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The headline of the newspaper Paris-Journal for Wednesday, August 23, 1911 (the day after the theft of the Mona Lisa was discovered), read



Arsène Lupin was well known to the Paris-Journal’s readers, for he was as famous a fictional character in France as Sherlock Holmes was in England. Lupin, however, was a master thief. In Paris, where many people’s sympathies were with the criminal, not with the police, imaginary heroes were often those on the wrong side of the law.


Crime in France had a long literary tradition, both in fiction and in fact — beginning with Vidocq, the real-life Frenchman who was the inspiration for countless crime stories (including those written by the American Edgar Allan Poe). Vidocq had been a legendary criminal before he became a policeman — and some thought he continued to cross the line throughout his career.

He liked to suddenly reveal himself to people who had not seen through his current disguise, announcing, “I am Vidocq, and I arrest you.” 2 Even today, his towering figure (contemporaries claimed he could appear tall or short, as suited his purposes) stands at the beginning of the history of modern criminology as well as the beginning of the detective story.

Much of what is known about Vidocq comes from his Memoirs, which were written with the assistance of Honoré de Balzac, one of France’s great novelists, and even the Memoirs are apparently as much a product of imagination as of memory. Fact or fiction? Vidocq blurred the line.

François-Eugène Vidocq begins the story of his life in typically dramatic fashion:

I was born at Arras, but as my constant disguise, the mobility of my features, and a singular aptness in make-up have caused some doubt about my age, it will not be superfluous to state that I came into the world on the twenty-third of July, 1775, in a house near where Robespierre had been born sixteen years earlier. It was during the night; rain poured down in torrents; thunder rumbled; as a result a relative, who combined the functions of midwife and sibyl, drew the conclusion that my career would be a stormy one. In those days there were still good people who believed in omens, while in these enlightened times men rely on the infallibility of fortune-tellers. 3

Even as a young man, Vidocq stood out from the crowd. Very large and strong, he was the terror of his neighborhood and was continually in fights. “My father’s house was on the Place d’Armes, the customary meeting-place for all the blackguards of the quarter, and here I early exercised my muscles in thrashing regularly my comrades.… All they heard at home were stories of injured ears, black eyes, and torn clothes. By the time I was eight I was the terror of all the dogs, cats, and children of the neighborhood.” 4 He earned the name locally of Le Vautrin (the Wild Boar), a name that Balzac later gave to a recurring fictional character based upon Vidocq.

His criminal career began with stealing money from the till of his family’s bakery. Later, after he pawned the family silver, his father insisted that the local authorities jail him — Vidocq’s first experience behind bars. Released after two weeks, he stole his mother’s savings and ran away from home. He had wanted to go to America and start a new life but lost his money to a con man along the way. Undaunted but wiser, he joined a traveling theater troupe and circus. He later recalled, “I went about the job, but I didn’t like it. The grease disgusted me and I wasn’t comfortable with the monkeys, which frightened by an unknown face, made unbelievable efforts to tear out my eyes.” 5 Tiring of this adventure, he returned to Arras and begged his mother’s forgiveness, something she could never resist giving him. He and his father were reconciled as well.

The uneventful life of a village soon bored him, and Vidocq joined the army. Here he fought fifteen duels in six months, according to his Memoirs. Vidocq saw much of Europe with the French army as it carried the Revolution into neighboring countries, but he learned that his chief loyalty must always be to himself. Frequently he was accused of crimes, ranging from assaulting an officer to forgery. Convicted, he usually managed to escape, mastering an ability to disguise himself — at least once in a nun’s habit. Recapture brought him harsher sentences to the “galleys,” which were prisons for hardened criminals, usually those convicted of capital crimes. But the galleys could not hold him either, and in the confusion of the times, Vidocq usually managed to enlist in another regiment — even serving with privateers and naval forces. It was simple enough to assume another name and hence another identity, for there were no records that could provide definite identification of criminals.

In addition to discarding identities, Vidocq left behind a trail of admiring women wherever he went. One of the conquests he describes in his Memoirs:

At dark the evening of our departure, I met a woman from Brussels, named Elisa, with whom I had been intimate. She fell on my neck, took me to supper, and, overcoming weak resistance, kept me with her till the next morning. I pretended to Francine [another lover], who had sought me everywhere, that to throw the police off my tracks I had been forced to dash into a house, and I could not get out until daylight. At first she believed me; but chance led her to discover that I had passed the night with a woman.… In her excess of rage she swore that she would have me arrested. Having me put in prison was certainly the safest way to assure herself against my infidelities. As Francine was a woman to do what she said she would, I deemed it prudent to leave her until her anger had cooled. 6

Vidocq’s many stints in prison, as well as his frequent escapes, had earned him a reputation among criminals. This helped him to find refuge with lawless elements whenever he was out of prison, but it also meant that his only means of earning a living was through crime. Wishing to turn his life around, he managed to arrange a meeting with a man named Dubois, the commissaire of police in Lyons. Vidocq proposed to give him a list of criminals working in the area in return for his freedom. Dubois, who knew of Vidocq’s reputation, was hesitant, fearing a trick. To prove his good faith, Vidocq said he would give the slip to the two gendarmes who were waiting to take him to prison, and voluntarily return to Dubois’s office. Dubois agreed. Not long after Vidocq left, the door opened and he stood there again — without the guards.

