REVIEW: THE BLACK TOWER

My reviews are written in the order in which I read books, not that in which they appear, so whatever merits they may have, topicality is not among them.  That said, I read Louis Bayard's most recent novel, Roosevelt's Beast, within a week of its release, and was so drawn in by his style and the ease with which he juggles genres that I decided I had to read everything he's written.  First The School of Night, which deftly toggles between contemporary DC and early seventeenth-century England; next Mr Timothy, recounting the grown-up adventures of Dickens' Tiny Tim--he lives in a brothel and supplements Uncle Ebenezer's stipend by robbing corpses fished from the Thames, by the way; and now The Black Tower.

The title refers to the Temple, a fortified monastery in Paris once home to the Knights Templar and later a royal prison cousin to the Bastille.  Pulled down by Napoleon, among its final prisoners was the son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.   After his father's death, royalists called the boy Louis XVII, but before he had a chance to enjoy the title he died--probably as a result of maltreatment in prison--and was buried in an unmarked grave.  Thus when Napoleon fell--and bounced; he was exiled not once but twice--the Bourbons were restored in the form of the boy's uncle, Louis XVIII.  (Obviously they just really liked that name.)  

The novel opens in 1818, a few years into the Bourbon Restoration.  Bayard lets us into this transitional time with a few graceful details: the outlines of N's still visible on freshly painted doors; smashed pottery decorated with Napoleonic bees.  The protagonist is a recent medical student named Hector, who lives quietly in his mother's boardinghouse and still mourns his father, a glassgrinder.    But then the legendary detective Vidocq yanks him into a swirl of murder and intrigue around the late boy-king Louis XVII.  Did he really die in the Tower?  Is he alive, and somehow tied to a string of murders among Bourbon loyalists?  I can't go further on pain of a spoiler, so suffice it to say that Bayard skillfully handles a complex and compelling plot firmly rooted in historical reality and peopled by convincing, lively characters.  

Read this book.  And everything else Bayard writes.