Hear the name Sherlock Holmes, and you think “world’s greatest detective”, right? Hear the name Vidocq and you think… well, I don’t know what you think, but I didn’t have any immediate associations with the name. Perhaps if I’d been French I might have, for it appears that Vidocq is France’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, except that Vidocq lived and worked much earlier in the 19th century than Holmes, and Vidocq was a real person, not a beloved fictional character.
In fact many people credit Eugene Francois Vidocq with being the world’s first great professional detective. Poe and Balzac are said to have modeled their fictional detectives after him. Vidocq learned to be savvy about tracking down criminals in France because he himself was a convicted criminal and had served several criminal sentences, including a brutal sentence on the French convict ships before he finally negotiated a deal to serve as a police spy. His surveillance techniques were so successful that Vidocq created the first plain clothes detective force, forming the Surete in France. Vidocq’s crack team of detectives, most of whom were also former criminals, made a huge dent in crime in France from 1812-1832.
All that is interesting fact. Equally gripping, however, is the fictional account of Vidocq that I just read in a wonderful new novel by Louis Bayard entitled The Black Tower. This is one of those intriguing stories that incorporate real people from history into fiction. In this case, Vidocq is investigating the death of man who had been tortured and killed most brutally. In the dead man’s pocket is a name and address: Dr. Hector Carpentier, No. 18, Rue-Neuve-Sainte-Genevieve . When Vidocq tracks down Hector he discovers a timid, unimaginative student of medicine, who is utterly bewildered as to why his name would be in the pocket of a dead man he did not know.
Yet as the story masterfully unfolds, we learn that the murdered man was hiding a secret that could affect the French monarchy during the shaky period of the Restoration, following the death of Napoleon. Could it be that the young Dauphin, Louis-Charles, the son of the executed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette did not die in the infamous Black Tower in 1795 but was instead alive and in hiding in 1818?. If still alive, the Dauphin, who after the death of his father would be titled Louis XVII, should be the rightful king, not his uncle, the reigning Louis XVIII .
Naturally there are many people who want to know if Louis-Charles lives, and if he does, how to dispatch him as quickly and quietly as possible. Vidocq and Hector race against time to solve the mystery, prevent other murders, and perhaps restore the French crown to its proper heir.
The Black Tower is loaded with vivid period detail, but that in no way slows the breakneck, breathless pace of the narrative. Hector slowly changes from pusillanimous student to courageous protector of the shy Louis-Charles. And Vidocq is everywhere at once, hurling insults and landing powerful punches with equal aplomb. The result is a wonderful romp, with dark overtones, exploring the underbelly of France’s criminal world, including both aristocrats and republicans. Although the work is fiction, it does quite a bit to explain the complicated morass of kings and rulers who followed the ill-fated Louis XVI. Bayard’s earlier book Mr. Timothy did a great job of turning the iconic Tiny Tim on his head; this new novel does much to promote the almost mythical career of the inimitable Vidocq.