Thus began Vidocq’s double career: as criminal and police informer. He was forced to leave Lyons to save his skin when the criminals who were being rounded up suspected he had betrayed them. He returned to Arras, where his mother still lived, but was unable to convince the police there that he had gone straight. His good intentions rebuffed, he returned to crime again and wound up in Paris, where he developed a relationship with a woman named Annette, whom he later married.

Paris in the early nineteenth century was not the City of Light it would later become. It was a city of narrow, maze-like streets that were dark and dangerous, twisted alleys and dead ends where bodies were dumped. There were no spacious boulevards or parks with gas lighting. The metropolis was a hotbed of vice and disease. Hordes of people lived in ramshackle ancient buildings; epidemics of cholera periodically swept the city. In this world, the poor were forced to steal for their bread, and street urchins needed sharp wits to survive.

In 1809, during Napoleon’s rule, Vidocq decided once again to make a break with his criminal past. He sent a letter to “Papa” Henry, divisional chief of the Police Prefecture of Paris, offering his services as a spy in the underworld. Henry could see the value such a man would have, and referred the letter to Baron de Pasquier, the prefect of police, who agreed to give him a chance. In his Memoirs, Vidocq referred to the two men as “my liberators.” 7 For the next two decades, he would employ his talents on the right side of the law.

At first he served as an informant in La Force Prison in Paris. The authorities had spread rumors that Vidocq had committed a particularly heinous crime. This earned him the respect of the other inmates, who “whispered and even said aloud in talking about me, ‘He’s a murderer,’ and as in that place a murderer ordinarily inspires great confidence, I was careful not to refute an error so useful to my projects.” 8 Some inmates also recognized Vidocq from having served with him in other prisons and knew that he had escaped, adding to his criminal reputation. Finally, after twenty months, he feared that his cover was blown and he “escaped” once again, this time with the connivance of his jailers.

He returned to Paris, where he lived with his wife in the Marais section. At night he frequented the gaming dens, saloons, and brothels in the most dangerous sections of the city. He listened to the schemes and plots being hatched — sometimes being invited to take part in them — and then reported them to his superiors at the prefecture. “The rogues and thieves whom I daily met there firmly believed me to be one of themselves,” he wrote. 9 He did not see himself as a traitor, because he did not believe that he was a criminal — only a person who had taken up crime out of necessity. He further claimed that he never turned in anyone for stealing bread to feed himself or his family.

All the while, Vidocq’s ability to disguise himself continued to improve. His biographer Joseph Geringer wrote, “He played pirates with black-patched eyes, runaway convicts under a month’s chin growth, aged thieves behind gray side whiskers, pickpockets with a limp and a cane and a ragged frock, even persons displaced from their homeland — a scar-faced German swordsman wanted by the Berlin police for killing two men in a duel, the dark Sicilian Gypsy who had killed a wife in Castelvetrano, the British barrister, complete with spectacles, wanted for cutting the throat of a rival attorney in London. With dialect and colloquialism to accompany each caricature, Vidocq carried every animation with aplomb.” 10 He was so adept at disguise that he was once approached to make a hit on himself.

In real life, changing one’s looks and name to alter one’s history, even when practiced by lesser men than Vidocq, was a perennial problem for police forces. In France, galley “slaves” — those who had been sentenced to forced labor — were branded to prevent them from escaping, 11 a practice that was banned in 1832. Afterward, the police had no real way of knowing whether a suspect was a recidivist, or career criminal, because it was nearly impossible to determine if he had ever been arrested before. Vidocq himself, adept at shifting personae, began to tackle that problem.


The population of Paris grew to more than one million people between 1800 and 1850, making it the largest city on the mainland of Europe. Vidocq recognized that the sheer size of the metropolis caused difficulty for the police, who were poorly organized. At the time, the Prefecture of Paris, still led by the Baron de Pasquier, was composed of the First Division, or Administrative Branch, and the Second Division, or Special Investigative Branch, under “Papa” Henry. The city was divided into several geographic sectors, each under the jurisdiction of a commissaire with a small staff. The commissaires worked only within their own domains, so criminals who ranged freely over the whole city were hard to track down. Vidocq recognized in this confusion a possible job for himself. He suggested that a small group of crime fighters be formed to operate throughout Paris, to keep the criminal and ex-convict population under surveillance. His group could stop crimes before they occurred, a novel idea for the time.

Henry and de Pasquier had been impressed by Vidocq’s earlier services and agreed to give him four assistants; his staff would grow over time to twenty-eight. They were paid from secret funds and not publicly acknowledged. In the autumn of 1812, Vidocq and his men were formalized as the plainclothes bureau. Thus began the Sûreté, or security police, which was eventually to become the official investigative branch of the French judiciary.

