French Mystery Fiction Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The foundations of modern mystery fiction were laid in France, in an eccentric fashion. The most popular French writer of the 1820’s, Étienne-Léon Lamothe-Langon, was essentially a fiction writer, but many of his works were disguised as nonfiction, adopting the form of fake autobiographies. An example was L’Espion de Police (1826; the police spy), which claimed to offer insights into the hidden world of police informers. That book was not one of his best sellers but did prompt the production of a rival, which became one of the most influential texts of the era: François-Eugène Vidocq’s Mémoires de Vidocq, chef de la police de Sûreté jusqu’en 1827 (1828; tr. as Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police Until 1827).

Vidocq’s book offered a colorful account of his alleged career as a Parisian thief that had culminated in a change of sides when he offered his expertise to the police in 1809. He claimed that his offer was gratefully accepted, and that he rose to command a force of twenty-four men—which constituted the original French Sûreté—before resigning his post in 1827. When serial fiction took off in the Parisian newspapers in 1843, however, one of the first works that demonstrated its potential as a circulation builder was Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1842-1843; The Mysteries of Paris, 1843), whose hero—a prince in disguise—engages in a long contest of wits with various criminal adversaries.

Vidocq was quick to cash in on the success of Sue’s book’s success by rapidly publishing a second volume of hs “memoirs” as Les Vrais mystères de Paris (1844; true mysteries of Paris), in which he claimed to have returned to police work after the July Revolution of 1830, when retirement had proved too boring. It is probable that Vidocq’s memoirs were pure fiction. If they were not, they certainly embellished the truth considerably. However, at the time, they seemed to offer useful insights into the workings of a complex secret organization, and they became a key reference handbook for later writers of serial fiction. The first volume had some influence outside France. For example, The American writer Edgar Allan Poe acknowledged Vidocq’s influence on his “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). However, it was Vidocq’s second book that nursed the development of crime fiction in domestic popular fiction.

Vidocq’s Offspring

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Vidocq was used as a model by several writers, including Honoré de Balzac, who used a sinister master-criminal named Vautrin in several novels in his La Comédie Humaine series (1829-1848), and Alexandre Dumas, père, whose Les Mohicans de Paris (1854-1855; the Mohicans of Paris) featured a Sûreté chief named Monsieur Jackal. Vidocq’s most significant clone was Monsieur Lecoq, a character in a series of novels by Paul Féval featuring a crime syndicate called the Habits Noirs (Blackcoats). The Habits Noirs are virtually immune to detection, partly because of their masterful ingenuity in framing innocent parties for all their crimes, and partly because M. Lecoq is an influential figure in the Prefecture of Police—where, it seems, he sometimes uses a pseudonym beginning with the letter V.

Féval had pioneered detective fiction in Jean Diable (1862; tr. as John Devil), in which the eponymous master criminal is opposed—anachronistically—by a Scotland Yard detective named Gregory Temple, who is the first police detective to play a significant role in a work of fiction. Temple is the author of The Art of Detecting the Guilty, and his investigative technique involves mapping evidence on a blackboard in a manner that has since become a common feature of police “incident rooms.” After Jean Diable finished its serialization, Féval founded a periodical with the same title that published...

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Invention of the Roman Policier

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Paul Féval’s secretary, and coeditor on the magazine Jean Diable,Émile Gaboriau, also got in on the act. He took up Ponson’s crucial realization that the ideal way to construct a crime fiction series was to establish a hero who might confront a potentially infinite series of challenging cases; however, he dispensed with the rocambolesque approach in favor of the naturalistic. His L’Affaire Lerouge introduced a sedentary amateur detective named Père Tabaret, but he was displaced in several sequels by his more active acolyte, a Sûreté agent named—surely not by coincidence—Monsieur Lecoq. Gaboriau’s Lecoq continued his career in Le crime d’Orcival (1867; The Mystery of Orcival, 1871), Le dossier no. 113 (1867; File No. 113, 1875), Les esclaves de Paris (1867; The Slaves of Paris, 1879), and Monsieur Lecoq (1869; English translation, 1879).

Gaboriau would probably have made further use of his Lecoq had he not died in 1873. However, his detective’s posthumous career was limited to one further book by one of his most faithful imitators, Fortuné du Boisgobey (1821-1891), who wrote La vieillesse de Monsieur Lecoq (1878; The Old Age of Monsieur Lecoq, 1888). Boisgobey wrote some thirty other novels in a similar vein, including Le coup de pouce (1875; the thumb stroke), La main coupée (1880; The Severed Hand, 1888) and Le crime de l’Opéra (1880; The Crime of the Opera...

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Aftermath of the English Invasion

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Leblanc’s efforts to denigrate Holmes failed. The English detective continued to out-do and out-sell French masters of deduction. In an ironic twist of fate, the most prolific French detective of the twentieth century, Harry Dickson, began life as a transmogrification of the central character of a numbered series of French translations of Sherlock Holmes pastiches written in German, and he might well owe his name to Galopin’s influence. The Belgian writer Jean Ray, who became the series’ translator in 1930, took over as Dickson’s creator in 1932, with issue number 63, and continued until number 178 in 1938, establishing the character as a significant archetype.

