Wednesday, October 22, 2008

REVIEW: The Black Tower, by Louis Bayard

The Black Tower, by Louis Bayard. Published 2008 by HarperCollins. Literary Fiction.

I first heard of Louis Bayard's latest mystery/thriller The Black Tower through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program; I wasn't selected to receive an advance copy but managed to get my hands on one anyway thanks to the generosity of a fellow LTer who shared her copy with me. I was looking forward to reading it because the plot concerns the fate of the Dauphin Louis Charles of France, who would have reigned as king but for the French Revolution. In real life, Louis Charles was imprisoned along with his sister in the Temple prison but disappeared; his true fate remains a mystery.

A murder plot acts as the premise, and a flimsy one at that; the real mystery in The Black Tower is the identity of an enigmatic naif who may or may not be the Dauphin, living quietly and seemingly unaware of his true identity. Although the book is fiction, several historical figures make (highly fictionalized) appearances- not only Louis Charles but his sister Marie Therese, sometimes referred to as Madame Royale and the Duchesse d'Angouleme (Madame Royale was a traditional honorific used for daughters of kings) as well as Eugene Francois Vidocq, an early private investigator, who drags the narrator into the mix. The narrator, Hector Carpentier, is a doctor whose father, also a doctor, ministered to the young Dauphin in the Temple prison. Could the elder Carpentier, haunted by the boy's cruel mistreatment, have been involved in a plot to free the Dauphin? You'll have to read to find out.

I found The Black Tower to be a light, quick read, suspenseful but not highly substantive. Bayard's book appealed to me based on my interest in French history and because I've been reading Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette for a while now. I needn't have bothered. Although I kept reading to see how it would all turn out, I found Bayard's prose to be on the whole pedestrian and fluffy, and neither mystery really engaged me all that much. When Bayard finally got around to solving the murder mystery, I'd almost forgotten about it as a plot point, and while it's interesting to speculate on the fate of the Dauphin, that's all it is- speculation. I'm sure there are better treatments out there, fictional and nonfictional, of this particular subject. I suppose The Black Tower was entertaining enough but the writing just wasn't up to the task of telling this story well, and mediocre writing can sink even the best ideas. Overall I was disappointed and would only recommend it to committed readers of historical fiction and those with a very strong interest in the French Revolution. Most others can probably pass.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.