Thursday, December 20, 2012

Book Review - The Black Tower: A Novel

I freely admit that History was always one of my worst subjects in school. I find the stories and encounters of history very fun and fascinating but for some reason I've always had trouble trying to keep straight all the names, dates and events that go along with them. So it was little surprise that I hadn't heard of Vidocq. Apparently Vidocq was a criminal in France in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He turned over a new leaf and founded a crime detection unit and is apparently considered the first private detective. In The Black Tower by Louis Bayard we find ourselves in Paris shortly after the French Revolution. The narrative has us focused alongside the central character of Dr. Carpentier but we are very quickly paired up with Vidocq in an attempt to solve a murder that could have the potential to topple the state of the current French government if it is proven to be based on the conspiracy that the Dauphin didn't actually die but is in hiding somewhere nearby.

In spite of the very serious subject matter, there was a surprising amount of subtle humor in this book. When we first meet Carpentier he passes on this piece of advice: "never let your name be found in a dead man's trousers." These sort of nonchalant tongue-in-cheek comments are found throughout the book and serve as a nice break from some of the weightier discussions of murder and politics. There were also segments where the main story narrative was broken up with pages from the journal of a doctor who cared for the Dauphin while he was imprisoned in "the Black Tower." These brief segments were interesting juxtapositions in the main story presenting a unique voice (written in quick abbreviated shorthand) and perspective (the story of the treatment of the Dauphin).

I found the writing style to be vividly evocative and rather enjoyable. The scenes and settings are depicted with wonderful clarity and sensual precision. There is a great balance between the formal, taut writing you might expect from the early 19th century as coupled with the personable humor of characters scratching their way through the underbelly of society in any century. I was a bit turned off by the degree to which Vidocq cursed. It did certainly add to his tone as a harsh, brash character but it was a turnoff to have him dropping the F-bomb as frequently as he did. I felt like he could have been just as abrasive without the swearing.

The mystery is interesting and fun, hovering around the fringes of conspiracy theory and political intrigue. The way everything played out reminded me frequently of another literary french (Belgian) detective, Hercule Poirot. Where Poirot was more "civilized" than Vidocq, they both possessed similar matter-of-factness that would take people off their guard and allow him entry into otherwise impenetrable circumstances.

While a lot of the mystery involved uncovering historical events from decades gone by, the research was interspersed with scenes of action that left our heroes running for their lives. These scenes didn't happen enough to turn this into an action packed thriller but also happened with enough frequency to keep this from becoming a fictional biography or historical treatise. I felt like there was just the right balance of mysterious scrutiny and suspenseful action to keep this book well rooted as a fun yet serious piece of historical fiction.

As is often the case with historical mysteries based this closely with reality, the ending was a little bit of a let down. But without actually changing world history and changing the genre to "speculative fiction", there were some limitations that Bayard was unable to overcome. Still, the mystery and conspiracy were rather interesting and were presented in a compelling way. Since I am not an expert on History, let alone French History, I can't speak to the believability of the tale but as a non-historian I found myself drawn in and really enjoying the story and the writing. The style and language might be a turn-off for some readers but if you're a lover of historical mystery and don't mind language that's a bit rough around the edges at times, you should enjoy this book.

3.5 out of 5 stars

View all my reviews


Brian Miller said...

oh very cool..just finished covering the french revolution with my kids in history class...will def check it out...

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Not much of a history person, but it sounds cool.
Have a wonderful Christmas!!