Having previously channeled Dickens and Poe, historical novelist Bayard (The Pale Blue Eye, 2006, etc.) throws down the gauntlet to Dumas in another high-energy melodrama.
Set in early-19th-century Paris and environs, the book recounts the life-changing experience of medical student Hector Carpentier, who’s enlisted by celebrated police detective Eugène Vidocq (a real historical figure) to follow clues suggesting that members of the recently restored Bourbon monarchy known to have been executed by the Jacobins who overthrew them did not include the Dauphin Louis-Charles, younger son of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. A scrap of paper bearing Hector’s name, a meeting with a down-at-heels baroness and an astonishing accretion of details concerning the late M. Carpentier père, who had himself pursued a medical career, enable Vidocq to persuade the initially disbelieving Hector that his humble father, an artisan of no particular accomplishment, “might have rubbed shoulders with a Bourbon or two.” Dastardly plots, thrilling last-minute rescues and escapes, the destruction by fire of the boardinghouse run by Hector’s stoical mother and the mystery surrounding the docile man-child, who may be the one who might be king, are cast together in a whirligig narrative whose impertinent momentum never flags (despite the appearances of enough red herrings to overpopulate a sizable sea). Young Carpentier is a perfectly suitable unwilling (and quite sensibly unheroic) hero, and the ego-driven, Rabelaisian Vidocq drags the story along by his flaring coattails, never fearing any challenges to his wit and resourcefulness (his eccentric jocosity, however, often feels forced). The novel’s witty succession of trapdoor endings, culminating (we think) in “the quietest of abdications,” keeps surprising us long after it seems Bayard’s plot has nowhere else to go.
Who says they don’t write ’em like this anymore? Long may Bayard reign.