This rollicking cloak-and-dagger adventure novel is remarkable for the period in which a young man is thrust into the chaos of the Bourbon regime, where the unsteady and senseless experiment between democracy and empire is pitted against the royalist and Revolutionary traditions.
Eighteenth-century Paris is still reeling from the first abdication of Emperor Napoleon I and the return of the Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, when rumors begin to circulate that the boy who died in the infamous Temple prison was not in fact the Dauphin Louis XVII.
Parisian doctor Hector Carpentier is certainly not immune to these rumors, but when the legendary figure of Detective Vidocq unexpectedly arrives on Hector’s doorstep and transforms into a strapping and belligerent man who eats macaroons and raw potatoes, Hector finds himself thrust into a series of events that threaten his security and possibly even that of his sister, Charlotte, and his delicate mother, Beatrice.
Although initially suspicious of this great and famous Detective, Hector’s interest is piqued when Vidocq tells him that a man called Chrétien Leblanc was killed on the way to see him. Reluctantly dragged to the morgue by Vidocq, for the first time Hector views the remains of Leblanc and discovers that in his hand is obscured a piece of paper which contains Hector’s own address. Apparently Leblanc had been trying to keep the young doctor’s murderers at bay.
Thus begins an uneven partnership, the recent events taking Hector and Vidocq into the dusty and deteriorating rooms of the Baronne de Preval, her once-handsome demeanor now hardened into something unyielding and curatorial, “like the tablet of a lost civilization.”
Vidocq is determined to get to the root of de Preval’s connection to Le Blanc, a connection that involved her being persuaded to come back to Paris from Russia with the Bourbons.
It seems that Leblanc had an object that he’d asked her to identify, a teething ring and an emblem that has been engraved in miniature: a double eagle, the heraldic emblem of the legendary Empress Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette’s mother.
As Vidocq and Hector piece together the pieces of the puzzle, the action in the novel whirls and swirls throughout a fog-bound Paris, the smoke of fires woven with sewer fumes from the Madeleine to the Bastille and the million coffee houses and patisseries, theatres and billiard rooms. Meanwhile, a terrible fate awaits Hector, his father’s past inextricably linking him to the fate of the Dauphin as the air seethes and crackles beneath the ugly spectacle of the black square tower, erected centuries ago by the Knights Templar.
When another murder occurs in the area of Saint-Cloud, Hector and Vidocq discover a delicate young man by the name of Charles Rapskeller. From the outset, there’s something strangely enigmatic about this soft, sun-ripened young man who bares a striking resemblance to Louis XVII and ends up dodging the grasping hands of various stakeholders, those shadowy and furtive figures who lurk in the alleyways at night.
Determined to protect Charles from those who seek to dispose of him and from those who believe that he is indeed the “lost King,” Vidocq and Hector become caught up in a complex chase that has a constant sense of impending menace. Ironically, Hector and Charles form the unlikely bond, Hector watching over his new friend with something like newfound love.
With two men dead, a killer at liberty and the assassins of flesh and blood queuing up for instructions at confessional booths, the so-called king is eventually thrust into deadly path of Jacobean revenge while Hector finds himself reluctantly fighting for his survival and the life of his young charge.
Though the facts are obviously embellished, one is still left to ponder Bayard’s fascinating scenario and the truth of what really happened in the dark tower, and a Louis XVII who, as the old story says, was perhaps spirited away from certain death.