Émile Gaboriau | Alexandre Dumas | Fortuné du Boisgobey | Anton Chekhov
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
L'Affaire Lerouge (1865-1866) (Chapters 1 - 2)
Le Crime d'Orcival (1866) (Chapters 1 - 7)
Monsieur Lecoq (1868) (Chapters 1 - 6)
Le Petit Vieux des Batignolles (collected 1876)
Mystery and Spy Tales
The American writer Anna Katherine Green, who was influenced by Gaboriau, includes this sort of historical novel too, in books like The Circular Study (1900); to modern readers it is annoying, but it is simply a Nineteenth Century convention one has to live with. The passionate, complex family feuds of Monsieur Lecoq which stretch across generations, also turn up in the historical novel section of Green's The Circular Study. Green's plots in these historical sections are at least as complex and melodramatic as Gaboriau's.
The way menials get greedy ideas of their own, and gum up the elaborate criminal schemes of the rich characters, plays a role in both the crime solution of Monsieur Lecoq, and of such Green novels as The House of the Whispering Pines (1910). Even the crime settings of the two authors are similar: both like lonely rendezvous at out of the way places, filled with a spooky, sinister atmosphere. Often characters come to these places, filled with elaborate, illicit schemes. These rendezvous get out of hand, and murder ensues. There are plenty of clues left behind at the scene, and the detectives have to reconstruct the action on the night of the murder. And, yes, the killing often takes place at night, in both writers.
In both Monsieur Lecoq and Green there is far more emphasis on detection than on puzzle. There was indeed a tradition of puzzle plots in the Nineteenth Century; it is found in the romantic writers Hoffmann, Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville, with the latter's "Benito Cereno" (1855) being especially brilliantly constructed. Wilkie Collins also used puzzle plots, at least in The Moonstone and The Haunted Hotel. In Monsieur Lecoq and Green, the focus is instead on detectives and detection.
The focus on detection logically implies some aspects of their books' content. Both writers' detectives are supremely well characterized. Not only Lecoq, but all the other police detectives and magistrates in Le Crime d'Orcival and Monsieur Lecoq come off as real people. Gaboriau is at least as interested in portraying these people as characters, as he is in describing the suspects. Gaboriau is also deeply interested in "police procedure". Gaboriau's careful handling of real police procedure gives him claim to be an early exponent of the police procedural school of writing; later his well researched use of French legal proceedings will be echoed by Green's equally careful look at American legal activities in her The Leavenworth Case - Green was the daughter of a lawyer, and learned much about this from her father. Both authors' works will in fact be used as unofficial textbooks on their countries' police procedure. One suspects that an inside look at the police and law courts of the day, was a big selling point of the novels with the public of the period.
It is easy to see both similarities and differences between Gaboriau and Green. Green, like most later 19th Century mystery writers, is highly indebted to Gaboriau. But she also innovates with her use of detection, peeling off layer after layer of buried past reality, making hidden aspects of the plot gradually emerge. This use of detection to gradually unveil complex situations is her biggest accomplishment as a detective story writer; she does it with excellent logic and plot construction. Gaboriau does not do this, at least in Monsieur Lecoq; most of his detection is limited to the opening chapters, and comes all at once, revealing everything he will learn about the case in nearly a single fell swoop. By contrast, the best sections in many Green novels are the middle chapters of the story, in which detection unfolds more and more of the mysterious past. In Gaboriau's Le Crime d'Orcival (1866), there is more unveiling of buried past secrets, but it still does not approach the elaborate and systematic quality of Green.
Gaboriau's portrait in Monsieur Lecoq (1868) of an inexperienced but brilliant young detective on his first case probably also influenced Green as well. Towards the end of the 1890's Green started creating some new detectives. Miss Amelia Butterworth had already appeared in two novels when she created Sweetwater in Agatha Webb (1899). Caleb Sweetwater begins as a young man hoping to get his first job as a detective. When a murder occurs in his small hometown, he wangles a minor job as an investigator, with the local Constable. Sweetwater is neither an amateur or a professional, Green's two categories in The Leavenworth Case, but functions instead as an inexperienced, aspiring professional. Later he will become an assistant to Ebenezer Gryce, serving as a full fledged professional detective, as well as getting further cases on his own, such as The House of the Whispering Pines (1910). In his debut work Sweetwater proves more brilliant than the experienced detective brought in from Boston to solve the case. The two detectives become rivals. Green's literary model here is clearly Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq (1868), and the young Lecoq's rivalry with the established detective Inspector Gevrol in that novel. Like the young Lecoq on his first major case in that book, Sweetwater is a bundle of detectival energy. There is also a Gaboriau like emphasis on examining murder scenes, and making deductions from them. However, Green is nowhere as clever as Gaboriau in recreating crimes from physical evidence. As a whole Agatha Webb is strictly one of her most minor novels.
