Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

In his own day, Émile Gaboriau was enormously popular and considered second only to Conan Doyle as a master of the detective story genre. Twenty years after his death, his crime novels were still best-sellers. Today, however, he is largely ignored and his books are mentioned, if at all, only as important footnotes in the history of detective fiction. Since FILE NO. 113 is a typical Gaboriau novel, it vividly demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the author and helps to explain his popularity in his own time—and later, his relative obscurity.

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FILE NO. 113 follows the pattern that is basic to all of Gaboriau’s crime novels. The robbery is discovered, and the police investigation commences. Led by Detective Fanferlot, who is erratic and overly eager, they immediately make false hypotheses, ignore important clues, and arrest Prosper Bertomy, the wrong suspect. After the preliminary investigation has been thoroughly bungled, Monsieur Lecoq enters the action disguised as the clownish Venduret. By the time his true identity is revealed and his procedures made overt, Lecoq is well on his way to solving the case, and the story moves quickly to a preliminary revelation. He correctly identifies Louis de Clameran and Raoul de Lagors as the culprits—with well over half the book yet remaining.

Once the criminal is named, Gaboriau stops describing the investigation and shifts his narrative to chronicle the events leading up to the crime from the viewpoint of the participants. Invariably the crime of the moment turns out to be related to older concealed crimes and improprieties that center in a rich and famous family. Thus, personal scandal is added to felony crime, and the investigation threatens not only the culprits but also the honor and fortune of an aristocratic name.

In FILE NO. 113, the hidden scandal revolves around the premarital affair between Gaston de Clameran and Valentine Verberie (later Monsieur Fauvel’s wife) and the longtime villainy of Gaston’s brother Louis. Thus, the story contains all the sensational, melodramatic, and sentimental elements that Gaboriau’s readers desired—victimized aristocratic ladies, frustrated love affairs, secret scandals, familial betrayal, fraud, deception, and profligacy. When this family chronicle reaches the point where the investigatory narrative had been suspended, the two plot lines are joined, Lecoq explains his deductions, and the malefactors are brought to justice—or, as in the case of Louis de Clameran, are punished by divine retribution.

However satisfying this double plot structure may have been to nineteenth century readers, it is too cumbersome, digressive, melodramatic, and psychologically implausible for modern tastes. In his short seven-year career, Émile Gaboriau introduced many of the elements that were to become essential parts of the modern detective novel, but it remained for better writers to combine them into unified, realized works of art.

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