French mystery fiction did, however, continue to break important new ground of its own for some years. In Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (1908; The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1908)—a book widely, but incorrectly, celebrated as the first locked-room mystery—Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) introduced an eccentric journalist-detective named Joseph Rouletabille whose further adventures were chronicled in Le Parfum de la femme en noir (1908; The Perfume of the Woman in Black, 1909) and several further adventures. Leroux also introduced the endearing Cheri-Bibi (1913) in a second series of mysteries, and Todd Marvel in a third, while carrying forward the Févalesque tradition of criminal-centered mysteries in such works as Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (1910; The Phantom of the Opera, 1911)—which gave birth to a significant modern legend by...

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Evolution of the Roman Policier

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The genrification of mystery fiction took a significant step forward in France in 1927, with the foundation of two long-running series of books, Albert Pigasse’s Le Masque and Alexandre Railli’s L’Empreinte, which played a major part in popularizing translations of books by such influential writers as Agatha Christie. French detective fiction began to cleave much more closely to such models, as exemplified by such pastiches as Pierre Véry’s Le Testament de Sir Basil Crookes (1931).

Véry produced more distinctive works in L’Assassinat de Père Noël (1934; the murder of Father Christmas) and Les Disparus de Saint-Agil (1935; the disappeared of Saint-Agil) and made other increasingly idiosyncratic contributions to the Masque line. The author who became its domestic mainstay was the Belgian Stanislas André Steeman, the author of Six hommes morts (1931; six dead men), La Nuit de 12 au 13 (1931; the night of the 12th/13th), Le Mannequin assassiné (1932; the murdered mannequin), and many others.

Other notable writers to participate in this burst of creativity were Noël Vindry, the author of La Maison qui tue (1932; the house that kills), La Fuite des morts (1932; the flight of the dead), and numerous others, and Jacques Decrest, whose works included Hasard (1933; chance) and Les Trois jeune filles de Vienne (1934; three...

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American Influences

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The amazing productivity of writers such as Ponson, Allain and Souvestre, and Simenon remained a key feature of French mystery fiction. It was carried forward by Frédéric Dard, who wrote nearly three hundred novels, beginning with orthodox policiers written under mock Anglo-Saxon pseudonyms. About half his output was, however, representative of a new kind of mystery fiction that became fashionable during the 1940’s, and to which he contributed a long series of adventures signed with the name of their hero, San-Antonio—who is a French police commissaire. However, his work is nevertheless redolent with an American ambience.

The cynical attitude and frank violence of the “hard-boiled” detective fiction...

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Alternative Influences

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The most prominent dissenters from the new vogue for hard-boiled fiction, who preferred to carry forward the mystery-centered tradition, signed themselves Boileau-Narcejac. Pierre Boileau had made his debut before World War II, with Repos du Bacchus (1938) but it was in colloration with Thomas Narcejac (the pen name of Pierre Ayraud)—who also published several notable solo works—that he brought his distinctive form of mystery fiction to its peak of perfection. In addition to calculatedly traditional work—they resurrected Arsène Lupin—Boileau-Narcejac produced a fine sequence of novels featuring characters caught up in seemingly supernatural events that turn out to be the results of ingenious criminal conspiracies,...

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Late Twentieth Century Developments

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the gap that had opened up between traditional romans policiers and American-influenced fiction disappeared, not only because it was bridged by polars but because the social environment of the fiction changed considerably. The cynicism and violence that had seemed shocking in the noir fiction of the 1940’s and 1950’s became so commonplace by the mid-1970’s that they were virtually taken for granted as aspects of modernity. Meanwhile, an increasing public appreciation of the actual methods and conduct of police investigators set far higher standards of realism for fiction in which they featured. Edgy subject matter became expectable in all such works.


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English-Language Translations

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

French mystery fiction is only patchily represented in English, although its most influential phase—from Gaboriau to Leblanc—is easy enough to research. Many of the key adventures of Rouletabille and Arsène Lupin were still in print during the early years of the twenty-first century, and Fantômas had been in print quite recently. Émile Gaboriau’s books were still relatively easy to find in English translation. The mature roman policier of the 1930’s is very poorly represented, with the sole exception of Simenon’s novels about Maigret, some of whose exploits remained in print into the twenty-first century. Only a few later examples were translated, including the Fred Kassak novel translated in 1976 as...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Dubois, Jacques. Le Roman policier ou la Modernité. Paris: Nathan, 1992. Examines French mystery fiction as a critical mirror of contemporary social concerns.

Fondaneche, Daniel. Le Roman policier. Paris: Ellipses Marketing, 2000. Handy chronological guide designed for students that would probably be of some use even to English readers whose French is poor.

Gorrara, Claire. The Roman Noir in Post-War French Culture: Dark Fictions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. The only significant study yet published in English of late twentieth century French mystery fiction.


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