Eugène François Vidocq and the detective novel


Crime as a feature of modern, urban, Western life was not recognized until the rise of large cities in the early 1800s, the period when a mass reading public appeared. The two coincided. The new cities were chaotic, without maps, police, or even named streets. New city-dwellers were fascinated by and afraid of crime, they vilified and romanticized criminals, as well as the police who fought them. And they were newly literate.

The first writing on urban crime pretended to be documentary, but it was filled with archetypes and plots from preceding fiction, particularly the gothic novel. The idea of detection and the figure of the detective were introduced in the early nineteenth century by a Frenchman, Francois-Eugene Vidocq. He had been a soldier, smuggler, convict and stoolie, but he also founded the French “security services” in 1812. When Vidocq’s Memoirs were published in 1828, they were immediately popular and translated into English. Balzac modeled the character of Vautrin in Le Pere Goriot on Vidocq , and Victor Hugo did the same with Jean Valjean in Les Misérables . In England the interest in “crime stories” blended with a strong, existing genre called the gothic novel. Its influence accounts for the dark settings, obscure motives, and brilliant solutions in the genre. Vidocq also influenced Charles Dickens, who used detail and character for Great Expectations In the U. S., Edgar Allan Poe read both Dickens and Vidocq. Then in five stories between 1840 and 1845, he then laid out the formal detective story. His brilliant detective solved locked room problems and read cigar ashes. Arthur Conan Doyle responded with Sherlock Holmes, even more eccentric, who explained to urban readers the city’s ‘underworld,” since the visible London was becoming more rational.

In the U.S., detectives became more physical. Allan Pinkerton, founder of the detective agency, was the model for paperback heroes like Old Cap Collier and Old Sleuth. With the appearance of Dashiell Hammett, however, the detective novel showed that being hard-boiled was necessary to deal with economic and social change, and technology. I think this is also behind our readings of Sarah Paretsky, Walter Mosely and Michael Connolly. As Raymond Chandler said, once Hammett showed that the detective novel could be that good and that flexible, it became literature.

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