Bayard Sale

Looking for reading ideas for your group? Louis Bayard is an author who ought to get your thoughts percolating. With Mr. Timothy, The Pale Blue Eye, and The Black Tower, Bayard has put together a string of three excellent historical mystery/thrillers. Normally, such plot-driven books make for a short discussion, but Bayard finds a true voice for his characters. He draws so many historical connections that whether tackled one at a time, as a group of three, or in tandem with works by and about the writers and historical figures who inspired them, Bayard’s books will make for book group winners.

Mr. Timothy finds Dickens’ sweeter-than-sugarplums Tiny Tim as a young man wrestling with his past. Mostly healed of his sickliness, appreciative of, yet stifled by the relentless attentions of his benefactor “Uncle N” (Mr. Scrooge), and nursing some inner hurts and anger, the 23-year-old Timothy makes a fascinating protagonist. Looking to fulfill his destiny, he instead stumbles into some child murders. Bayard captures a faux-Victorian tone with great success and the thrills gradually build to a satisfying conclusion. Read Mr. Timothy on its own or pair it with A Christmas Carol, other Dickens work, or a historical thriller with a similar plot and tone, say Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. 

In The Pale Blue Eye, Bayard turns to Edgar Allan Poe, capturing the famous author as a young cadet at West Point in 1830. Poe is a true fish out of water–a stormy romantic in military school–but he catches the eye of August Landor, a New York detective who uses him to gain insider information as he works to solve the murder of another cadet. Why not pair this with other books by or about Poe in this, his 200th anniversary year? Several other new publications have been timed to match the anniversary, including Peter Ackroyd’s new biography Poe: A Life Cut Short; an anthology with afterword honorariums by today’s top mystery writers called In the Shadow of the Master, and Poe-inspired anthologies of mystery tales (On a Raven’s Wing) and horror stories (Poe’s Children). Matthew Pearl wrote another Poe-centric historical thriller, The Poe Shadow.

Most recently, Bayard has tackled one of the real fathers of modern detection, the Frenchmen Eugene Vidocq, the man who inspired not only Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but both Valjean and Javert in Les Miserables. Bayard’s Vidocq is a larger-than-life figure, drinking and wenching while mastering disguise and intimidation. He’s engages in a multitude of petty criminal schemes himself but is ultimately committed to putting more heinous criminals away. The Black Tower is set during the French Restoration, and narrated by Dr. Hector Carpentier, a young man whose life is forever changed when Vidocq storms into it, investigating murders connected to the possible reappearance of the Lost Dauphin, Louis XVII. Most of the biographies of Vidocq are decades old (surely some enterprising writer will remedy this soon), but Vidocq’s own Memoirs of Vidocq are available and still make good reading. Summaries of his life are easy to find online. Vidocq also shows up as a secondary character in Susanne Aleyn’s Game of Patience and A Treasury of Regrets.

No matter how you approach his work, Bayard is an author from whom you can’t help but draw connections, and as such, he makes a great candidate for reading group selections.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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