Welcome to Part 1 of March Crime Read-Along, where we introduce this month’s selection. Today we’ll look at early detective fiction and the question: Why France? Please feel very invited to join in the conversation at any point along the way!
For the March Crime Read-Along, we read Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (we’ll be discussing it soon here).
I chose “Rue Morgue” for the first piece because it is popularly thought of as the first detective story (uh, at least Wikipedia thinks so, and who can argue with systematized crowdsourcing? C.f. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murders_in_the_Rue_Morgue).*
Wikipedia also mentions another candidate for early detective fiction. ETA Hoffman (you know, the guy who wrote The Nutcracker) wrote the novella Mademoiselle de Scuderi, which was published in 1819 (original German title: Das Fraulein von Scuderi).** I decided to give it a read, and I’m not so sure about the detective distinction, personally, although it’s definitely crime fiction. I’m cutting out a lot of details, but basically the story is about a wealthy 73-year-old Mademoiselle de Scuderi (who is based on a real historical personage) becomes convinced that a young man who has been accused of a crime is innocent. After interviewing him, she decides to defend him to the police. She doesn’t perform any detective work, per se, except in that she insists on being granted interviews, but she does eventually bring about justice. There are some classic themes of crime fiction in the story, though—for example, incompetent law enforcement, who need a civilian to step in to solve their mysteries.
Anyway, you can decide which you think wins the distinction of First Detective Story. Either way, there’s a weird similarity here: both are stories set in Paris, about French people, but written by an American and a German, respectively, in their native languages.
Now, you might ask, why France? I’d love to hear other people’s take on this matter (anyone enjoy 18th century French literature and want to point out some themes we might have missed?). But I have a theory Poe’s choice, at least, has something to do with the guy in the illustration above.
Eugène François Vidocq was a petty criminal (con artist, thief, general bad boy) who reformed—sort of. Actually what happened was he traded his way out of a jail sentence by telling the police he would spy for them on the criminal societies he had so recently been a part of. He taught the Paris police how to think like criminals, and introduced all kinds of new tactics to the force: disguises, set-ups, and planted witnesses. He taught them that specific criminals have specific tendencies—that is, that crimes can be solved by analyzing MOs. Basically, he invented being a detective, and then, once he’d codified the rules, he promulgated them to others. Only two years into his tenure as a spy, he had put together the plainclothes police unit that would become Sûreté Nationale, the official state police.
Vidocq was a vibrant and larger-than-life personality with tons of energy and personal investment in his projects. Once he’d turned his criminal genius toward the good, he threw himself into his new calling and changed the face of public justice. There was no forensic science or investigative procedure to speak of in Europe at the time (although there was some interesting stuff going on in China much earlier—look up Song Ci’s Xi Yuan Lu, or Collected Cases of Injustice Recitified, which was a coroner’s handbook written in 1247 to help with forensic diagnosis). Vidocq developed such forensic techniques as ballistics and blood spatter analysis, footprint analysis, and breaking down chemical compounds to test for counterfeiting.
Vidocq was extremely charming and charismatic—not to mention full of interesting stories—so it’s not surprising he gained popularity and notoriety during his lifetime. While I’m pretty sure a lot of his autobiography is tall tale-telling (I mean, with this guy, would anything more accurate be appropriate?), but it’s still a fun read. Most importantly to my thesis, it was a huge bestseller when it was published in France in 1827—it sold over 50,000 copies in a single year (wouldn’t we all like to sell that many books!). Basically, he made his story of becoming a detective incredibly sexy to the reading public, and, I would aver, romanticized his profession to the point that detectives started appearing in popular literature. (Javert, anyone?)
I recommend his memoir if you’d like a little more detail than you’ll get out of a Wikipedia article on this fascinating guy. (You can read a public domain translation for free on Google books) I’ve read some books about him but would love any recommendations for related reading you might have!
Any thoughts on France, early detective fiction, or Poe’s other sources of inspiration?
*Oh, I look forward GREATLY to hearing from anyone who can offer an argument for some other work! I love impassioned internet squabbles over such things.
**Since it’s public domain, too, you can read it for free, and it’s only 35 pages.