Vidocq chose ex-criminals and ex-cons for his agents, believing they were the only ones with the street smarts and toughness to do the job he had in mind. Even at this time, Vidocq had it in his mind that, like him, these ex-offenders could become useful members of society. He proudly recalled: “I preferred men whose record had given them a little celebrity. Well! I often gave these men the most delicate missions. They had considerable sums to deliver to the police or the prison offices; they took part in operations in which they could have easily laid hands on large amounts [of money], and not one of them, not a single one, betrayed my trust.” 12

The men of Vidocq’s force received no salary; instead they were paid a fee and expenses for each arrest. As a result, regular police officers, who disliked the idea of these irregular forces, spread rumors that his men were solving crimes that they themselves had organized. Vidocq denied this, though he readily acknowledged that he and his men mingled with the criminals of Paris: “I did not hesitate to risk myself in this herd of wretches. I associated with them; I fraternized with them; and I soon had the advantage of being considered one of them. It was while I was drinking with these gentlemen that I learned about the crimes they had committed or premeditated.… So I obtained from them all the information I needed. When I gave the signal for an arrest, it was almost certain that the individuals would be taken in the very act, or with the stolen goods, which would justify their sentence.” 13 In case of a shootout, Vidocq would often pretend to be hit and have himself carried away as dead under a quilt.

Having served in prisons himself, Vidocq knew that they were training grounds for criminals; upon their release, many prisoners promptly returned to a life of crime. So he often visited Bicêtre Prison on the outskirts of Paris and had the warden line up the worst prisoners in the exercise yard. He would walk up and down the line, studying their faces and looking for distinguishing characteristics such as moles, tattoos, and scars, so that he would recognize them when they returned to Paris. Vidocq proved to have a keen memory for faces, perhaps because he himself was so adept at disguise. Among those he arrested was a man who was passing himself off as nobility; Vidocq recognized him as having been in prison for stealing bank notes.

Vidocq’s superiors approved of his work, and the number of his assistants grew. In 1817, his organization was credited with more than eight hundred arrests. Over time, Vidocq professionalized his department, becoming the first to formalize the process of criminal investigation. He compiled a card-indexing system identifying every criminal he knew of in Paris. He created plaster of paris casts to make molds of footprints. He held patents on indelible ink and unalterable bond paper. (Some of his judgments were less professional. He believed, for instance, that being bowlegged was a symptom of criminality.)

In 1827, the Police Prefecture’s new head, the Chevalier Duplessis, forced Vidocq to resign for political reasons, although the plainclothes department continued to operate under one of Vidocq’s own ex-criminal agents, Coco Lacour. After the July Revolution of 1830 brought Louis-Philippe, the Citizen King, to power, another prefect of police rehired Vidocq, giving him for the first time the title Chef de la Brigade de Sûreté (Head of the Security Brigade).

During his brief retirement, Vidocq had written his Memoirs, which became a best seller on both sides of the English Channel. He had completed it with the aid of professional writers and admitted that parts might not be completely true; still, he claimed, “the facts are there.” 14

Vidocq lost his job for good, however, in 1832. Gisquet, the prefect of police responsible for rehiring and then firing him, wrote in his memoirs: “Vidocq’s methods were so definitely provocative that I decided to dismiss him as well as all the suspect characters of whom he made use. Up to that time it had been very generally thought that a thief must be set to catch a thief. I proposed to use honest men as detectives, and the results proved that I was right.… I ordered the immediate dismissal of all ex-convict employés and decided that in future all members of the regular police should be men with a clean record.” 15 But Vidocq was not finished.


On January 3, 1834, Vidocq opened the world’s first private detective agency, which he called his own “private police” business. 16 He offered clients a way of dealing with crime without encountering the bureaucracy of the regular police. His shingle read “Le Bureau de Renseignements,” or Office of Intelligence. He advertised in the newspapers and flooded the streets with flyers passed out by well-dressed young men at the entrances to banks and brokerages.

The most influential politician of the reign of Louis-Philippe was François Guizot, who expressed the spirit of the times when he famously proclaimed, “Enrich yourself.” Parisians responded enthusiastically. Bankers, merchants, and manufacturers were making fortunes, and in turn confidence men, swindlers, and forgers sought to siphon off some of this new money. Vidocq specialized in cases of financial irregularities. Still believing that it took a thief to catch a thief, he hired investigators who had committed the same crimes they would now solve. Vidocq offered his clients plaques saying they were under the protection of “Vidocq’s Information Bureau.” The small fee it cost was well worth it, for no criminal in France wanted to rob a place protected by Vidocq.

Like the modern private eye, Vidocq also handled domestic problems. Husbands and wives who suspected their spouses of infidelity hired the agency to find out whether such suspicions were accurate. If a spouse or an employee had disappeared, Vidocq’s men would try to find the individual or determine if he or she had met with foul play. His new offices included a laboratory as well as Vidocq’s extensive files, which were open to only a few trusted employees.

Vidocq still faced difficulties with the uniformed police, many of whom were jealous of him. His further successes in solving crime only infuriated them more, and they went so far as to plant compromising objects and letters in his office before raiding it. But Vidocq was always able to foil these schemes and divert false accusations. In answer to the charge that his agents robbed people in the street, for example, he ordered his men to wear suede gloves on duty to show that it was impossible for them to pick pockets.

At the end of November 1839, the police raided the Office of Intelligence and carried off its files. The newspapers reported that more than half were secret documents of the Sûreté that should not have been in private hands. Vidocq promptly filed a lawsuit against the prefect of police, Paul Delessert, a man new to the job, with little experience in law enforcement. The head of the Sûreté responded by arresting Vidocq on December 23. He spent that Christmas in a Paris jail, although Mme. Vidocq was allowed to bring a roasted goose with trimmings and have dinner with him. In February, Vidocq was acquitted of all charges and was commended by the court as a man of honor.

