I don’t go looking for historical fiction to read, but I’m starting to wonder why not. Exhibit A: The Black Tower: A Novel by Louis Bayard. France has had a bloody revolution in which they killed off much of the aristocracy. That was followed by a purge of the intellectuals who had fomented the first revolution, the rise of Napoleon and his failed attempt at empire-building, and finally an exhausted public deciding to invite the remains of royalty back to rule them.
In Paris there’s a lot of “let’s pretend the last couple of ugly decades never happened.” But questions linger. Particularly, the death of a young boy who would now be king. Documentation is sparse, and rumors abound, as they are wont to do. What if that boy, now a man, showed up again? Quite possibly, another civil war.
But here’s where the true magic of The Black Tower takes hold. Our narrator, a doctor (more or less), is sucked into the investigation of a grisly murder. He is bullied and tormented by Vidoq, an infamous policeman who is the terror of the bandits and low-lifes of Paris. And also, maybe, one of them. The actions of people trying to hide the (possibly) true king bring our earnest doctor and ruthless investigator to the very man. Much cleverness is required.
And the possible heir is… not what you might expect.
But it’s not just blind chance that sucks our unassuming doctor into the intrigue. Over the story his father looms, an accomplished physician, who was, long ago, charged with watching over a prince as he wasted away in the tower. After the prince died, Father was never the same.
Unless maybe the prince didn’t die after all. And that’s the big question. False claimants are periodically executed, along with those who backed them. Vidoq is a crafty SOB and is not going to stick his neck out (in this case not a metaphor, but the source of the metaphor) for a pretender.
Murders continue apace. Someone way up in the newly-reestabliched aristocracy does not want the prince to come to light. The doctor and the cop may not like each other, but Vidoq gradually makes the doctor an ally, rather than just his bitch. Eventually, arguably, they become friends. The sort of friends who don’t really want to see each other again.
There’s a lot of uncertainty at the end of the narrative, but it’s a satisfying sort of unknown. Our good doctor has played his role in a much larger story, but there is much that remains unseen.
I contend that all historical fiction should have a list of sources at the end. We’ve had our romp, but a short discussion of what parts of the story were based on documented fact would be awesome. How much did I learn about the French revolution from this book? I have no idea. I’ll be hitting the Interwebs to fill in the gaps, but any article I read out there may be based on this novel. The writer of this story clearly invested a lot of time in research; I’d just like to get the executive summary at the end.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Christian Dior Handbag), I get a kickback.