at all but who was, for a time, like family.
I think about him every time I see a penta. One glance is allit takes, and I'm standing once more in the Luxembourg Gardens, somewhere in May. I'm watching a pretty girl pass (the angle of her parasol, yes, the butter brightness of her gloves), and Charles is brooding over flowers. He is always brooding over flowers. This time, though, he actually plucks one and holds it up to me: an Egyptian star cluster.
Five arms, hence its name. Smaller than a whisper. Imagine a starfish dragged from the ocean bottom and . . . never mind, I can't do it justice. And, really, it's not so remarkable, but sitting there in the cup of his hand, it lays some claim on me, and so does everything else: the Scottish terrier snoring on a bench; the swan cleaning its rump feathers in the fountain; the moss-blackened statue of Leonidas. I am the measure of those things and they of me, and we are all—sufficient, I suppose.
Of course, nothing about our situation has shifted. We are still marked men, he and I. But at this moment, I can imagine a sliver of grace—the possibility, I mean, that we might be marked for other things. And all because of this silly flower, which on any other day, I would have stepped on like so much carpet.
He's been on my mind of late, because just last week, I received a letter from the Duchesse d'Angoulême. (She is staying at Count Coronini's estate in Slovenia.) The envelope was girt round with stamps, and the letter, written in her usual shy hand, was mostly an essay on rain, sealed off by prayers. I found it comforting. Word has it that the Duchess is penning her memoirs, but I don't believe it. No woman has clutched her own life more closely to her bosom. She'll hold it there, I expect, until the coroner assures her she's dead.
Which may be a long time coming. God's funny that way. The more his servants pine for his presence—and make no mistake, the Duchess does—the longer he keeps them shackled to the old mortal coil. No, it's the blasphemers he's aching to get his hands on. Take Monsieur Robespierre. At the very height of the Terror, Robespierre decided that the name "God" had too much of an ancien régime color to it. In his capacity as head of the Committee of Public Safety, he declared that God would henceforward be known as the Supreme Being. There was some kind of festival, I believe, to celebrate God's promotion. A parade, maybe. I was only two.
A few months later, with half his jaw shot off, groaning toward the scaffold, was Robespierre already composing apologies? We'll never know. There was no time for memoirs.
Me, I have acres of time, but if I were to write up my life, I don't think I could start with the usual genuflections—all those ancestors in halberds, I mean, the midwives catching you in their calloused mitts. No, I'd have to start with Vidocq. And maybe end with him, too.
A strange admission, I know, given that I spent no more than a few weeks in his company. Fifteen years have passed with virtually no word from him. Why, then, should I bother revisiting the terrible business that brought us together?
Not from any hope of being believed. If anything, I write so that I may believe. Did it really happen? In quite that way? Nothing to do but set everything down, as exactly as I can, and see what stares back at me.
And how easily the time slips away, after all. I need but shut my eyes, and two decades vanish in a breath, and I am standing once more in . . .
The year 1818. Which, according to official records, is the twenty-third year in the reign of King Louis XVIII. For all but three of those years, however, his majesty has been reigning somewhere else entirely—hiding, an unkind soul might say, while a certain Corsican made a footstool of Europe. None of that matters now. The Corsican has been locked away (again); the Bourbons are back; the fighting is done; the future is cloudless.
This curious interregnum in French history goes by the name of "the Restoration," the implication being that, after senseless experiments with democracy and empire, the French people have been restored to their senses and have invited the Bourbons back to the Tuileries. The old unpleasantness is never alluded to. We have all seen enough politics to last us a lifetime, and we know now: to take a hard line is to take a hard fall.
Excerpted from The Black Tower by Louis Bayard
Copyright © 2008 by Louis Bayard. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
A writer, book reviewer, and the author of Mr. Timothy and The Pale Blue Eye, Louis Bayard has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Salon.com, among other media outlets. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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