Detective Fiction in France, article in The Saturday Review 1886
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EDGAR ALLAN POE has been commonly reputed the father of so-called detective fiction, and no doubt many later novelists of this class hare drawn their inspiration from those admirable analytical exercises, "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Murder in the Rue Morgue." But the influence of a greater master than Poe must assuredly be recognized among the causes that have produced the modern Gaboriau novel, to adopt the generic, but by no means exact, expression by which this kind of literature is now generally known. Balzac has had a much larger following, and he worked on a much grander scale, than Poe. His marvellous genius was fortified with more intimate and peculiar knowledge; the mighty pen which could lay bare the inmost recesses of the human heart with all the delicacy and precision of the most skilful surgeon's scalpel was aided by a deep, almost intuitive, insight into the contemporary criminal life of Paris. Balzac somehow had mastered all the secrets of the dangerous classes; their argot and their devious ways, the processes of the Prefecture and of the criminal law were seemingly well known to him. He had seen the inside of the jails and bagnes, and he had closely studied the whole French penal system of his time. Hence while the incentive of his great example has encouraged a host of more or less successful imitators, he has really anticipated much that has been written since. We have the prototypes of the Lecoqs and Tabarins and the Milords in Corentin, who, with his astute assistants, unmasked the Abbe Carlos Herrera, otherwise Vautrin, otherwise Jacques Collin, that inimitable creation, or rather realization, of a character well remembered in the criminal records of France. Detection was never more patiently or ingeniously developed than that which exposed Lucien de Rubempré, Vautrin's involuntary confederate; the refined tortures of French "criminal instruction" were never better portrayed than in M. Camusot's examination of these two offenders. Camusot himself is a first life-like portrait of the juge d'instruction who plays so large a part in all French detective stories. Proofs of Balzac's consummate mastery in this line of fiction might, however, be multiplied indefinitely. Yet, although Balzac's fame is for all time, it may be doubted whether his popularity has exceeded, or even equalled, many of his later and always inferior followers. This may be explained, if not excused, by the presumption that modern writers are more exactly in touch with the readers of today; their work, always lighter and more frothy, wins interest more readily, and is thus more distinctly acceptable to the present frivolous age. But they have also larger opportunities; they can draw upon newer and stranger facts, upon much more varied material, for the construction and development of their fiction. It is almost impossible to realize fully the complicated combinations and strange surprises Balzac would have contrived had he had at his disposal the marvellous machinery of our everyday life. If the modern detective novelist were deprived of some of the latest appliances of modern civilization—for example, the rapidity of intercommunication by steam and electric telegraph—he would be half paralysed and might never have devised or elaborated some of his finest conceptions. It must not be forgotten that the great author of Cousine Bette and Le pere Goriot was altogether denied these very substantial aids to dramatic effect.
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If the abundance of supply affords any accurate test, the demand for the detective novel is great and increasing. Novels of this class must surely be counted amongst the greatest successes of the day. It is book-stall success, so to speak; that achieved by extensive, sometimes phenomenal, sales at low rates, and meaning a widespread dissemination far exceeding anything the circulating
libraries could accomplish. The truth, too, of this substantial approval has been accorded to literature of foreign importation. So far native talent has not scored, save in the comparatively rare instances where the writer treats topics with which he is perhaps officially familiar out of the fulness of his own experience. The detective stories apparently most popular with the British public are of French or American origin. The enterprising publishers who have inundated the market with not always irreproachable translations of Gaboriau and Du Boisgobey have made their selection from too limited a field; but they have been wise in their generation, and they must have had their reward. Equally satisfactory must have been the reprints of Miss Green's stories, The Leavenworth Case and A Strange Disappearance, while another American novel, Shadowed by Three, yields to neither in its thrilling and well-sustained interest, however ludicrous and long-winded it may at times appear. Most of these novels possess sufficient merit to explain a portion of, if not all, their success. They are certainly not of the highest class, but they meet many of the requirements of good fiction. It is surely something to secure and fix the attention early, to arouse interest soon, and retain it to the last; to take a reader quite out of himself while producing the pleasurable mental exercise that accompanies speculative thought. In all detective stories there must be a nut to crack, a problem to solve. A crime must have been committed or no detection would be required. This is the overture, the prelude or prologue, stated with more or less dramatic power. What can be more exciting than to enlist on the side of the law, to follow the steps taken to vindicate and avenge it by-bringing the crime home to its perpetrators? The reader is made one in a man-hunt; he joins in that all-absorbing, deeply-interesting pursuit the chasse aux hommes, which all true policiers are supposed to consider the very finest and most laudable form of sport. Sometimes he is permitted to hunt with both the hare and the hounds; in one chapter he sees the earths stopped, the snares laid; in the next he follows the fugitive in all his cunning endeavours to elude pursuit. The obvious exaggerations of the story do not detract from its charms, neither the monstrous iniquity of the evil-doers nor the superhuman astuteness and devoted courage of their pursuers. Colour has to be laid on thick and strong; but the effect is all the more striking, even though the artifice is at times too apparent. All but the thoroughly well-informed must believe that France and America are served by police officers who are Machiavellis and Bayards rolled into one. The unknown is taken for the magnificent. As a matter of fact, the detective police abroad is as frequently ineffectively as much abused as that at home. In Paris especially, since the advent of M. Taylor, the present chef de la surete, very general dissatisfaction prevails at the immunity enjoyed by great criminals and the constantly increasing number of undiscovered crimes. It is only in pages of fiction that the detective almost invariably triumphs. The reality falls far short of the ideal; and the scientific deductions, the Protean disguises, the general fertility of resource, exist rather in the perfervid imagination of poetic writers than in prosaic even day life.
