Tuesday, July 12, 2011

July in Paris - Monsiuer Lecoq

The first stirrings of detective fiction were undoubtably influenced by the colourful (and slightly fictionalised) memoirs of Eugene Vidocq (and I quote freely from Wikipedia!) a former crook who subsequently became the founder and first director of the crime-fighting Surete Nationale as well as the head of the first known private detective agency. His memoirs were extremely popular and spawned a rush of pulp criminal memoirs, setting the stage for much of the interest in detective fiction that was to follow.

I've borrowed the memoirs from the library before but not found time to read them. I have the work on request so hopefully we'll get around to them in time for our July readings. Suffice to say that the image of the detective in France of the 19th century was that of a rogue, an underhand spy or informer well versed in the way of the criminal classes. Though it became unlawful to recruit former criminals to the police force in 1833, the prevailing notion was that you needed to set a thief to catch a thief.

It's in this context that Emile Garboriau wrote his popular Monsieur Lecoq mysteries. We first meet Monsieur Lecoq as a minor character in L'affaire by Emile Gaboriau (1866). He too is a former criminal turned detective. In subsequent works his past is tidied up - it is suggested that he merely planned elaborate crimes, but did not enact them. The Orcival Crime, File 113 and Slaves of Paris followed. Then in 1869 we get Monsieur Lecocq, telling the story of his first case. What 's work gives us is the first police procedural. The process is haphazard, opportunities are lost but on the whole it is recognisable - and this is quite exciting.

The police force was just coming into it's own. Cities were growing, the criminal underworld expanding. Into this maelstrom steps the new detective, master of reason, science and evidence. The detective is to become associated with ideas of progress and modernization, of bringing illumination to a dark underworld. He will be honest and trustworthy. You can see the cross over in Monsieur Lecoq. There is the now virtuous Ledocq, but also the petty, jealous and backstabbing Inspector Gevrol.

Garboriau declared that he wanted to bring close scrutiny to his works - and he does. We follow footprints, find caught threads and minutely observe the facial expressions of the accused. (And yes, Conan Doyle acknowledged the influence!) We also get a cracker of a street chase, down Parisian lane ways, shadowed doorways, brawling bars with dirt floors, by carriage and by foot. There is a tremendous amount of energy to the narrative and I must say Garboriau throws his detective some awful runs of mischance, bad luck and plain mistakes. The energy is infectious and I found it hard to put the book down to go to work (NOT why I was late this morning!)

A word of warning - this is a two parter. You get a solution to the mystery but not a resolution. I'll certainly be tracking down the other Lecoq works to continue the adventure.

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Caroline said...

Thanks for an interesting post. I never read Gaboriau. I have watched the movie Vidocq with GĂ©rard Depardieu a while back and quite enjyoed it. It's part crime, part fantasy.

Curvy Kitty said...

I wasn't aware of the movie. I've just found it at the University of Queensland - hope they'll lend it to me! I came to like Gaboriau a lot. I'm not sure how accurate it is but I found the early techniques of detection fascinating. It's a wonder they caught anyone!