The summing up of unsolved mysteries in Chapter 6 of Monsieur Lecoq is what Carolyn Wells called a tabulation (in her Technique of the Mystery Story). She cites examples from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868), and later ones from Green. The technique is used with systematic elaborateness by Green, and one suspects that from her it passed on to modern writers of mystery fiction, such as Christie, Rinehart, and Van Dine, all of whom are on record as having read Green, and all of whom use the technique. Before Gaboriau, it was used by the British Casebook writer Andrew Forrester, Jr., in "The Unknown Weapon". Forrester provides both tabulations of unsolved mysteries, and later lists of known deductions.
Casebook school founder "Waters" carefully dated events in his tales; the killing in his "Murder Under the Microscope", takes place on September 30, 1845. Forrester, Gaboriau and later Anna Katherine Green also followed this practice.
There is also the production of books set in Paris by Anglo-American writers, that seem directly inspired by Gaboriau's roman policiers. For example, Cleveland Moffett's Through the Wall (1909) stars a French police detective, like Lecoq, who has a long duel with a villainous, disguised nobleman, just like the villain of Monsieur Lecoq. The arrogance, cleverness, and seeming omnipotence of the nobleman in Moffett seems inspired by the villain in Monsieur Lecoq. Arthur Griffiths' The Rome Express (1896) also largely takes place in Paris, and includes a detailed scene set at the Paris Morgue, which seems like a direct imitation of the one in Monsieur Lecoq.
The zany, surrealistic Tictoq parodies of O. Henry also come to mind here. These burlesques from 1893 -1894 seem to lampoon not so much the Lecoq stories themselves, but "French" novels by English language writers, full of phony French atmosphere, Parisian aristocratic high life, and untranslated French phrases. These demented works are some of O. Henry's most bizarre creations, written with full surrealistic abandon.
One even wonders if there was a direct influence of Gaboriau on the pioneer writer of pulp magazine police procedurals, MacKinlay Kantor. His "The Trail of the Brown Sedan" (1933) largely deals with police tracking suspects, just as in Gaboriau. His young policeman, Nick Glennan, is an officer on the rise, just like the youthful hero of Monsieur Lecoq. Gaboriau's remarkable flair for recreating urban landscapes, especially open spaces and waste regions, also is echoed by a similar flair for landscape in Kantor. So are the lonely nocturnal settings: compare Monsieur Lecoq and Kantor's "The Second Challenge" (1929). There is also the Gaboriau-like sense of ordinary people dealing with very powerful villains in Kantor's "The Light at Three O'Clock" (1930). Kantor's work has the "feel" of Gaboriau, and one wonders if Kantor read him as a child.
Even before Kantor, there are signs that the Gaboriau tradition of police fiction survived in the American pulps. Johnston McCulley, best known as the creator of Zorro, was a regular contributor to Street & Smith's Detective Story, the pioneer mystery pulp magazine. His series about Noggins, a homicide detective, written under his pseudonym Harrington Strong, also seems to be in the tradition of Émile Gaboriau. As in Gaboriau, Noggins does a lot of shadowing of suspects. And as in Gaboriau, there is rivalry among different police officers. The villain also tries to deliberately confuse the police, as do Gaboriau's. There is also an emphasis on respectability versus a criminal lifestyle that recalls the French author, with the villain having a foot in both camps. The middle aged, mild mannered Noggins, who looks like a bookkeeper, also recalls middle class looking detectives in such Gaboriau tales as "Le Petit Vieux de Batignolles". While the storytelling in "Noggin's Souvenir" (1920) is competent, the plotting and detective craftsmanship are weak. Noggins' detections rely heavily on coincidence. There is a puzzle plot, but it should not stump most modern readers. Disguise plays a role here; veritably, it is Gaboriau reborn.