The police were further embarrassed when Prefect Delessert’s brother, Maurice, a wealthy banker, was robbed of seventy-five thousand francs. When the police could not find the thief, Maurice, using a pseudonym, turned to Vidocq for help. Vidocq, who was not deceived about his new client’s identity, took personal charge of the case. Through his underworld informants, he found out where the loot was located and made his own deal with the robbers: in return for the money, he would not expose their identities. Seventy-two hours after he got the case, Vidocq returned the money to Maurice Delessert, grandly refusing to take a fee. He sent a letter explaining the matter to Prefect Delessert. The letter “leaked” and appeared in a newspaper, letting all Paris know who was the city’s greatest detective.

In the last two decades of his life, Vidocq took up a new career, writing novels based — with considerable exaggeration, if not outright invention — on his experiences as an investigator. He published the first of them, Les voleurs (The Thieves), in 1836. He seems to have undertaken the book partly to make money and also to publicize his agency. Its success made Vidocq a trailblazer in another field: the first author of best-selling crime fiction.

Les voleurs was a virtual how-to of crime. Vidocq showed how thieves broke into houses and offices using short swords of the finest steel, explained how pickpockets filed their fingers to increase their sensitivity of touch, and warned brothel patrons that many of the rooms had hidden peepholes so that when they were engaged in lovemaking, someone could enter the room and rifle their wallets. He described the nearly invisible dots that sharpers used to mark playing cards. He also cautioned people about beginning a correspondence with strangers who were in fact forgers hoping to get a sample of their handwriting.

Age eventually slowed even Vidocq. At age seventy-five, in 1847, he closed his detective agency, though he still took on cases for favorite clients. Seven years later, he suffered a paralytic stroke. He dictated his will and then died on May 11, 1854, just a month short of his eighty-second birthday. His epitaph could have been his speech to French lawmakers in which he idealized himself: “I have the consolation of having remained an honest man amid the darkness of perversion and the atmosphere of crime. I have fought for the defense of order, in the name of justice as soldiers fight for the defense of their country, beneath the flag of their regiment. I had no epaulettes, but I ran as many risks as they, and I exposed my life every day as they do.” 17 Before his body was even removed from his home, the Paris police arrived to confiscate his files and records.


It can be argued that all detective fiction owes something to Vidocq. Certainly his outsize persona intrigued some of France’s greatest and most popular writers, among them Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Eugène Sue. Balzac used the character Vautrin, modeled after Vidocq, in several books of his massive sequence of novels, La comédie humaine. At one point, Vautrin explains crime and the world:

It is a strange mud pit.… If you get that dirt on you while you’re driving around in a carriage, you’re a very respectable fellow, but if it spatters all over you while you slog along on foot, then you’re a good-for-nothing rogue. Make the mistake of grabbing anything out of the mud, no matter how insignificant, and they’ll pillory you in the courts of law. But steal millions, and they’ll point you out as a hero, in the very best houses. That’s an ethical system you pay the cops and the judges thirty million a year to keep in good working order. It’s just great! 18Vautrin also offers Balzac’s famous observation on wealth: “The secret of all great fortunes… is always some forgotten crime — forgotten, mind you, because it’s been properly handled.” 19

Victor Hugo, author of what has proved to be the most durable of nineteenth-century French novels, Les misérables, also knew Vidocq personally and is said to have modeled both of the main characters of his great book after Vidocq: Inspector Javert, the relentless policeman, and his quarry the ex-convict Jean Valjean represented the two sides of Vidocq’s nature and career.

The works of these authors were best sellers among a new class of reader that had developed along with the growth of literacy in nineteenth-century France. As the reading public grew, mass-circulation newspapers and journals sprang up to fulfill the demand for news, commentary, and popular literature. Newspapers printed sensational stories of crime and scandal, called faits divers; to improve their tales, authors of faits divers wrote in a style more usual for fiction than for journalism. Henry de Roure, a journalist of the Belle Époque, wrote that the reader sitting down to read a fait divers “licks his chops. Believes himself to experience one by one — and with what transports of joy! — the emotions of an unfortunate woman attacked at night and cut into pieces with successive blows of a sword; then, in trying to enter into the character of the assassin, he tastes the incomparable psychological pleasures which [the reader], as a practical man, has never experienced directly.” 20

Seeing the popularity of such lively journalism, the newspaper publisher Émile de Girardin decided to publish fiction outright and developed the feuilleton, or serial. In 1836, the first issue of his La Presse contained the premier installment of an exciting novel with the promise of additional chapters to come. The French public took to the feuilletons with such enthusiasm that they became virtually obligatory for any newspaper trying to increase its circulation. Major authors’ works often appeared first in this format and were afterward released in book form. Perhaps the most popular of the romans feuilletons, or serial novels, was Eugène Sue’s Les mystères de Paris, which tripled the circulation of Le Journal des Débats, where it appeared between 1842 and 1843. The author received an offer of 100,000 francs for his next serial even before a word was written, a fantastic figure for the day, making Sue one of the highest-paid authors in France.

