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Royally entertaining 

Historical fiction delivers the goods

Palace intrigue, mysterious deaths and a naïve young doctor overwhelmed by France's most prominent police detective.

What's not to like?

Make no mistake, Louis Bayard's The Black Tower delivers top-notch historical fiction, acknowledging masters of the genre (hello, Alexandre Dumas) while displaying a singular talent.

Bayard won kudos for his earlier period pieces, 2003's Mr. Timothy, the tale of Charles Dickens' character in adulthood, and, three years later, The Pale Blue Eye, a murder mystery starring a youthful Edgar Allan Poe. Bayard's is the kind of popular fiction readers are thrilled to discover: equal parts effective plotting, lean but distinctive prose and characters and dialogue that brim with life from the outset.

In his latest novel, Bayard offers a vivid portrait of Paris in 1818. Three years after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, France is, once again, a royalist nation, ruled by Louis XVIII.

Insert palace intrigue here, bolstered by an electrifying character that blends historical relevance with brilliant literary embellishment.

In Eugene Francois Vidocq, a real-life renowned detective from the era, Bayard has taken a notable figure and added enough bravado, charm and lewd bluster to make Hercule Poirot seek a desk job. Vidocq is feared and revered for his legendary cunning, skill he now puts to use in pursuit of Louis XVII, who may or may not be alive.

That Vidocq is a reformed convict only makes him all the more lethal to those still trafficking in the criminal world.

Louis XVII, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, is the would-be king who was pronounced dead at age 10. Taken from his family and installed to live in unstinting darkness and horror in the Black Tower in 1793 -- the same year revolutionaries killed his parents the king and queen -- Louis-Charles was announced to the public as deceased in 1795.

But did he really die? Rumors of a miraculous escape have lingered and, as a series of murders and assaults unravels two decades later, Vidocq takes up the case in typical stealth fashion.

His unwitting partner is a young physician named Hector Carpentier. Vidocq comes upon Hector after finding the young doctor's name in the possession of a dead man. ("Never let your name be found in a dead man's trousers," Hector advises us.) Bayard wisely employs Hector as the observant, if often overwhelmed, amateur sleuth left to figure out not just the looming danger he faces but also Vidocq's enigmatic methods and motivations.

Looking back 15 years after the events occurred, Hector, blessed with his creator's elegant if unobtrusive style, relates a mystery that remains mysterious down to its final word.

Even when he's displaying a bit of flash -- "The proprietress is Madame Prunaud, a freely swearing widow with great patches of aggrieved scalp showing through scruffs of beige hair and a single brown tooth, flopped over her lower lip like a loose shingle" -- Bayard never gets in the way of his own story.

From grand parlors to the seediest alleys, Hector and Vidocq traipse all over Paris in pursuit of answers.

A mentally addled man who may or may not be the long-lost boy king, or dauphin, soon becomes part of the proceedings, but the clues and observations pointing toward his authenticity -- or lack thereof -- are almost always at odds.

"Marie-Antoinette's remains, those were found," Vidocq tells Hector. "Same with the King's. But they've never found Louis-Charles' body ... Without a body, we can't say for sure the dauphin died all those years ago."

Certainty is in short supply in The Black Tower. Wicked fun is not.

As the story unfolds, it becomes abundantly clear why the original murder victim linked Hector with the long-dead, or long-missing, heir to the French throne. This being historical fiction, the narrative threads connect high and low society in seamless fashion.

It is to Bayard's further credit that Hector's recounting of events not only entertains, it rings true. If there are anachronisms to be found, this reader is still searching.

Mysterious diaries, along with wizened, half-reliable eyewitnesses to key events, complete the recipe for a stirring novel.

Bayard knows how to tell a good story, knows he has a good one here and has the good sense not to pad it with what John Steinbeck referred to as writerly hooptedoodle. Bayard, to his lasting credit, spares us that.

This is, in other words, a royally entertaining read.

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