So does "Le Petit Vieux des Batignolles" (1870), ("The Little Old Man of Batignolles"), Gaboriau's other main detective short story. This tale does have a puzzle plot. Gaboriau leads his readers into an intricate maze where nothing is as it seems. Every clue or apparent deduction is immediately contradicted by something else, and the detectives find it hard to come up with any theory that explains all the facts. This sort of "overload" approach will later be used by Baroness Orczy. There is also a "paradoxical" feel to the tale; Gaboriau takes delight in each clue pointing to its apparent direct opposite. Gaboriau also shows how a clue can be interpreted in many different ways.
The scenes early in the story, where the young doctor narrator meets the policeman M. Mechinet, and is invited by him to join him on a murder case, seem directly anticipatory of Dr. Watson's meeting of Sherlock Holmes, in "A Study in Scarlet" (1887). Behind both Gaboriau and Doyle stands Edgar Allan Poe, and the meeting of the narrator and Dupin in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841).
"The Little Old Man of Batignolles" is reprinted in English translation in E.F. Bleiler's anthology A Treasury of Victorian Detective Stories (1979). The tale was made into an hour-long film for television in 2009, by famed French director Claude Chabrol.
The early chapters of Gaboriau's Le Crime d'Orcival are as pleasing as those of Monsieur Lecoq. Partly this reflects Gaboriau's talent for mise-en-scène. His imagery is downright beautiful, and the storytelling full of pleasant plot developments. There is a certain balance between the two tales: Orcival takes place in the summer, in the daytime, in the most beautiful upper class suburb imaginable; Lecoq is set in the slums, in the dead of winter, at night. Both involve the investigation of a crime scene, and the relationships among people involved. Both depict an intricate pattern of traces and reconstructed criminal activity at the scene, a pattern that is, yes, beautiful. Both also show the well characterized and interestingly interacting policemen conducting an investigation. The investigators in the first novel seem inexperienced, except for Lecoq; those of the second are police professionals.
Like casebook writers "Waters" and Andrew Forrester, this book also draws on science for its detection; they used the microscope; Gaboriau uses chemistry to identify poisons. It looks as if scientific detection was a standard part of the repertory of the 1860's detective story. Gaboriau stresses Lecoq's mastery of disguise in this book, just like "Waters". Another similarity with English casebook fiction: both Charles Martel's "Hanged By The Neck" and Le Crime d'Orcival contain unmarried young women "in trouble". I somehow thought that Victorian delicacy would prevent this as a topic, but here it is, treated with considerable sympathy by Gaboriau.
L'Affaire Lerouge is differently constructed from later Gaboriau novels. They contain long flashbacks, showing the events leading up to the crime. This two part construction was also followed by such Gaboriau disciples as Green and Doyle. Lerouge differs from them in not having such a flashback. The entire book deals with the detection of the crime, with the guilty party revealed only at the end. The unfolding of the plot seems really slow by today's standards, but it was clearly something of an innovation in 1865 to have an entire novel focused solely on detection. Gaboriau's interest in science is also apparent here: at one point a detective complains that although there has been much progress in the last twenty years, including the photograph and the telegraph, the police are not effectively using these to capture criminals. This urge to be high tech seems oddly modern.
There is an awful lot of what we today would classify as "intrigue" in the novel, but things pick up in the final chapters (18 - 20) with the identification and capture of the real criminal. Tirauclair uses reasoning and deduction to discover the criminal, as well as investigation, and one can easily see how these chapters could have served as a role model for later detective fiction.
These aspects of the book were somewhat spoiled for me by an odd event: the early turn of the century translation I read contains a frontispiece showing the criminal's capture, and naming the criminal in its caption! No modern publisher would dream of giving away the identity of the killer in a whodunit this way! This is really bizarre. Adventure novels and pulp tales often depicted the most violent, action packed event in their initial illustration, and this scene is not infrequently the climax of the story. But they usually try to conceal the identity of the criminal. I have never seen anything like this before in my life.
