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Louis Bayard's The Black Tower [8 October, 2008]

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Written by Louis Bayard; William Morrow; 352 pages

In 2007, Russian forensic experts confirmed that the remains of bones found near a bonfire site near Yekaterinburg were indeed those of Anastasia, daughter of Czar Nicholas II of Russia.  Despite such evidence, it’s unlikely that the myth of Anastasia’s survival will disappear any time soon.  The idea that a royal heir might have survived and might eventually bring a lost dynasty to life resonates even in the most supposedly egalitarian societies.

Stories about lost royals allow us to navigate our uneasy feelings about royalty.  We are distrustful of the unlimited power of monarchs, but we love the trappings and romance of monarchy.  We are aware that kings and queens can be brutal and dictatorial, and that the tides of insurgents that rise against them may well do so with just cause.  But many of us still find ourselves nostalgically sympathizing with overthrown royalty.

For years after his death, stories circulated that the dauphin Louis-Charles, son of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, had survived his internment in Temple Prison.  Louis Bayard’s riveting new historical novel, The Black Tower, picks up the story at this point.  Here, the dauphin plays a minor role in comparison to one of the central characters, the famous detective Vidocq, who is based on an actual historical character of the same name, a former galley slave-turned-sleuth.

Vidocq’s reputation spawns numerous tales of his superhuman powers, but in Bayard’s skillful hands he’s not as much a heroic figure as he is a weathered man who’s seen too much of the dark side of humankind.  His sidekick of sorts, for the duration of the events related here, is Hector Carpentier, who stumbles upon an old family secret after being mistaken for his dead father—the physician entrusted with the care of the dauphin in prison.  The two find themselves locked together in a series of adventures that take them outwards into the city’s suburbs and back again, and bodies literally fall by the wayside.

The tale gets murkier, and the two men must ascertain whether or not a young and mentally challenged gardener is, in fact, the lost dauphin.  Bayard’s recreation of 1818 Paris is devoid of sentimentality.  This is not a pretty city; it’s visible to us only through the dank fog of reality, and the smells of human and animal waste permeate the atmosphere.  Vidocq interacts with the forgotten underbelly of society and life here is cheap, nasty, brutal and short.  But there’s also not much nostalgia for glorious times past.  At one point, the Baroness de Préval turns to Vidocq with the words, “I wish I could tell you how beautiful it all was.”  To which he responds, “Not for everyone.”

Bayard, who writes frequently on gay and other matters for publications like Salonand The New York Times, is also the author of The Pale Blue Eye, a historical novel featuring Edgar Allan Poe and set in West Point in the mid-19th century.  This latest story comes vividly to life because he doesn’t try to render it in archaic terms.  The dialogue is effortlessly contemporary without seeming artificial, and without the needless curlicues and stilted cadences that often ruin historical novels.  And the mystery of the dauphin remains riveting, with twists and turns that continue to take the reader by surprise till the very end.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 8 October, 2008

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