(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Émile Gaboriau’s first seven novels were romans-feuilletons (newspaper serials), and in the accepted manner of such stories, they overflowed with surprises, reversals of fortune, recognitions, and threatened and actual violence. Each episode ended on a note of suspense, to ensure that the public would purchase the next issue, and the more horrific the violence, the more virginal the victim or intended victim, the better the public liked them. In L’Affaire Lerouge (1863, serial; 1866, book; The Widow Lerouge, 1873), Gaboriau introduced a detective theme, and four more stories featuring Lecoq appeared subsequently.

Some people do not recognize these works as detective fiction, regarding them as long-winded social and family histories in the grand manner of the nineteenth century novel. Gaboriau readily interpolates lengthy flashbacks, and the reader may complain that the sensational dominates at the expense of the relevant—and, moreover, that the author reveals information that he has concealed from his detective. Nevertheless, however tedious these episodes may be, however tenuous the link may seem to the reader interested only in the detective element, they do help to create and are integrated within the genealogical or social edifice that forms the background to Gaboriau’s story—the background, moreover, in which a murder is committed, often to avoid some sort of scandal.

The crucial point is that Gaboriau’s detective novels are structured around a crime and its detection. This marks another important difference between these works and other romans-feuilletons; whereas the latter sought to focus attention on the crime itself, with much gruesome and suspenseful buildup and as many horrific details as possible, Gaboriau concentrates on the process of detection after the crime has been committed.

The Widow Lerouge

In The Widow Lerouge, the main detective is Père Tabaret. Tabaret keeps his hobby a secret, fearing the disapproval of friends and neighbors; to explain his irregular hours, he allows them to believe that he indulges in various social vices. It is an interesting and significant comment on the stigma attached to police work that this “moral” activity should be concealed by something that even then would have been seen as immoral. Lecoq, a junior police officer, merely advises the examining magistrate, Daburon, to engage Tabaret to solve the murder of Madame Lerouge. Tabaret finds many clues missed by Lecoq’s incompetent superior Gévrol, and his investigation occupies the major part of the novel. A complication is provided by Daburon’s former romantic attachment to the mistress of the principal suspect, Commarin: Tabaret, initially convinced of Commarin’s guilt, eventually realizes that another man is guilty, and despite Daburon’s reluctance to acknowledge this, he finally proves his case.

The Emergence of Lecoq

Yet it is Lecoq who emerges from the series as the dominant character, for Tabaret’s role diminishes in the later works, and Gévrol disintegrates into a caricature of pompous and obstructive officialdom, a man whose stupidity is contrasted with Lecoq’s genius. In an age when the police were often regarded (in literature as in life) as agents of repression, Gaboriau’s decision to use an official detective as his hero was both bold and original. Hesitant at first (Tabaret is an amateur), Gaboriau finally brought Lecoq into prominence. In his determination to make him efficient and sympathetic, he gave him both human and superhuman qualities. Apart from his mastery of disguise (an ability he uses in his investigations and as a defense against criminals who have sworn to kill him), he is adept at following a trail (young Gaboriau was an avid reader of James Fenimore Cooper), is an expert cryptographer, speaks fluent English, and has courage and intelligence. His mastery of logical deduction sometimes recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin , but apart from the obvious difference that Dupin was an amateur and Lecoq is a professional, the former was an armchair detective whereas Gaboriau’s hero is a practical police officer. Thus, Lecoq not only solves the mystery but also pursues the criminal. To his courage and intelligence, Lecoq adds the basic skills of scientific detection. He takes plaster casts of footprints, he uses photographic enlargements of material evidence and shows photographs of suspects to witnesses, and he calls for and uses the results of autopsies. There is evidence that Gaboriau read widely in works on forensic medicine, jurisprudence, and ballistics to authenticate his writing, and his detectives are experts in the characteristics of firearms and the effects of certain poisons. Less properly, perhaps, Lecoq always carries lock-picking tools and is a capable forger. Gaboriau also gives fascinating accounts of investigative procedures, of interrogations of suspects, and of cunning police devices (such as releasing a minor criminal in the hope that his indiscretions will unmask an accomplice or using various ruses to cause a suspect or a hostile witness to lower his guard).

At his most spectacular, Lecoq prefigures Sherlock Holmes in his love of surprising his companions by producing descriptions of suspects from what appears to be little or no evidence at all. In The Widow Lerouge, it is Tabaret who deduces that the...

(The entire section is 2217 words.)