Faits divers and feuilletons were new only in format, for people had written stories about crimes since ancient times. The truly innovative literary genre of the nineteenth century was the detective story, in which the crime is only a prelude. Detective stories appealed to a more sophisticated public by presenting a puzzle that the reader seeks to solve before, or at least along with, the detective-hero.

The first modern detective story, in which the central character’s importance lies in his ability to detect, was written by an American, Edgar Allan Poe. He was inspired by Vidocq’s Memoirs to create the sleuth C. Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in the story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. 21 Poe set the tale in Paris and even included a reference to Vidocq. The character Dupin, portrayed as a man of culture and scientific learning, remarks, “Vidocq was a good guesser and a persevering man. But without educated thought, he erred continually.” 22

Poe’s detective stories were written before many American cities had any kind of organized police force and before London’s Scotland Yard had been established. Indeed, the very word detective did not appear until two years after the publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” when Sir James Graham, the British home secretary, formed a special group of officers called the Detective Police. Poe himself called his stories “tales of ratiocination.” 23

Poe had scientific interests as well as literary ones. Indeed, the very same issue of the magazine that published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” also contained an article by Poe on photography, which had just been invented by two Frenchmen, Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre. And Poe’s detective was a particularly modern hero, one who used his mental faculties to resolve the crisis — the mystery — he faced. He might carry a weapon, but his true power came from his intellect and a rigorous scientific mind-set.

That was not the only precedent set by Poe. As the critic Julian Symons notes about him: “He… established the convention by which the brilliant intelligence of the detective is made to shine more brightly through the comparative obtuseness of his friend who tells the stories.” 24 This obtuse friend — not an outright bumbler, but someone unable to come close to the detective in terms of deductive brilliance — became another standard of the genre, most notably, of course, with Dr. John Watson, the foil to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, acknowledged his debt to Poe, slyly having Watson remark to Holmes, “You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin.” And Conan Doyle would write frankly in Through the Magic Door: “Poe is to my mind, the supreme, the original short-story writer of all time.” 25

Though Poe’s stories were set in a Paris that didn’t exist, they were soon translated into French. In November 1845, the Revue Britannique published a translation of “The Gold Bug,” but it was not until the following year, when the Parisian newspaper La Quotidienne published a loose three-part translation of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” that the French public discovered Poe. The translator changed the name of the street to the rue de l’Ouest (because there is no rue Morgue) and ramped up the gory details for audiences that were accustomed to feuilletons. The story — in which two women are brutally murdered by an escaped orangutan — caused a stir, and essays on Poe began to appear in respected publications such as the Revue des Deux Mondes. More translated stories of his followed.

The great French poet Charles Baudelaire was amazed by Poe, saying that he “experienced a strange commotion” on first reading him. 26 Searching through American magazines for more, and finding stories that he himself had “thought vaguely and confusedly” of writing, 27 Baudelaire became a devotee of the American author. In 1852, he published translations of Poe’s tales along with commentaries that increased Poe’s literary reputation in France, where he became better known than in his native land. The French particularly responded to Poe’s Gothic elements, the dark side of the psyche that Poe would write of as “the blackness of darkness.” 28 Baudelaire, learning of Poe’s mysterious death in Baltimore in 1849, investigated the circumstances and declared, “This death was almost a suicide — a suicide prepared for a long time.” 29

France’s fascination with Poe did not stop in the 1850s. Pioneers of modernism — among them the symbolist poets Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud — found inspiration in Poe’s works. So did the composer Claude Debussy, who was working on an opera based on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” when he died. Debussy wrote to a friend, “I have recently been living in the House of Usher which is not exactly the place where one can look after one’s nerves — just the opposite. One develops the curious habit of listening to the stones as if they were in conversation with each other and expecting houses to crumble to pieces as if this were not only natural but inevitable.… I have no confidence in the normal, well-balanced type of persons.” 30


It was not long before Poe inspired French imitators. The first great French fictional detective (not counting Vidocq’s inventions) was Monsieur Lecoq, who initially appeared in 1865, the creation of Émile Gaboriau. In his name, personal vanity, and frightening reputation, Lecoq echoed Vidocq. Moreover, Lecoq had also been a crook before becoming a detective. His methods, however, came from Dupin: the young Gaboriau had read Baudelaire’s translation of Poe.

Gaboriau was the son of a public official in the provinces who wished for his son to become a lawyer. Rebellious, the young man joined the army and then came to Paris to be a writer. He began as a ghost writer for Paul Féval, a newspaper editor, dramatist, and author of criminal romances for feuilletons. To do research, Gaboriau attended trials, visited prisons, and even roamed the morgues. He was fascinated by the details of police work, the operations of the Sûreté, and the duties of juges d’instruction (investigating magistrates) — ironically finding a certain fulfillment in the profession his father had urged him to follow.

Gaboriau had a large collection of police memoirs and literature on police work. As a result, his detectives, including Lecoq, are very realistically portrayed; for this reason, Gaboriau is regarded as the father of the modern police procedural and, for some, as the inventor of the modern detective novel (for Poe wrote no novels, only short stories). Like Poe, Gaboriau used the science of his time — the chemistry of poisons, photography, and the telegraph. Equally influential was his stress on the importance of logic, the “calculus of possibilities,” 31 in solving the crime.