I am beginning to understand the French police world better, after reading a lot of Gaboriau. The books are consistent with each other, but each also has its own emphasis and revelations of different perspectives. Some points: today's police forces are organized on a semi-military basis. Joining them involves being inducted into a force, and involves a full initiation ritual, which marks a clear line of demarcation between the police corps and the outside world. The new policeman even wears a uniform, marking his new identity, although later he can revert to civilian clothes.
None of this was apparently true in Gaboriau's day, at least in fiction. Then the police were a collection of semiautonomous agents, each of which worked both for the police and for themselves. These policemen could take on private cases in their spare time. Tirauclair in Lerouge is a middle aged amateur, a well to do retiree who is fascinated by police work and who joins the force as an agent. He finances many of his investigations out of his own pocket, and is more or less a law unto himself, seeming to report to no one on the force. Tirauclair is as much an amateur detective as a professional; someone who is both within and without the world of the police.
Even odder by today's standards is the depiction of Lecoq in this novel as an ex-criminal "who had been reconciled to the police" and who became a policeman. This makes it sound as if police work were viewed as a private duel between cops and criminals, and one where a player could casually change sides! No police force today would accept such a switch at all, but in Gaboriau's day, such men were apparently valued for their understanding of the world of the criminal. (The later Gaboriau novels with Lecoq as their principal hero, such as Le Crime d'Orcival and Monsieur Lecoq, eliminate this reference to Lecoq's criminal past, giving him a respectable life of hard work and struggle, instead.)
Secondly, the police were looked down upon by the public in 1860's France, and the police often took steps to conceal their identities. This takes on a number of amusing variations in Gaboriau's fiction, and I do not want to spoil the reader's fun by revealing all here. But it does explain something I found puzzling when I first started reading Gaboriau, and that is the common use of nicknames by the police. It is used partly to conceal their identities. It is made clear in Lerouge that the detective uses the name Tirauclair while investigating, but is known to his neighbors in his private life under his real name, Pere Tabaret. They are unaware that he works for the police, and regard him as just another bourgeois. This seems to be a common pattern in Gaboriau's world. It is a bit like CIA agents today: their neighbors all think that they are bankers or something and are unaware of their ties to the Agency.
Many of the detectives in Gaboriau seem to have a police name, in addition to their real name. While helping to conceal their identity, it also seems to be a macho ritual, like the new names the Navy pilots have in Top Gun (1986). Just as Tom Cruise was Maverick in that film, so do Gaboriau's police have meaningful new names. Tirauclair means "draw to light", and refers to his ability to extract the truth from mysterious situations. One is also reminded of Romantic era poets, and their adoption of "Poetry names" to refer to themselves in their new identities as poets. These names were usually writers of ancient Greece: for example, Coleridge referred to himself as Alcaeus in his poems. In Japan writers also took on new names when they became poets: "Basho", for example means "banana plant" (specifically the Japanese banana, Musa basoo.) Men just love to disguise themselves, and take on new identities. It's a guy thing.
In English, E. F. Bleiler's Introduction to the Dover Edition (1975) of Monsieur Lecoq contains a great deal of biographical, and critical information on Gaboriau. It also has a complete bibliography.
Antecedents of Gaboriau are mysterious. In addition to the British "Casebook" literature, one wonders if he were influenced by Alexandre Dumas' Les Mohicans de Paris, an immense (19 volume) novel from the 1850's. The "Mohicans" of Dumas title are apparently expert police trackers, who can follow criminals through their trails of footprints, etc., across Paris, just as the Mohicans in Fenimore Cooper could follow a man through the forest. This sort of tracking is precisely what Lecoq does in the classic third chapter of Monsieur Lecoq. I have never read this Dumas novel, and the only other thing I have read about it, is that the detectival motto of a policeman in it is "Cherchez la femme" ("look for the woman"). This became a very famous phrase, usually quoted without attribution to Dumas, just as his book is rarely discussed in histories of detective fiction. The long scenes in Gaboriau that are built of dialogue recall those of Dumas, and the vigorous enthusiasm of Gaboriau's detectives reflects a similar zest in Dumas' characters.
Dumas' wonderful historical novel, The Three Musketeers (1844) is not a detective story, and falls outside the scope of this Guide. It is unusual as a book whose sequel, Twenty Years After (1845), is even better than the original.
