Honoré de Balzac Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1960

Honoré de Balzac first practiced his craft by imitating, often slavishly, the sensational romances of Ann Radcliffe, Charles Robert Maturin, and Matthew Gregory Lewis, with their fantasies of the grotesque and the horrible. Balzac also learned that fiendish wickedness and sadistic sensuality can heighten the pleasure of a thrill-seeking public. Although he never officially acknowledged his early efforts, he incorporated many of their lessons in his later works, especially in the tales of the supernatural and criminal.

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The Human Comedy

Balzac’s magnum opus, The Human Comedy, is a vast and detailed panorama of French society of the first half of the nineteenth century. In fact, Oscar Wilde has remarked, “The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac.” In nearly one hundred novels and stories evolve some two thousand fictional characters, who appear in various milieus, types, and professions, from Paris to the provinces, from old maids to poor relations, from lawyers to police officers and gangsters.

The Chouans

Corentin is rightly the most famous of Balzac’s police officers. He enters the scene in The Chouans, the first book to which Balzac signed his name, adding the self-ennobling particle de. Set in Brittany in 1799, the novel is a mixture of sentimental love story and political police intrigue. The obvious villain of the piece is Corentin, the spiritual, if not natural, son of Joseph Fouché, Napoleon Bonaparte’s minister of police. In spite of his youth (he was born around 1777), Corentin already possesses all the qualities required of a great secret agent, because he has learned from his mentor and chief how to tack and bend with the wind. Everything about him is wily, feline, mysterious: His green eyes announce “malice and deceit,” he has an “insinuating dexterity of address,” he seeks to obtain respect, and he seems to say, “Let us divide the spoil!”

Always willing to suspect evil motives in human behavior and too clever to hold to only one position, Corentin already embodies Balzac’s concept of the superior being, although in elementary form. To succeed, Corentin rejects no methods; he knows well how to use circumstances to his own ends. Furthermore, morality always changes and may not even exist, according to this modern Machiavellian, who is unconcerned with praise or blame: “As to betraying France, we who are superior to any scruples on that score can leave them to fools. . . . My patron Fouché is deep . . . enough, [and] he has always played a double game.” To this conception of life can be added a natural bent for everything that touches police work. The idea, so dear to Balzac, that “there are vocations one must obey” is a kind of professional determinism that forces one to turn to what is already possible within him and to act and think accordingly.

Although not a series character in the accepted sense, Corentin does reappear in several other novels, particularly in Une Ténébreuse Affaire (1841; The Gondreville Mystery, 1891), in which he again acts in several covert operations, this time to protect various cabinet members unwisely involved in an attempted coup against Napoleon Bonaparte, and in Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838-1847, 1869; The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans, 1895). In The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans, he plays the role of a private detective and works more to keep in practice than out of financial need.

The Gondreville Mystery

The Gondreville Mystery offers an excellent example of a ruthless police force, temporarily foiled perhaps but mercilessly victorious in the end. The novel also reveals that the political police are so unprincipled that they doctor the evidence and manipulate the facts to frame the innocent and thereby hide their own crimes. If, in the process, their victims are executed or imprisoned, it only serves to reinforce the notion of a powerful police, made all the more so when self-interest or wounded pride is at stake:In this horrible affair passion, too, was involved, the passion of the principal agent [Corentin], a man still living, one of those first-rate underlings who can never be replaced, and [who] has made a certain reputation for himself by his remarkable exploits.

History of the Thirteen

Balzac’s own worldview is made evident in the laying out of the ministerial plot and its subsequent cover-up. Indeed, the author of Histoire des treize (1834-1835; History of the Thirteen, 1885-1886) loves to invent secret societies, either benevolent or nefarious, as a means of increasing the individual’s power or, more likely, that of the government, which he calls “a permanent conspiracy.” Because the political police are given a virtual carte blanche in the defense of the government and the ruling class, they are quick to take advantage of their status; they act arbitrarily and with impunity, often outside the law, thereby becoming so powerful that Balzac thought of them as a state within the state.

The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans

Corentin is ably assisted by Contenson, a virtuoso of disguise, and by Peyrade, a crafty former nobleman with a perfect knowledge of aristocratic manners and language. Twenty years after their success in The Gondreville Mystery, all three are reunited in The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans. Following a series of fantastic adventures replete with poisoned cherries, hidden passageways, rapes, and kidnappings—in short, all the melodramatic devices of Balzac’s apprenticeship—they are ultimately instrumental in thwarting the villain’s machinations.

Quite different from the political police are the judicial police, for their primary function is to prevent crimes and arrest criminals. Both because of the niceties required by law and because of their official and overt role, they are depicted in Balzac’s novels as less sinister and frightening. Thus, their reputation is reduced, especially because even the well-known Sûreté seldom seems to succeed in apprehending thieves and murderers.