Lecoq first appeared in 1865 in a feuilleton, which was published the following year in book form under the title L’affaire Lerouge. Lecoq is initially described as a former criminal, now a young member of the Sûreté, whose mentor, a bedridden old man nicknamed Tirauclair (“bringer of light”) helps him solve a case. In this first book, Lecoq has already become a master of disguise. Though handsome, with thick black hair and “bold piercing eyes,” 32 he passes himself off as an official by donning a stiff cravat, gold spectacles, and a wig. Like Dupin, Lecoq is an educated man, who earlier in life had been employed by Baron Moser, an astronomer. (In his spare time he solved complicated astronomical problems.) The baron warned the young Lecoq: “When one has your disposition, and is poor, one will either become a famous thief or a great detective. Choose.” 33

L’affaire Lerouge sold well, and Gaboriau produced three more novels in 1867, all with Lecoq as the central character. (In the later works, the author no longer referred to him as a former criminal.) Before Sherlock Holmes appeared, Lecoq was already a master of deduction. In Le crime d’Orcival he states, “The inquest of a crime is nothing more nor less than the solution of a problem. Given the crime… you commence by seeking out all the circumstances, whether serious or superficial; the details and the particulars. When these have been carefully gathered, you classify them, and put them in their order and date. You thus know the victim, the crime and the circumstances; it remains to find the third term of the problem, that is X, the unknown quantity — the guilty party. The task is a difficult one, but not so difficult as is first imagined.” 34 This effort to classify and hypothesize revealed the scientific mind-set that characterized the new detective. Gaboriau’s description of Lecoq’s quarters made this intellectual bent unmistakable: “On the other side of the room was a bookcase full of scientific works, especially of medicines and chemistry.” 35

Unlike Dupin, Lecoq is not just an armchair detective. He actively pursues clues and personally confronts suspects and villains. Gaboriau’s novels include interesting descriptions of Parisian life, as his detective tracks criminals to their locales, revealing their social and family life, sexuality, and politics. Many of his villains are aristocrats gone wrong, frequently big-time financial swindlers, who are particularly frightening because their self-confidence, knowledge, and connections make them more difficult to catch. The police, on the other hand, are sometimes unscrupulous in their methods — as they were in real life. Reflecting Gaboriau’s (and Parisians’) cynicism about the police, he portrays plainclothes detectives provoking fights with criminals whom they cannot arrest on legal grounds in order to charge them with assault and hold them in jail while they look for evidence of more serious charges.

Gaboriau’s fiction looked toward the later achievements of Bertillon. He described the difficulty of identifying criminals, a problem that the real-life criminologist was later to solve. In Monsieur Lecoq (1869), Gaboriau wrote:

Railroads, photography, and telegraphic communication have multiplied the means of identification in vain. Every day it happens that malefactors succeed in deceiving the judge in regard to their true personality, and thus escape the consequences of their former crimes.

This is so frequently the case that a witty attorney-general once laughingly remarked — and, perhaps, he was only half in jest: “This uncertainty in regard to identity will cease only on the day when the law prescribes that a number shall be branded upon the shoulder of every child whose birth is reported to the mayor.” 36

This sort of interplay between fiction and reality was characteristic of much of detective fiction. The fiction writers were inspired by the latest in crime techniques, while real criminologists got ideas from fiction, as one of Bertillon’s contemporaries, Edmond Locard, was to admit.

It was also common for one fictional detective to compare or contrast himself with another. In A Study in Scarlet (1887), Dr. Watson asks Sherlock Holmes, “Have you read Gaboriau’s works? Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”

Holmes “sniffed sardonically” at the idea. “Lecoq was a miserable bungler,” he says angrily. “He had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid.” 37

That was rather uncharitable of Holmes, for many commentators feel that the progression of Vidocq to Lecoq to Sherlock indicated the literary debt incurred by Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle, like Poe, wanted to portray his fictional sleuth as a scientific detective. An ophthalmologist, Conan Doyle had criticized Edgar Allan Poe for using what Conan Doyle termed the “illusion” of the scientific method, and he believed that he could succeed where Poe had failed. By the 1880s and 1890s, when Conan Doyle wrote his classic Holmes stories, real-life detectives were beginning to use technologies and practices borrowed from their peers in the fields of chemistry, biology, and physics. As Sherlock Holmes tells Watson: “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. To tinge it with romanticism produces much of the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” 38

Watson, the narrator of Conan Doyle’s stories, provides a convenient foil to whom Holmes can explain his reasoning, since the reader, unassisted, can no longer be expected to follow the detective in solving the case. That was true of science as well. By the end of the nineteenth century, science was sufficiently complex to be well beyond the knowledge of the ordinary educated person. The inner workings of the world, it turned out, were their own encoded mystery. The critic J. K. Van Dover observed, “The detective, who claims to speak the language of the thinking scientist yet who acts morally in the sphere of the common man, offers an imaginative bridge between the two worlds of the scientist and the layman.” 39


“O Paris! O Paris! You are the true Babylon, the battlefield of the spirits, the temple where evil welcomes its worshippers and disciples, and I believe that you feel the eternal breath of the archangel of darkness upon you, as the high seas tremble upon the winds of the storm.” 40

So wrote Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail in 1857 in his novel L’héritage mystérieux (The Mysterious Inheritance), the first of a series featuring a new type of fictional character. Ponson, who had written Gothic novels in which horror was the chief attraction, sought to duplicate the success of Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris. Indeed, the major characters in L’héritage mystérieux closely parallel those in Sue’s book. However, the work took on a life of its own as readers responded favorably to a character named Rocambole, who initially appears as a fourteen-year-old orphan but by the story’s end is a strapping sixteen-year-old who helps the main character expose the villain. So popular was Rocambole that the following year he appeared as the twenty-one-year-old hero of another novel and continued to star in what became an eight-book series, published from 1857 to 1870, in which the action carries over from one volume to the next.

