The Black Tower - Louis Bayard _The Black Tower_ by Louis Bayard is a very enjoyable historical fiction/mystery set in Paris and its environs during the period of the Bourban Bourbon Restoration, with numerous flashbacks to the Terror of the Revolution. It is a period of huge turmoil and horror for France, where hope and possibility were mingled with despair and the worst elements of the human heart. The story proper begins as the narrator, Dr. Hector Carpentier, recalls for us what is perhaps the most eventful period of his life. It is a time when he was struggling to find his place in a world full of both personal and political upheaval and whose most memorable event may have been his seemingly chance meeting with Eugène François Vidocq, the famous former criminal turned police investigator, considered by many to be the father of modern criminology. As Carpentier tells us:
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.

Unfortunately for him, Carpentier has fallen prey to just such an occurrence and as a result becomes enmeshed in an investigation involving murder and conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of French society and threatens to engulf the nation in yet another political upheaval that could destroy what little remains of its tattered foundations. We learn, as events progress, that Louis-Charles the young son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, once thought to have perished in destitution while a prisoner in the eponymous Black Tower, may actually have survived and be in line to claim his rightful place as Louis XVII. Naturally there are many parties with a vested interest to see that this does not come about and the main story revolves around the efforts of Vidocq and Carpentier as they attempt to unravel the mystery of numerous bodies that keep accumulating in apparent connection to the afore-mentioned note bearing Hector’s name. As the mystery deepens and they are led to a strange and simple man going by the name of Charles Rapskeller who appears to be the centre of it all, the two men meet with greater resistance that threatens not only their lives, but the welfare of the nation.

Interspersed with the main narrative are sections from the diary of one of the former dauphin’s keepers. Written tersely in a sort of shorthand, they still manage to provide a bleak and moving picture of the horrors to which the former rulers of France were subjected. In both the flashbacks and the story proper Bayard excels at depicting characters that are people whose lives and circumstances are the result of the world around them and the events that have occurred in their lives. It is in these aspects that I think Bayard’s work shows its most compelling aspect. Regardless of how you feel about monarchy vs. democracy and the ‘realities’ of bringing about necessary political change, Bayard manages to compellingly show us that every action (or revolution) has a human cost. Ultimately this is a book that explores that human cost by taking a view of France from the Revolution to the Restoration and examining the impact of the turmoil of these events on individuals from the lowest to the highest levels of society (which flip-flopped throughout the period). It is in this personal examination of great political events and a concentration on well-drawn characters, without forgoing the complexity both of the people involved and the events into which they are thrown, that Bayard has his greatest success. Added to that is Bayard’s skill as a writer which makes the story move along at a brisk pace with many happy turns of phrase. All in all a very enjoyable reading experience.