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.