Rocambole is very much like Vidocq, except that Ponson’s fictional creation stays far more on the criminal side of the line. He is what modern critics would call an antihero, but to the French he was an irresistible rogue. Motivated by sheer greed, Rocambole becomes a cynical and ruthless murderer. Among his victims are his adopted mother (strangled by Rocambole’s own hands) and his mentor in crime, the Irish lord Sir Williams. Ponson apparently felt his villain-hero must be punished, so at the end of the second book, Rocambole, his face horribly scarred with acid, is imprisoned at the hard-labor camp of Toulon. His beloved stepsister does not even recognize him when she sees him.

Readers demanded more, however, and in his further adventures, Rocambole acquired colorful criminal allies and combated equally fantastic evildoers, such as a gang of Thugees who have come to France from India to kidnap virgins for their goddess, Kali. (In literary circles, the word rocambolesque came to refer to any fantastic adventure.) Like his predecessors, Rocambole was a master of disguise and used modern science to achieve his goals.

Rocambole’s adventures were ended by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Ponson du Terrail fled Paris to his country estate near Orléans, where he gathered friends to wage a guerrilla war against the Germans, just as his fictional character might have done. One of his friends exclaimed before dying, “Ah, if only Rocambole was here to save us!” 41 There was no savior, however; the Germans burned down Ponson du Terrail’s mansion and executed many of his friends and even his dogs. Ponson du Terrail managed to escape but died soon afterward.

The Rocambole series marked the beginning of a type of crime novel that the French made particularly their own. It reflected the ambivalent attitude of Parisians toward the forces of law and order. Whereas Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les misérables is an escaped convict, he is not really a criminal, but Rocambole is truly a malefactor, and not one who occasionally aids the police or helps damsels in distress. French readers liked him for his cleverness and resourcefulness and elaborate adventures — and also because he lived outside the law. This sympathy for the devil had deep roots in French literature, starting with François Villon, the great poet and criminal of medieval Paris, whose works celebrate the pleasures of life — wine and women — at the same time that they lament illness, poverty, old age, and death. It was in this spirit that other Belle Époque writers developed further the idea of criminal as hero.

Maurice Leblanc (1864–1941) had wanted to be a serious writer but was forced to work as a journalist; as a police reporter he learned about the procedures of the courts and the methods of those who were brought before the judges. In 1905, the editor of a magazine, Je Sais Tout, asked him to write a crime story, and the result was the first tale featuring Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur (“gentleman burglar”). Leblanc met with immediate acclaim and would write twenty-one more stories with the character.

Lupin, in the French tradition, is completely amoral. He steals for himself, not for the poor. (Leblanc is said to have modeled him after the anarchist Marius Jacob, whose trial had made headlines only a year earlier.) Lupin is young, handsome, and daring — a dandy, frequently portrayed in high silk hat and evening dress, sporting a monocle. Fastidious, he sends his shirts to be laundered and starched in London. He enjoys the company of beautiful women, who are fashionably attired in the latest in French couture. He finds crime amusing and fun — staging some of his exploits just to show that he can, which was why newspapers in 1911 half-jokingly suggested that he was the only man who could have stolen the Mona Lisa.

Lupin does stop short of murder and has moments of remorse. Occasionally he uses his knowledge of the underworld to solve crimes committed by less savory outlaws. Lupin likes to masquerade as different characters and for four years, posing as Lenormand, the head of the Sûreté, actually directs operations against himself. But unlike Vidocq, nothing inspires him to permanently reform.

Above all, Lupin takes pleasure in outsmarting the authorities, which was one of the qualities that most endeared him to readers. When he solves crimes, he often chooses those that have stumped others, so that he can show off his quick mind and vast knowledge of the criminal world. Leblanc felt so confident of Lupin’s abilities that he even pitted him against Sherlock Holmes, who appears in several of the stories as Herlock Sholmes. In one, Lupin captures Sholmes and ships him back to England on a ferry. Sholmes tricks the captain and confronts Lupin, turning him over to the police. Lupin returns the favor, escaping just in time to bid farewell to Sholmes. He was one French detective that Conan Doyle did not allow his creation to comment on.


At the time the Mona Lisa was stolen, Paris was fascinated by a new fictional criminal, whose exploits had been appearing monthly since February 1911. For the previous six months, Fantômas, an aristocratic villain with seemingly supernatural powers, had been thrilling and delighting readers. More terrorist than criminal, Fantômas is a ruthless killer who decapitates people, blows up ocean liners, spreads plague germs through Paris, fills perfume bottles with acid in a department store, and hijacks a Métro train — all with no apparent reason.

