Literary chiaroscurist* Bayard's 1818 Paris, at the peak (or is
it the depth?) of the Restoration after the bloody Revolution, comes alive on
the page as Eugène François Vidocq, the father of modern police detection,
unravels a complex knot of crimes that could ultimately produce
Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette's young son, long thought to have died while
imprisoned in the Black Tower (part of the notorious
Temple prison in Paris) in 1795. If the person in question is indeed the
lost/reputedly deceased dauphin (heir to the French throne) he could displace
King Louis XVIII, threatenign his plans for the future of France.
Needless to say tensions run high as red herring after red herring gets thrown into the path of forensic genius Vidocq. Beginning with the murder of an unidentified man who was killed in an alley not far from the home that 26-year-old Parisian doctor Hector Carpentier shares with his widowed mother. The dead man has a paper in his pocket with Hector's name and address written on it. From the very first moment the brash, expansive Vidocq enters Hector's home helping himself to food and wine he outdistances the hapless med student in both wit and clarity of purpose. Granted, Hector hasn't a clue why this round, foul-smelling man has invaded his home, but it seems futile to struggle against a person who has so handily intimidated him. More clueless yet, Hector hasn't the remotest idea why the dead man, later identified as Chrétien Leblanc, would want to visit him.
Wasting no time Vidocq, inspired by the real life Eugène François Vidocq who founded the French Sûreté, sets out with Hector in tow to peel back the layers of intrigue surrounding Leblanc's death. It is in the peeling back of these layers where Bayard's skills as a storyteller shine and where the lights and shadows of each character, of each facet of the plot, are displayed. For Vidocq is not just a cop and Hector is not just a simple med student, and Hector's relationship with his father who had the same name is not what he thought it was. Nor was the senior Hector's life, as a physician-turned eyeglass maker, exactly what everyone thought it was. To say nothing of Madame Carpentier, who religiously polishes the dowry silver that represents a life she once thought she had; or of Father Time, a boarder in the Carpentier house.
It is in these layers that Bayard not only fleshes out his characters but also inspires questions both plot-related and allegorical. What does Hector's father have to do, if anything, with the sad story of the youngster, Louis-Charles, so severely punished for the sins of his father? Why do so many people seem hell bent on eliminating the younger Hector? Who is this Vidocq? And what about "the strange mystique that surrounds him. He is considered apart from everything, even the Prefecture that nominally employs him. The law is one thing, Vidocq another"? What about Hector's relationship with his mother? Ponder these questions regarding the plot and before long the reader is pondering similar, metaphorical, questions in his/her own life. Do we really know our fathers, our mothers? What do we really know or need to know about our parents' dreams/disappointments? Does the persona we present to the world today represent the sum of all we have been and done in our past? Or have we made more of ourselves than a stack of personal experiences? Although the plot questions are wrapped up as neatly as can be expected, given the speculative nature of resurrecting a deceased king, the metaphorical questions remain.
Good books satisfy a reader's curiosity about plot points. Excellent books do that plus they leave a reader with more, rather than less, to ponder about life and the world we live in.
Damn you, Bayard, your book with all its questions will haunt me for a long time to come.
*Chiaroscuro (Italian for light-dark) is the technique of using light and
shade in a painting to achieve a sense of volume, the same term can be applied
to films and photography. It can also be used to describe certain types of
wood block printing.
Image: An undated portrait of the real-life Eugène-François Vidocq.
The French Revolution & Restoration
Most readers will recollect the French Revolution of 1789-1799, during which France was transformed from an absolute monarchy based on feudal principles, with the aristocracy and Catholic clergy at the top of the heap, to a republic of (theoretically) free and equal citizens. But some may have forgotten the more than 80 years that followed that saw two restorations of the monarchy and two additional revolutions before something resembling the France we know today hauled itself out of the rubble. In brief:
This review 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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