It is not that these police officers have more scruples, but that they lack the immense powers of action at Corentin’s disposal. Unlike their political counterparts, they rely mostly on agents provocateurs and on denunciations from citizens who, attracted by financial rewards or driven by passion, often aid in the capture of criminals. For example, it is thanks to Mlle Michonneau that Bibi-Lupin can arrest Vautrin, a convict escaped from the hulks of Toulon and hiding at Mme Vauquer’s boardinghouse.

In addition to differences in their functions and methods, the judicial police attract a very particular type of individual: Many officers are either ne’er-do-wells or come from the ranks of supposedly reformed criminals. Whereas political agents show intelligence, perspicacity, and perverse cunning, those of the official forces are generally mediocre and easily duped, this despite the popular saw that it takes a thief to catch a thief. Among these latter, though clearly superior, is Bibi-Lupin. An interesting character, being himself a former convict, Bibi-Lupin organized and has headed the Brigade de Sûreté since 1820.

Daddy Goriot

Bibi-Lupin first appears in Le Père Goriot (1834-1835; Daddy Goriot, 1860; also known as Père Goriot). In it, on the arrest of his former chainmate, he hopes that Vautrin will attempt to escape, which would furnish him with the legal pretext to kill his archenemy. This clever trick might well have worked if only Vautrin were not Vautrin and had not suddenly sensed the trap. In The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans, the Sûreté chief will again be ordered to fight against Vautrin, who this time is disguised as Abbé Carlos Herrera as his part in an elaborate but foiled swindle. (This is the same case on which Corentin and his associates are working.)

Bibi-Lupin does in fact recognize Vautrin’s voice and a scar on his left arm, yet he cannot prove beyond a doubt that Herrera and Vautrin are indeed one and the same. Yet because of his experience with prisons, their special slang and mores, acquired during his own stays at Nantes and Toulon, Bibi-Lupin counts on the possibility that several inmates may unwittingly betray their leader. His strategy does not lack shrewdness, although it fails because the accused has immediately resumed his ascendance over his fellow gang-members. In a last attempt to unmask the false abbot, the police chief tries to make him betray himself by putting him in a cell with one of his former protégés.

Once more, Vautrin sees through Bibi-Lupin’s ruse; he speaks only in Italian with his friend—to the indescribable rage of the spy who watches them, does not understand a word, and does not know what to do. Balzac creates a universe that is forbidden to the uninitiated, one in which the superior man frustrates his enemies’ schemes and achieves his ends thanks to a secret language, a code, a magic formula, a system that remains impenetrable to all outsiders.

This duel between two mortal rivals can only end in the defeat of Bibi-Lupin, who is obviously outclassed by Vautrin. Tricks that would have succeeded with lesser people do not work with such a formidable adversary. Furthermore, accused by his superiors not only of having stolen from arrested suspects but also, and especially, “of moving and acting as if you alone were law and police in one,” Bibi-Lupin realizes only too late his danger. Later, he can but watch as his former prison companion becomes his deputy and then replaces him six months later. That Vautrin, like any good and honest bourgeois, should retire after some fifteen years of police service filled with daring exploits—during which time he acted as Providence incarnate toward those his unorthodox methods had saved from ruin or scandal—is ironic, considering his view of the world.

Vautrin is the master criminal of The Human Comedy. Like all fictional criminals of genius, he wants much more than the vain satisfactions that money brings. He seeks above all to dominate, not to reform, a society that he despises and whose hypocritical middle-class morality he scorns. “Principles don’t exist, only events. Laws don’t exist, only circumstances,” he explains to an all-too-attentive Eugène de Rastignac in Père Goriot. Such lucidity and cynicism, combined with an inflexible will, have led this satanic “poem from hell” to consider crime the supreme revolt against an intrinsically unjust world—a revolt further intensified by his homosexuality.

In the end, however, Vautrin goes over to the other side and becomes head of the Sûreté, just as his model, François-Eugène Vidocq, had done. Vidocq, whose memoirs had been published in 1828-1829, was a good friend of Balzac and often told him of his police adventures or his prison escapes, as numerous as they were extraordinary. Besides Vidocq, Vautrin is said to resemble other historical figures such as Yemelyan Pugachev and Louis-Pierre Louvel, a result of Balzac’s technique of using historical originals, which he reinterprets, re-creates, and ultimately transforms.

Vautrin does not believe that there are insurmountable barriers between the police and the underworld, and it does not disturb him to “supply the hulks with lodgers instead of lodging there,” as long as he can command: “Instead of being the boss of the hulks, I shall be the Figaro of the law. . . . The profession a man follows in the eyes of the world is a mere sham; the reality is in the idea!”

In Balzac’s opinion, police work does not consist of tracking down clues, questioning suspects, and solving crimes, but rather of arresting subversives, real or imagined, solely out of political necessity. Although he admires the nobility and courage of those who resist and finds his political operatives and their methods odious, Balzac recognizes that, regardless of the number of innocent men and women crushed in their path, they must all play their essential part in the eternal struggle between Order and Chaos.

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