Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Black Tower

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The Black Tower

by Louis Bayard

The Black Tower by Louis Bayard
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2009, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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The Vidocq Society
"Legend has it that if you give Vidocq two or three of the details surrounding a given crime, he will give you back the man who did it---before you've had time to blink. More than that, he'll describe the man for you, give you his most recent address, name all his known conspirators, tell you his favorite cheese. So compendious is his memory that a full half of Paris imagines him to be omniscient and wonders if his powers weren't given him by Satan." - Hector Carpentier speaking in The Black Tower.

What red-blooded criminal investigator wouldn't want to be just like the legendary Vidocq? Count former FBI agent Bill Fleisher, co-founder of the Philadelphia-based Vidocq Society among the Frenchman's admirers.

"When I was a Philadelphia policeman I saw Vidocq's name in one of the books we had to read. He intrigued me," said Fleisher from his Philly office recently, "I had a feel for this man." As Fleisher learned more about the French detective he became even more interested in his story and read his biography.

Apparently Eugène François Vidocq had been a common criminal and spent several years behind bars before embarking on a career in law enforcement. Thus he had real hands-on experience, so-to-speak, as a professional lawbreaker and had tasted the other side – the dark side – of the justice system. As he executed his newfound career as a detective he employed all his skills, relied upon his connections to a wide variety of bad guys and brought never-before-thought-of innovations to the table. A steely-eyed professional Vidocq was the first, says Fleisher, to keep organized records, and to use plaster casts and ballistics in his investigations. Legend also has it that the name Vidocq alone would make a criminal's blood run cold.

And so it was, when Fleisher and a few friends were having lunch one day, rehashing some of their more interesting cold cases, they conceived the idea of a group of forensic specialists who would volunteer their time to help others with seemingly unsolvable crimes. "I thought it would be a good idea to call it the Vidocq Society after the man who changed the tide of modern criminal investigation," said Fleisher.

Each founding member of the Society, all law enforcement or forensic specialists, was allowed to invite another member. The response was enthusiastic. What began around a lunch table in the late 1980s has grown to a membership of over 80 professionals, plus "thirty or so armchair detectives." They meet once a month (except vacation months) and either go over cases brought to them by other professionals or requests from private individuals seeking justice for a loved one. They reserve the right to select which cases they accept and offer cold case seminars free to law enforcement agencies across the country. All the Society's services are pro bono.

Fleisher, now a private investigator, likes his work in the Vidocq Society, saying it "gives me a good sense of being useful." Likewise, Tucson blood spatter specialist Norman Reeves, a member since the mid-90s, likes the fact that all involved, no matter what agency they work for, "put their egos aside to crack cases others have been unable to solve."

How successful are they? "We've probably brought a couple dozen criminals to justice," Fleisher says. That's two dozen bad guys who might still quake at the mention of the name Vidocq.

Article by Donna Chavez

This article was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the October 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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