Friday, February 19, 2016

The Germ of the Detective Novel by H. L. Williams 1900

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The Germ of the Detective Novel by H. L. Williams 1900

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ONE of the minor literary landmarks of the nineteenth century will be the rise of the detective novel. Its origin is usually attributed to Emile Gaboriau, a Parisian author, very prolific in this class of fiction. His works were confessedly the chief recreation of Prince Bismarck when his cares as Chancellor required relief; a publisher saw the advantage in using this compliment as an advertisement, and it spread the fame of Gaboriau in England. From him there has sprung the whole modern English school of "high-class" detective literature of which the Sherlock Holmeses are the best type.

But long before the English perceived the worth of Gaboriau, it had been discovered in America. The late Mr. Christern, the foreign bookseller of New York, whose helpful hints to budding writers have not perhaps been adequately acknowledged, was earliest to point out Gaboriau as worth cultivation by those young translators who busied themselves with the "easy" but too vulgarized Dumas. Struck by the excellence of the tales, and their American vogue, out came these Parisian successes "localized" under the titles beloved by readers of the yellow-covered books of ante-bellum days. The Sunday press welcomed such matter if it bore such flashy titles as "Crimson Crime" ("L'Affaire Lerouge") or "Dark Deeds" ("Le Crime d'Orcival"). The Sunday papers —not the weeklies—which, odd to say, were averse to translations and preferred local tales and those curious stories of supposititious Anglo-American "fashionable" life drawn by the Stephenses, Southworths and Flemings for the cockney seamstresses and American "cigar-girls." For example, the Sunday Atlas, of New York, issued Gaboriau's "Les Esclaves de Paris" as "Manhattan Unmasked." People said "Manhattan," then, so commonly, that it may be remembered a pro-Southern correspondent of a London paper used it as a pen name during the war.

But "the hit" was made by the Frenchman's "Le Dossier No. 113" appearing also localized as "The Steel Safe," in the New York Sunday News. A remarkable and fortunate coincidence helped to force it into prominence. The plot, as all know, is pivoted upon the mysterious abstraction of valuables from a safe; the banker and his cashier carry duplicate keys and the detective concludes that one of these keys opened it. The two suspect each other and the cashier, accused, is committed for trial, but released on the Scottish grounds, "not proven." So loose was the process of justice in New York that this un-American verdict passed as not impossible.

The happy coincidence was as follows: the week after the first instalment appeared, a robbery of a bank safe was committed in New York and similarly the evidence pointed to the banker and his chief officer, who had duplicate keys. The newspaper proprietor had the tact to send out handbills and posters to the effect that Chief of Police Matsell and his "shadows" could not do better, by the way of guide, than study the story then appearing!

From that time Gaboriau became a fixture in the American book-case. His forgotten writings, on themes very different from his police fiction, were produced "on the strength of his name"; and some years after, fifty thousand quarter-dollar volumes attested how popular he had become under the Victorian sceptre. But we had had the cream.

Gaboriau had named his hero Lecocq, a good emblematic name—signifying "vigilance," of course—from the Gallic and the police-novelist point of view. Whether by another lucky coincidence, or by choice "to lend artistic verisimilitude," there was a contemporary police inspector at Scotland Yard bearing that name, and Lecocq, if not of French origin, was often in Paris on international cases. As a journalist, Gaboriau might easily have met him often. Like Cooper's "Leather-stocking," "M. Lecocq" passes through a series and even when his counterpart takes another name, he is the "M. Tonson come again!" In "The Little Old Man of the Batignolles" he is seen in retirement. Fifty years after, a New York police officer "adapts" the scene to Madison Square!

Gaboriau died with the vein unexhausted, or, as the publisher said of Thackeray, "with pickings on his bones."

Rivals had imitated his peculiar line, but respected his character, save one. This was Du Boisgobey. This retired military officer, returned from Algeria to find his paternal estate in Normandy going to the "bow-wows" and saved it by a feat of the pen. He obtained permission —since they are sticklers about authors' rights over even names in France—and found a publisher for "The Old Age of M. Lecocq," which revived the hero while his laurels were still green. And its success doomed him who had assumed the task to spin the same tissue to the end.

He was still living when younger men snatched it away. Busnach, the dramatizer of Zola's "L'Assomoir"—in which the author "could see no drama," but was told that "any story selling a hundred thousand copies will make a play!"—brought forth "M. Lecocq's Daughter." This interminable series recalled the sequels to "Monte Cristo." There was left only the course pursued by Du Terrail, who, having killed off his hero, Rocambole, was compelled to yield to the appeals of publisher and readers and write "The Resuscitation," that volume which Stevenson so bepraises for the chief villain, "head of the Protestant Missions."