Both Dumas and Gaboriau have many sequences focusing on prisoners. In Dumas the point of view character is always the prisoner, whether that prisoner is innocent, like the hero of The Black Tulip (1850), or guilty, like Milady in The Three Musketeers. By contrast, in Gaboriau the point of view is with the police, usually trying to get information from the prisoner-suspect.
The name of Fortuné du Boisgobey shows up in most histories of mystery fiction, but it is clear that his books have been little read by modern critics. He is always linked to Émile Gaboriau, because he wrote a novel about Gaboriau's famous detective, Monsieur Lecoq, after Gaboriau's death - La Vieillesse de Monsieur Lecoq (1878). Boisgobey is often depicted as simply a follower of Gaboriau.
The style of this mystery novel is radically different from Gaboriau. Gaboriau, like the casebook writers before him, concentrated on the detective and his investigation of the crime. Boisgobey, on the other hand, is almost entirely interested in the suspects, and their personal lives. In this he anticipates Fergus Hume, whose Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) also has much emphasis on his suspects and their romantic relationships. Hume's novel refers to Boisgobey, among other early mystery writers. Hume compares the plot of Hansom Cab to Boisgobey's An Omnibus Murder (probably a translation of Le Crime de l'omnibus (1881)). The comparison is strategically placed at the end of Hume's first chapter, and one suspects that Hume is more or less admitting that Boisgobey is one of his principal models. However, Hume has a detective character at the center of his investigation, and much ongoing systematic detective work. Such a detective is missing in The Red Lottery Ticket.
Boisgobey is also a more unified storyteller than Gaboriau. There are no flashbacks, or elaborate historical novel sections showing the events leading up to the crime. The whole novel functions as a single, coherently planned unit, unlike the diverse grab bag's of Gaboriau's books. However, nothing in The Red Lottery Ticket attains anywhere near the creative level of Gaboriau. It is a book that is today merely of "historical interest". Boisgobey's novel shows a casual tone not found in Gaboriau. One always feels in Gaboriau that he is conscious of being a pioneer in the mystery genre, and that he is carefully feeling his way, experimenting with different aspects of the genre. By contrast, Boisgobey's book seems written for readers for whom the mystery is a routine, familiar event. It suggests that by the time it was published, that France was flooded with mystery novels, very similar in many ways to 20th Century detective stories. These are works with which I, and most other modern readers, are unfortunately not familiar.
There is a murder mystery in The Red Lottery Ticket, but very little detection of any sort. In the first chapter, a blackmailer is found dead. He had been blackmailing three women over their romances with him. In the rest of Chapter One, one of the other characters does a creditable job of reconstructing the events leading up to the murder. After this point, there is almost no true detection of any sort. We progressively learn much more about the lives and loves of the characters, thus satisfying the reader's curiosity about the background of the crimes. The police continue to interrogate witnesses and arrest and grill suspects. At the end of the book, out of the blue, the true killer walks into the police station and confesses, thus bringing the novel to an end. Without this confession, no one would have had any idea who committed the crime - there has been no detective work uncovering the true culprit.
Calling Boisgobey's characters "suspects" might also be stretching it. He does little to throw suspicion on his characters. Unlike Fergus Hume, or Golden Age writers like Agatha Christie, Boisgobey does not try to make each character look guilty in turn. Nor do his characters' relationships have the quality of ambiguity found in Hume, and in modern writers. You can never tell what is behind a romantic relationship in Hume - you can give it more than one meaning in the plot's scheme of things. None of this is found in Boisgobey.
Boisgobey seems uninterested in the puzzle plot aspects of mystery fiction, instead concentrating on the intrigue surrounding a murder investigation. He knows all about the modern technique of having the ongoing murder investigation constantly prompting the lives of his characters, triggering engagements, rivalries, love matches, financial alliances, blackmail, etc. This sort of technique is common in 20th Century mystery novels, although it is usually treated as just one facet of a murder mystery. Boisgobey is the earliest mystery writer known to me who takes this approach. Only a reading of Boisgobey's numerous French contemporaries will determine if he invented this technique, or whether it was the common property of French mystery novelists of his day.
