By Ross King,
whose most recent book is "Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power"
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
THE BLACK TOWER
By Louis Bayard
Morrow. 352 pp. $24.95
The fate of the boy-king Louis XVII, the second son of Marie Antoinette, has been grist for many mills over the years. Hoaxers and impostors, conspiracy buffs, royalist plotters, historians and, most recently, Deborah Cadbury in her 2002 bestseller, "The Lost King of France": All have poked skeptically at the events surrounding the supposed death of the 10-year-old boy who became king of France -- in name at least -- after the guillotine fell on his father, Louis XVI, in 1793.
The official story is that Louis XVII died of tuberculosis in 1795 after spending his last years in a grim, vermin-infested prison. Or did he? As in the case of Anastasia Romanova, rumors of an escape have fertilized many an imagination. One scenario had the boy spirited to America and raised by an Iroquois chieftain before becoming an Episcopalian minister in Upstate New York. So many rightful kings of France eventually popped up that Mark Twain lampooned them in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and Bram Stoker heaped scorn in "Famous Impostors." One intriguing candidate promoted by the gossips and conspiracy buffs was John James Audubon. A canny self-publicist with a strong romantic streak, Audubon had little desire to quash the rumors.
The mystery of the doomed boy-king is the subject of Louis Bayard's new novel, "The Black Tower." It's a clever follow-on from his two previous historical thrillers, "Mr. Timothy" and "The Pale Blue Eye." Like them, "The Black Tower" weaves history and fiction together in the trademark style -- linguistic brio, a slickly unfolding plot, a raft of colorful characters -- that has propelled Bayard's work into the upper reaches of the historical-thriller league.
The setting is Paris in 1818. Napoleon is in prison, and France's "senseless experiments with democracy and empire" have ended. The Bourbons are back on the throne in the person of the fat, gouty Louis XVIII, younger brother of the beheaded king. Scraping by in this uncertain new world is Hector Carpentier, a down-at-heel 26-year-old medical student, "thin and pink and inclined to catch cold." Having squandered his modest inheritance on a dancer, he aimlessly performs experiments on mesmerism at the university and lives in the Latin Quarter with his mother and several obnoxious lodgers.
Hector's dull routine is disturbed when he learns a man named Leblanc has been murdered nearby. Two things are noteworthy about the mysterious Leblanc. One, he has been insisting that Louis XVII is still alive. Many others are saying the same, but the fact that Leblanc is dead -- he was tortured and then stabbed -- means his claim merits a bit more attention. Two, Hector's name and address are, inexplicably, found in Leblanc's trousers.
Enter Eugène François Vidocq, Paris's "scourge of crime." With Vidocq, Bayard pulls off a coup worthy of his previous novels, in which he revived characters both real (Edgar Allan Poe in "The Pale Blue Eye") and imagined (Dickens's Tiny Tim Cratchit in "Mr. Timothy"). The real-life Vidocq, a former petty criminal who set up Napoleon's security police, was the most famous crime fighter of the 19th century. Said to have inspired a whole crop of fictional detectives, from Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert and Poe's Auguste Dupin to Sherlock Holmes, he even did a cinematic turn in Pitof's 2001 sci-fi thriller "Vidocq," with no less than Gérard Depardieu in the title role.
In Bayard's hands, Vidocq becomes an arrogant, bullying, wine-swilling, foul-smelling underworld spy and master of disguise -- and an utterly compelling character. As he barges through Paris's wine shops and aristocratic hotels with an unwilling Hector in tow, we get a bit of "CSI: Paris," with plaster casts taken of shoeprints and green-bottle flies used to determine time of death.
But beneath these cloak-and-poignard adventures, a human story unfolds through a series of terse and moving journal entries: that of the imprisoned boy horribly mistreated so that his "stigma of royalty" can be removed, and of the man who tried to -- and maybe did? -- save him. Hector and Vidocq are confronted by the puzzle of a pitifully damaged young man calling himself Charles Rapskeller, who may or may not be the lost prince. And Hector finds himself delving into his own family history as deeply as he does the Bourbons': the withdrawn, disappointed father he never really knew; the doleful, censorious mother who was once a revolutionary firebrand.
Bayard is a fearlessly confident writer. Who else would dare risk comparisons with Dickens and Poe? Here it's history and legend he's up against, and the truth is sometimes stranger than his fiction: Rapskeller, a simple-minded, flower-loving innocent, is less tantalizing as a pretender than some of the real-life claimants. (John James Audubon plotting to overthrow the French monarchy -- now there's a rip-roaring yarn waiting to be told.)
Still, Bayard's ending neatly yanks the Aubusson rug out from under our feet, and along the way we are treated to all of the narrative verve and sly wit -- both plot twists and turns of phrase -- that make his books such a pleasure to read.