Fantômas is virtually impossible to capture or stop. His strength lies in his very elusiveness. As one of his chief adversaries says, “I am frightened, because Fantômas is a being against whom it is idle to use ordinary weapons; because he has been able to conceal his identity and elude all pursuit for years; because his daring is boundless and his power immeasurable; because he is everywhere and nowhere at once and… I am not even sure that he is not listening to me now.” 42

Fantômas’s crimes often seem to be committed out of a desire for sheer anarchy and on a scale far beyond that of any previous character in crime fiction. His spectral infamy — and the fear it inspired — were clear from the very first lines of the series:


“What did you say?”

“I said: Fantômas.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Nothing.… Everything!”

“But what is it?”

“Nobody.… And yet, yes, it is somebody!”

“And what does the somebody do?”

“Spreads terror!” 43

The Fantômas novels were published by Arthème Fayard, who specialized in low-priced books intended to attract a large number of readers. In 1905, Fayard started a line of books with sensational full-color covers, called Le Livre Populaire. Most of them were reprints of novels that had been feuilletons, including works by Gaboriau and Ponson du Terrail. But in 1910, Fayard approached Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, both of whom wrote for magazines intended for automobile and sports fans, to see if they could write an original four-hundred-page novel a month. Souvestre, the elder by ten years, had met Allain when looking for an assistant. The younger man amazed his boss by being able to churn out in two hours a seventeen-page article on a new truck about which he knew nothing. Thus began their collaboration.

The title for the series had come to the two men while riding on the Métro to meet Fayard. Souvestre had suggested the title Fantômus, a mock latinization of the French word fantôme, or phantom. Fayard, hearing it in his office, wrote it down incorrectly. Fayard’s other contribution was to suggest the cover art, based on an advertisement that showed a masked, elegantly dressed man. An Italian illustrator, Gino Starace, put a dagger in the man’s hand as he brooded over Paris. Starace continued to provide lurid and imaginative cover illustrations that did much to ensure the series’ popularity.

The decision to make the hero evil was inspired by the success of fictional antiheroes such as Arsène Lupin and the master criminal Zigomar, created by Léon Sazie. Zigomar, who wore a hood and always escaped from the police, had first appeared in a feuilleton in 1909, but now was the lead character in a Pathé movie studio series that was packing in audiences. Fayard was hoping to capitalize on Zigomar’s popularity, not guessing that Fantômas would surpass it.

The two writers followed a grueling publication schedule, which led them to produce twelve thousand pages of fiction in a little under three years. They used all the modern methods, dictating to secretaries and even recording their words on wax rolls. Usually they started with a basic plot outline and divided the chapters between themselves. During the final week of each month, they exchanged chapters and wrote transitional paragraphs. Fantastic plot twists and developments were often more imaginative than realistic — or even coherent. Fantômas performs superhuman acts and switches identities at will, going well beyond the bounds of physics in the process. Yet the readers, carried along by the spirit of the books, did not mind. It was an age in which anything seemed possible. Fact or fiction? With Fantômas, there was no division between them.

A recent critic, Robin Walz, summed up the improbability of the series: “One of the fundamental characteristics of the Fantômas series is the ability to swerve the story through space and time. Narrative coherence depends upon the title character’s ability to be anyone and anywhere, at any time, in order to sustain the action. It is a further condition that the reader set aside the question of what happens to one or another of his identities when Fantômas is yet someone else.… To enjoy the story, the reader has to accept these fundamental incoherences of time, space, and character.” 44

And readers did. The books were an immediate hit, their popularity cutting across all classes. Bourgeois shopkeepers, countesses, bohemians, and poets devoured the Fantômas stories as soon as they were published. The masked man in evening clothes who towered over Paris appeared on kiosks and billboards and the walls of the Métro. The image was everywhere, like Fantômas himself, showing that no one was safe. The two authors ultimately produced thirty-two novels before Souvestre’s death in 1914; Allain then did eleven more on his own, marrying his ex-partner’s widow as well.

The reader always knows that the criminal will be Fantômas. The puzzle is in seeing through his disguises and finding him among the other characters. He could be in the guise of a nun hiding a weapon under her habit or posing as a physician arriving at a patient’s bedside not to heal but to poison. Sometimes he is the lover of a beautiful woman; at other times, a doddering old man or a professor.

Fantômas’s many guises reflected a particular concern of the French police: to establish with certainty the identity of those people who were arrested. Bertillon had in the 1880s worked out a scientific method of enabling law enforcement officials to penetrate disguises. With Fantômas, there seemed to be no real person underneath: he had taken the power of disguise that Vidocq possessed, and extended it to his essential nature. Part of the appeal of the series, especially to Apollinaire and other avant-garde thinkers who embraced it, was that it asked readers to search beneath the surface to find the nature of things — a common theme of modernism in both art and science. Just as Fantômas disregards the conventions of morality, so too does he defy ordinary logic. He has entered that elusive fourth dimension that mathematicians, scientists, and artists were then trying to discover.

It was, of course, easier for fictional characters to break old patterns and shatter rules, but Paris’s real-life crime fighters were taking note of what their make-believe counterparts (and make-believe villains) were doing. They too were pushing forward, creating new tools and methods. For better or for worse, they would soon have plenty of opportunities to experiment with these innovative techniques.

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