Meanwhile, it had become hard to single out a French romancer who had not written a "criminal novel," with a police officer the true or secondary hero. "The Detective," by Clement Scott is Belot's "Le Parricide;" and the same author's "Le Drame de la Rue de la Paix," palmed off as Sardou's "Fedora," shows an amateur lady-detective, as Sardou's "Countess Ziska" figures in "Diplomacy (Dora)." More legitimate police stories are the veteran Feval's before he became converted and set about sterilizing his novels. His "Rue de Jerusalem" (the Parisian police headquarters, like our Mulberry street), thrilled the lovers of the fiction corner of Paris dailies, and in "Lea Habits Noirs" a gentleman-burglar in evening dress, eye glass included, anticipated the "swell cracksman" of "The Silver King." On this point, see also Belot's "Cravates Blanches."

But Feval had no more originated the detective hero than had Sue. The "Mysteries of Paris" has a prince descending into the slums to discover a long-lost daughter, but he is purely an amateur, and Sue's police-officers in "The Wandering Jew " are conventional and usually comic, as in all the novelettes of the Restoration —the alguazils pour rire of "Gil Blas."

Admirers of Balzac might try to persuade us that he had the great novelist's scent by which he goes forward "to meet a coming hero." His "Vautrin" is a good deal like the "Count of Ste. Helene," that French George Barrington, but there is also a reminder of Vidocq, the first convict chief-of-police on record, it is true; still, Balzac did not care to portray him from that point. He knew all Vidocq's life, better than the repentant criminal depicted it in his Memoirs, which Balzac edited if he did not write. The waiters would show, out at Pointe au Jour, the table before a cafe where the novelist used to hob-nob with the former secret policeman and make notes for the "Memoirs." In his play of "Vautrin," the character differs from that in his novels, remember; it furnished the plot of "Great Expectations;" Vautrin tried to do good, and the tempted Rubempre spurns the felon's support. This redemption of a convict by proxy was what struck Dickens, more deeply versed in French drama and literature than even contemporary English novelists, who, like him, forbore acknowledgment of their inspiration.

If Hugo had published his "Les Miserables" at the time most of it was written, he might put forth Javert as the first police hero. Unhappily, Dumas precedes him here, as he did with the royal-twin plot of his "Man in the Iron Mask" ("Vicomte de Bragelonne"), which his contemporary always maintained to be a piracy of "Les Jumeaux." Dumas averred that all this kind of fiction sprang from his "M. Jackal" in that long, long story of "Les Mohicains de Paris." (This contains an episode of the Duke of Reichstadt and Fanny Essler, which couples with "L'Aiglon," by the way.)

Bocage—an actor who lent his name to novels which Dumas wrote but could not put his name to on account of a legal prohibition— wrote a tale called "Puritains de Paris," which he said originated "Les Mohicains." But the thread goes farther back and does not break. It was handled by the Nestor of French romancists, Xavier de Montepin. After starting with this clue, Montepin dropped it and when he took it up, years after, like Rossini, he "resumed too late!"

Montepin had tapped the source.

There is no more enthralling series for the social historian, complete, though made by various hands, than the revelations, authentic or founded on good grounds, by Ministers of Police in France, from the fourteenth Louis's Lieutenants-criminals to the chiefs of public safety of our day. From D'Argenson to Mace, what a stretch! But there are no gaps. These memoirs are supplemented by transcripts from the archives, most fortunately published, as many of the originals perished in the conflagrations of the Commune.

In Peuchot, Montepin met a chase-and-arrest, lacking no element of the perfect detective novel. On it he based his story and play of "The Syren of Paris." The play was popular, about 1850, on our stage; a little later, when "Colonel" Tom Picton (colonel because kinsman of General Picton of Waterloo fame—we conferred titles thus at that period) when commissioned to write a score of twenty-five novels in a month, included it in the batch of French melodramas which gave him "all the plots he wanted!"

The original report ran as follows: a police agent is charged especially to discover the cause of the disappearance of a number of gilded youth in the capital. He suspected a contemporary revival of "The Tower of Nesle"—that is to say, a new Margaret of Burgundy. Quite aware that he, an "exempt" as an old soldier, could not pass as a young spend-thrift, he was ready, like the patriarch, to sacrifice his son. This son was fresh from college, bright and brave; he learned his instructions like a true "boy detective." Attired as became a heir to fortune, seeking to dissipate it in town, he promenaded Paris until, as had been hoped, one evening, a hag accosted him, and, under pretense of begging, whispered that the gallant had attracted the attention of her mistress, who requested his company at supper. Following the duenna, he was ushered into a splendid mansion, with a banqueting-room, where the hostess was a beauty. Her wit aided by the wine almost made the youth forget his mission, but, in the nick of time he fired the pistol shot, signal for aid to arrive. In rushed his papa, and the escort of police to arrest not only the decoy and her servant, but two ruffians. On searching the house, damning evidence was ferreted out in plenty.