The suspense sequences in The Red Camellia often take place in obscure byways and dark dives in Paris. Boisgobey's depiction of such Parisian atmosphere is perhaps the chief appeal of this minor thriller to today's readers.
The book has many adventure elements, and the influence of the adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas is apparent on every page. Like Dumas, the heroes often get involved in suspenseful situations, in which they have encounters with the bad guys. Both writers include long, suspense oriented build-ups to the main confrontation. When the confrontation finally occurs, things often go differently than planned.
Dumas included both his musketeer characters and their valets as heroes; similarly, Du Boisgobey has both gentlemen and their tradesman and working class associates as heroes of his tale. In both writers, the villains are powerful figures of wealth and social position. The tradesmen characters in The Red Camellia include a coachman and a grocer. These characters seem designed to appeal to lower class readers, giving them someone with whom they can identify. They are even more prominent than in Dumas.
Several Gaboriau books begin with long looks at a crime scene, in which the physical settings are described in great detail, with numerous small details that evoke the personalities of the people who lived there. This is oddly similar to Chekhov's technique, in which small descriptive details somehow suggest a whole personality of a character. Gaboriau often looks at ordinary people, with rural or suburban settings predominating; so does Chekhov. Personalities are often presented obliquely and partially in Gaboriau, as in "Le Petit Vieux des Batignolles"; it reminds one of Chekhov. Personal scandals, such as adultery or illegitimate births are a major plot spring in Gaboriau; so are they in Chekhov, without the elements of mysteriousness they are invested with in Gaboriau. Chekhov's stories are full of murders, duels, and other crimes of passion, as are Gaboriau's. If you took Gaboriau's fiction, stripped away the actual mysteries, but kept the literary techniques used to build up those mysteries, you would have something very similar to Chekhov's fiction. The luminous quality of beauty in many of Gaboriau's descriptions is also equaled in Chekhov's. Both like scenes bordering on water, and snow. Gaboriau's detectives go undercover in new identities; so does Chekhov's spy hero in "An Anonymous Story" (1893). There is a quality of subtlety in the narratives of both writers, as if they were looking for plots that moved along by the deepest and most hidden logic. In Gaboriau this can be ascribed to his trickiness as a mystery writer, in Chekhov to his literary artistry, but it seems awfully similar in each writer in actual practice. There is even a weltschmerz and despair to some of Gaboriau's middle aged characters (such as in "Le Petit Vieux" and Monsieur Lecoq) that seems Chekhovian. E.F. Bleiler has described Gaboriau's politics as mildly liberal; this is consistent with Chekhov's own politics, although Chekhov goes far beyond this to explore Tolstoy like notions of equality, and ecological concerns. All in all, Gaboriau was as much an influence on Chekhov as Mary Roberts Rinehart was on F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Chekhov's later stories sometimes came in pairs. The Tolstoy-based ideas that underlie the long novella "My Life" (1896) are more explicitly set forth in the short piece, "The Artist's Story" (1896). Similarly, the novella "Ward Number Six" (1892) has a short companion piece, "In Exile" (1892), that explores the same themes as the longer work. I am far more enthused about Chekhov's works that explore Tolstoyian ideas than many modern critics seem to be. The Tolstoy-influenced "Lights" (1888) seems to be the best of Chekhov's early novellas. I also believe that Chekhov was basically sympathetic to the narrator of "My Life", both as a character, and as an expressor of political ideals.
For the record, my favorite Chekhov short stories are: "Oysters", "The Huntsman", "Misery", "Easter Eve", "A Nightmare", "The Privy Counselor", "A Father", "The Kiss", "Sleepy", "The Steppe", "Lights", "An Attack of Nerves", "The Party", "A Dreary Story", "Thieves", "The Duel", "Peasant Women", "Ward No. 6", "In Exile", "The Butterfly", "An Anonymous Story", "Terror", "The Russian Master", "The Order of St. Anne", "Patch", "The Murder", "My Life", "The Artist's Story", "Peasants", "Home", "A Case History", "All Friends Together", "The Man in a Case", "Gooseberries", "Concerning Love", "Ionych", "The Lady With a Dog", "At Christmas", "In The Ravine", "A Reward Denied".