But all detective novels are not of the same merit. This is especially true of the French. Those to which English readers have been introduced of late are not invariably the best of their class. Gaboriau, who has been placed first, has no exclusive right to the honour. His now well-known method of narrative is often irritating and vexatious. A story altogether admirable in its first statement and early treatment is marred by his constant practice of arresting the action midway and throwing the reader back to long-antecedent scenes acted by quite new characters. All progress is stopped towards the solution of the clever problem upon which every Gaboriau plot turns. Du Boisgobey, again, who never offended in this way, and whose peculiar excellence lay in the ingenuity and originality of his construction, is now failing in both. He is showing the usual symptoms of over-production, and the crude, ill-digested workmanship of his last novel, Rubis sur L'ongle, contrasts most unfavourably with each of his earlier books, as Le crime de l'opera or Le crime de l'omnibus. The last recruit gained to the ranks of French detective novelists best known in this country is not likely to take the world by storm. M. Mace has brought to his task the peculiar advantages of long professional experience. Just as Gaboriau had served for years as the greffier of a juge d'instruction, so M. Mace had been first a commissary and then chef de la surete", or head of the detective police. M. Mace was said to be one of the best detectives Paris had ever known; but he has now retired from this useful office to become one of the worst writers of fiction. But there are names less familiar than the foregoing which should stand far higher. Amid much that is nasty, Adolphe Belot has produced one or two excellent police novels; Le parricide and Les etrangleurs rank with, if not above, Gaboriau in their careful elaboration of the avenging processes of the law. Alexis Bouvier, again, has concentrated some of his best efforts upon the chase and discovery of malefactors. Georges Grisons, who has penetrated the lowest depths of Paris life and written wisely upon the dangerous classes, has done one good detective novel, 13 Rue des Chantres. Pierre Delcourt's is a comparatively new name, but his work is promising; while the veteran Xavier de Montepin still draws from seemingly inexhaustible sources those terribly prolix tragedies which are never developed under two or three series of several volumes each. There are, however, many pennyworths of bread to the gallons of small beer with which such stories as Le fiacre No. 13, Le medecin des folles, and La demoiselle de compagnie are diluted. But there is one French novelist who can hold his own with any of the foregoing.
It is somewhat surprising that the work of Constant Gueroult is not more generally and fully appreciated than it is. There are two at least of his detective novels which are worthy of high praise. Gueroult has a method of his own which is well exemplified in Le drame de la rue da Temple, and its sequel, Les exploits du Fifi Vollard. He is like the military historian who, in unfolding a campaign, describes impartially turn and turn about the operations of both combatants. We are behind the scenes, so to speak; our interest is excited and maintained not by cunningly devised, impenetrable secrets kept up to the last page, but by the constantly shifting chances that attend mine and countermine, attack and defence. His novels are therefore essentially novels of action, brisk, bustling pieces of dramatic movement in which policeman and desperado are always hotly engaged. All that is needed are maps and plans to follow out the intricate movements of numbers upon a highly-complicated theatre of war. The same may be said of Eugene Chavette, who has treated the very same criminal episode which formed the basis of Gueroult's above-mentioned works. Both novelists drew their plots from the police records, their characters from real life. His Bande de la belle Alliette seems to have appeared in 1869, Gueroult's pair some seven years later. But Chavette has a distinct and well-deserved, although still limited, reputation of his own. His novels, several of which appeared in La Nouvelle Revue, although "caviare to the general," have been greatly appreciated by critical and intelligent readers. Chavette has tried many lines; has reproduced the detective of history, and by the aid of a somewhat exuberant fancy has revealed the proceedings of one of the first of French detectives, Fouche, Duc d'Otranto. In Le roi des Limiers we have developed with rare excellence the operations and eventual discomfiture of one of Fouche's most valued subordinates. Chavette does not, however, depend entirely upon the official policeman for the disentanglement of the imbroglio. The amateur is a great feature in his work, both when engaged in some gigantic system of chantage as in Le comte omnibus or L'heritage d'un pigue-assiette, and when patiently determined to expose villainy, as in Un notaire en fuite and La conguete d une cuisiniere. But Chavette's chief charm lies in the delicate dry humour with which he invests the more repulsive criminal episodes, and some of the situations he devises for his characters are irresistibly comic without being far-fetched.
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