François-Eugène Vidocq Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

François-Eugène Vidocq’s memoirs may be considered a novelistic autobiography. The central character, Vidocq himself, appears simply as the narrator, “I.” The narrator is the only character who appears throughout the work, and his narrative takes him from his birth in Arras, France, in 1775 to his resignation in 1827 as the chief of the detective division of the Sûreté in Paris. For the most part, secondary characters appear only in short scenes, but their significance is always clear. The most important secondary character in the book is the chief of the brigade of the Sûreté when Vidocq joins the force. A model police officer, this man becomes Vidocq’s mentor, teacher, and friend.

Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police Until 1827

As {I}{/I} his story unfolds, the narrator experiences, at about the age of thirty-five, a complete reversal of character. His many years of imprisonment and association with criminals have finally disgusted him, and he believes that his life up to this point has been wasted. Believing that he must do something to make up for the past, both for himself and for society, he offers his services to the Paris police. When given the opportunity to serve in the Sûreté, he develops a new social consciousness and becomes society’s protector.

This transformation of the central character is paralleled by a change in the plot structure. Vidocq’s vagabond adventures follow in the tradition of such picaresque novels as Lazarillo de Tormes (1554; English translation, 1576), Alain-René Lesage’s Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715-1735; The History of Gil Blas of Santillane, 1716, 1735; better known as Gil Blas), and Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751). After the narrator’s transformation, however, the plan of action is something entirely new to narrative; it represents the birth of the police procedural—the kind of plot that Poe would satirize when he opposed his amateur detective Dupin to the official préfect of the Paris police. Given the opportunity to play pursuer rather than pursued, Vidocq zealously attempts to limit crime and contribute to the public welfare, using his past experience.

The most important legacy of Vidocq’s memoirs has been the image they have presented of him as the great detective. By 1825, Vidocq had been the chief of the detectives of the Sûreté for fourteen years. During this period, he had established an amazing record as an indefatigable and unbribable crime fighter. Vigorous, broad-shouldered, powerfully built, of medium height, with tousled blond hair and penetrating steel-blue eyes, this man is built for action, whether it be prowling the Paris streets, visiting resorts of ill fame, listening to reports from police spies, or using various names and disguises during his rounds. Gifted with rare intelligence, prodigious memory, keen perception, and no mean acting abilities, he has through experience acquired a comprehensive knowledge of criminal behavior—argot, specialties, and modi operandi. A master reader of expressions and body language, he maintains files on criminals and their past histories, uses scientific graphology to distinguish forged writing from the authentic, and believes that fingerprints can be used for the identification of people. He possesses an uncanny instinct for ferreting out criminal activities. Altogether, he is a dedicated, relentless, courageous crime fighter. Once he has made an arrest, however, he is not lacking in compassion. He firmly believes that if society would cooperate, most criminals could be rehabilitated. (In real life, Vidocq was often generous in helping former prisoners.)

Because of the fuzzy publication history of Vidocq’s memoirs, it...

(The entire section is 1558 words.)