It is noteworthy that from the same well was drawn the story of "The Marchioness of Brinvilliers," which Albert Smith, though sharp in translating it, did not perceive was a gold-mine. In this case the titled poisoner was pursued and entrapped by a detective who took the disguise of an abbe or a gallant, or, to make sure, an abbe-galant; thus he made the arrest.

All the Quarterly Reviewers had commented on the romance in these police ministers' reports without whipping any of the beagles up on the strong scent. But at that time, 1840, the critics were exceedingly opposed to "the novels of violence." They condemned the whole new romantic school of the French, Dumas and Hugo, and their disciples. But these works, principally dramatic, appeared immediately, in the absence of copyright, on the London minor stage; still, no one saw what good novels lay in these plays. When they did take up the sword, they used the wrong end. They repulsed the moral-loving by elevating the highwayman (Dick Turpin in "Rookwood")—instead of the defender of society—to hero-worship.

"The Newgate School" had been inaugurated by "Johnson's Lives of the Highwaymen," and Borrow (yes, "Lavengro" Borrow!) served apprenticeship as a hack by editing a "Newgate Calendar"! Fielding had drawn Jonathan Wild with satire, and Ainsworth, in his "Jack Sheppard," little weakened the black paint with which that devil was smeared. The writers for the populace, as distinguished from popular writers, saw the value first of the police officer standing for the Fates of the Greeks, and as the modern "god in the machine" of Italian opera. In the Penny Weekly novels, from 1845, when the highwayman is a hero, up to the present time, he is counter-balanced by the champion of order and justice. At first he is Jonathan Wild over and over again, but the divergences are stronger; he is no longer to be laughed at. The highwayman's sword shrinks from meeting the Bow street officer's bludgeon. In "Paul Clifford" —not Lytton's, but by a clergyman who continued his incompatible work in "Captain Heron," etc.—Wild is more the civic protector than the evil genius who covered his position of receiver of stolen goods with a police chief's uniform.

For the last time Wild appears in his old guise, but not bribed or overborne in his duty, in one of the most popular novels, for the masses, of recent times. One Viles — something in a name! with a delightful disregard of the unities and chronology—outdid all his predecessors by banding Claude Duval (temp. Charles II), Sixteen-String Jack Rann (George II) and Tom King and Dick Turpin (George III) as a cuartilla whom Jonathan Wild and his "janissaries" check and capture. This long novel, "Black Bess," and its sequel, "Blueskin" (Ainsworth's Joe Blake), are but a poor reflection of the more famed original "Claude Duval." During three years, to say nothing of reissues, this was issued in penny weekly numbers by Lloyd, the successor of that Catnach who continued the tale of the Elizabethan chapmen's printers. He was the father of English cheap literature and of the penny daily. Reprinted here as a series of "25-centers," the run was also unprecedented; and the "10-centers" continued this run until it was run into the ground.

The fact is that "Claude Duval" was interesting. Most of it was written by Tom Prest—for Lloyds' staff replaced any author temporarily unhorsed—a fluent writer who competes with J. F. " Stanfield Hall" Smith as the most widely-read English author of the last fifty years.

If to the French is due the creation of a police hero, the English made the conception more concrete, and by its name added a new word to this vocabulary: Hawkshaw. Brisebarre and Nus had a glimpse of Hawkshaw in their two-part police-drama, "The Way Into Prison" and the "Return to Freedom" ("La Route a Melun" and "Le Retour de Brest"), adapted by Tom Taylor as "The Ticket-of-leave Man." While coining a word which enters into every well-conducted dictionary, Taylor lifted the police officer into prominence. It made the author a fortune and its principal actor, Neville, a star for twenty years. Taylor had so thoroughly localized the scene and characters that he boldly proclaimed—in the Times, of which he was theatrical critic—that such an adapter was equal to the original author!

Hawkshaw stood in need of a companion: the lady detective. John Lang, a newspaper writer, saw this gap and started to fill it. He wrote "Plot and Passion," which, as Taylor also saw, contained a promising side-issue and it presented the high-class female thief-taker as the foreign office spy. Its Countess de Mauleon (admirably played by Kate Terry—Ellen's artistic sister, and her teacher) was the predecessor of Sardou's Countess Ziska, it is plain.

The unromantic detective was painted by Dickens, in his articles on seeing the slums with police guards. Inspector Field was his "strong suit," and after reporting him unvarnished, he put him in fiction as "Inspector Bucket." The "Boy Detective" was inevitable, and the prodigy, Roselle (brother of one Amy Roselle, once liked on the stage), of English pantomime, from suitable stature and juvenile aspect, led to a whole shoal of these junior Hawkshaws. "The Dog Detective" was at the first, M. Montargis's, of course; two generations ago the animal was a "draw" in England and America, with "Coney and Blanchard." He also plays a part in Dumas's "Mohicains."

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